A true step-up from 500 dollar machines, great build quality, very solid, but a pitifully small water reservoir.
Positive Product Points
Solid build easy to open for mods a real "presence" in any kitchen
Negative Product Points
totally inadequate water reservoir drip tray large, but should have drain provision
As many others have described the machine in detail, I'll confine my comments to the water supply. I was very concerned before purchase about build up of hard water deposits in the boiler, and the seeming impossibility of cleaning the inside of the boiler if build-up occurred. I had not taken good care of my gaggia Classic and it died because of this sclerosis. I realized that back-flushing would take care of the brew head but didn't clean the boiler. Chris (of Chris's coffee) reassured me that the boiler could be cleaned if absolutely necessary,(by laying the machine on its side and opening up the boiler and filling with decalcifier), but that prevention of build-up by attention to the water supply was the answer. A low parts-per-million (ppm) of minerals is what is needed to avoid build-up, or at least delay it). As my tap water was too hard (as measured with the strips included by Chris) I purchased bottled water, but as only two strips were sent with the machine, I had to order more (www.sciencestuff.com) to find the appropriate water to use.
Although I ended up with a cheap local brand (giant foods spring water), cheap is relative. At 79 cents a gallon, it is surprising how much water you can go through to get the group head and water down to a proper brewing temperature. Although I drink 3 or 4 espressos in the AM, the time between shots necessitates running more water through the group head each time to get it to cruising temperature. Add to this the need to back-flush regularly, and I was using close to a gallon a day! The machine senses when the water is low, not by a float, but by the weight of the water plus tank. The tank sits on a platform supported by springs. The platform rises as the water level drops and the switch underneath, when no longer depressed, cuts off the machine. As a shot is basically ruined if you stop mid-pull to refill, one can get rather paranoid about keeping the reservoir full. Although I had put magic sliders under the feet of the 40+ pound machine, it was still a pain to maneuver it out from under the cabinet above to be able to refill... It wasn't long before I seriously entertaing plumbing the machine.
I purchased the water softening system and by-pass of the tank supplies from Chris. The instructions were superb-included were color photos of the machine's innards to perfectly illustrate the steps in the process. The only step I didn't feel up to attempting myself was tapping the the water line to insert a T joint. I had this done by a plumber, but in retrospect, after seeing what was involved, could have done that, too. The hardest part of the process was aligning the solenoid on top of the pump so that it didn't touch other components. I ended up sliding a fair amount of pipe insulation around things to reduce vibration... Now the machine can be used all day without a thought to the water level. It's almost perfect...
One result of by-passing the tank that was unforseen is that the overflow from the pump ( I guess it's a pressure release) instead of flowing back into the reservoir now flows into the drip tray. The drip tray fills up much more quickly. Although the tray has a large capacity, only half is usable because the bolts which hold the large handle on allow water to seep out! If you look closely at photos of the tea, you'll see a little spigot below the group head protruding from the front of the machine-normally this doesn't function, but after by-passing the reservoir, it must be bent outward to allow the drainage from it to reach the drip tray. I wish there was a drain plug in the drip tray to make auto-drainage easier.
There is the option of putting a float in the tank to auto-refill the reservior and this would avoid the above drip tray problem, but I don't like the idea of water sitting in an open tank- It is harder to ensure the water is not stale from sitting too long, and regular cleaning of the tank is a must to prevent growth of bacteria...
I do think the cost of some sort of water auto-fill system should be factored into any decision to purchase this wonderful machine.
Purchased from Chris's- great service and really fast. Wouldn't dream of buying this machine anywhere else, even if you can find it cheaper!
Three Month Followup
No problems-still love it
One Year Followup
Machine has functioned beautifully for the year. One quirk is that if I turn the machine off, which I rarely do, it seems to get an airlock. What happens is that air in the boiler causes the boiler to shut off prematurely (before the proper temp is reached). This occurs because the heater is controlled by a pressurestat, not a thermostat. Not a big deal, I just have to bleed the system via the steam wand until water runs out of it. Other reviewers have commented on the wonderful convenience of the hot water tap for tea. This is great, but the water comes out way too hot for a decent cuppa. Don't put the tea in the cup before filling from that tap. Wait a few seconds after the cup is filled to add the tea. One other comment. As much as I love the lever which controls the water flow into the group head, I find it squeaky, and after taking it apart several times, I still can't get rid of that noise! Still would buy it again in a minute- and it's even cheaper now! hard to understand with the value of the dollar vs. the euro