From the outset, let me say I love my Silvia. I hesitated over spending what it cost me for a while as I considered slightly cheaper machines. In the end, based on the extensive good write-ups on CoffeeGeek and alt.coffee, and my desire for a brass, not aluminium, boiler, I went for the Silvia and I've never looked back. Having owned it for around four months, I now can't believe I ever considered anything less.
My initial experience of Silvia was somewhat clouded, owing to a persistent water flow problem that plagued the machine. Basically it frequently lost a lot of its water flow during brewing. It was twice checked out by Alan at Coffee for Connoisseurs, and we found a brass splinter in the pressure relief valve. This didn't solve the problem. Eventually I traced the problem to the boiler, pulled the machine apart, and found a 3 mm brass shaving from a drilling that was blocking the water path from the boiler to the group. Also found a bit of fine brass powder in the boiler when I had it pulled down. Apparently this poor quality control is common to Italian machines. It's not too impressive. One benefit of pulling Silvia apart was the opportunity to see how it is all put together. It's beautifully made. Every component looks near bulletproof inside the machine. I feel confident that it will last many years.
Having never owned an espresso machine before, I found that I was able to pull semi-decent shots with Silvia straight off. With a bit of experimenting - grind, tamp, coffee amount - I was soon pulling what I consider to be consistently good shots. I thoroughly recommend the "temperature surfing" technique that is often discussed in alt.coffee. It has definitely helped me pull shots of a consistent, hot temperature, and it is definitely a means of making consistently good coffee. Ignore this advice at your own peril.
If cappas and lattes are your thing, then Silvia is for you. This machine blasts out steam like a train. I've read of lesser machines taking minutes to steam milk. Silvia does it very rapidly. You actually need to be careful with the steam knob, as if you're not it is quite easy to blast milk all over the kitchen!
The stainless steel casing on the machine is very well made. Mine had no marks or dents to speak of. The black chassis is also painted very well. However, cleaning any stainless machine can be a bit of a pain. Every fingerprint shows up, and after a coffee making session, the inevitable water that gets sprayed everywhere means that the machine will require a full polish to get it back to its original beauty. Speaking of which, it is a good looking machine. The stainless finish, the solid switches, the sleek steam wand, the big portafilter - it looks great on the kitchen bench, and nobody would mistake it for anything other than a serious home espresso machine.
Another benefit of Silvia is her massive weight - 14 kg. This means she sits solidly on the bench, and doesn't move much when you are locking in the portafilter.
As for negatives, the drip tray is quite shallow. I work around this by running most of my rinsing and warm-up water into a small ceramic mug which fits under the portafilter. This is dead easy, and it means you can make many drinks without having to empty the tray. The drip tray itself is a nice heavy stainless steel that shouldn't ever corrode.
The tamper that comes with machine is a plastic one that is way too small for the 58 mm filter basket. Save yourself some trouble and order a decent stainless or aluminium tamper when you order your machine.
The top surface of the machine is meant to be a passive cup warmer, using heat from the boiler. I can tell you that even after one or two hours, a ceramic espresso cup is barely warm. I thoroughly believe that all drinks should go straight into hot cups, so I just pre-warm mine by running hot water into them from the steam wand. This system fits in well with the temperature surfing technique, which requires water to be bled off until the boiler thermostat comes on. I find that I can run the water into my cup, which turns the boiler on. I then grind into the portafilter, tamp, and lock it in. By then the boiler has been off for 20-40 seconds, and this is about the right time to pull the shot.
In summary, Silvia is a solid, well designed home espresso machine. Even for a beginner, I don't think that it is worth buying anything less. Silvia has the ability to make great espresso at home, if you are willing to put a little effort into sorting your technique. A lesser machine may lack performance, which will lead to lower quality coffee, and make you feel like making a decent home espresso is a game of luck. I've found that getting to know Silvia has been an adventure, and the results are consistently rewarding. Don't think about the money, just go for it!