For a long time, I split the coffee world into three very distinct categories: drip coffee, which I hated; the espressos I had in Europe, which I loved; and drinks from Starbucks and similar coffee shops, which I liked when they weren't burnt and bitter, which they usually were. I finally decided to get my act together this year and buy some decent coffee equipment. First I went with a $15 press pot. Quick, easy, and, with quality beans, excellent value - non-espresso coffee I actually enjoyed. Still, though, I didn't like how watered-down the coffee tasted.
So, I read lots and lots of reviews online. I comparison-shopped online and in-store. I evaluated my budget, my level of coffee obsession, and my priorities in terms of quality, price, and other factors. I decided I was going for the mid-range market - not a steam toy or a cheapie pump machine, but not anywhere near the $600+ range. I also decided that I liked the safety of a warranty and good customer service. I wanted to be able to make consistently good espresso, but I'm not yet enough of a crazy perfectionist to be roasting my own beans and buying a commercial-grade machine.
The point of this long story is to give you an idea of what I was looking for in a machine - if my priorities sound like yours, you'll probably agree with my highly favorable rating of this machine.
So, I decided on the Barista Athena. I was skeptical of buying from Starbucks, since I'd never actually drink one of their straight, unmixed espressos - way too burnt for my taste - but my web stalking led me to conclude they'd actually licensed a pretty good machine. Plus, were I to run into problems, the company is based in the US, offers a two-year warranty, and seems pretty responsive.
I've had the machine for a month now, and I couldn't be happier. I've yet to pull a bad shot, and I'm making espresso good enough that I'll drink it straight or with just a smidge of sugar. (Starbucks threw in free pods, but I ignored them. Just because I bought their machine doesn't mean I've become a fan of their roasts. I get my coffee from Peet's, which has yet to disappoint me.) I initially thought the programmable shot length would be a superficial detail, but it's really great - it allows me to play around with the amount of coffee I'm using, the pressure with which I'm tamping, etc, and still pull a good shot everytime. Then, once I've picked my current favorite technique, no need to remember just how long the shot should be - the Athena remembers the length I set.
A friend who owns an espresso machine had warned me of how dirty the steam wands can get, so I've been particularly good about wiping the wand down as soon as I'm done and pumping water through it before and after every use. I haven't had any problems so far, and the wand is pretty easy to clean. I like the fact that it can rotate to any position - makes using milk containers of all sizes easy. I wish the steam pressure were a little bit higher, but I don't have an appropriately-shaped pitcher yet, so that could be part of my difficulty in getting a lot of foam.
Cleaning of the brew head is easy, so far - haven't yet used it long enough to see if it will crud up eventually.
The manual really encourages you to purge and prime the machine very often - it sounded excessive to me, but in practice I find that it actually goes quite fast. Don't know if it's absolutely necessary, but given that it's easy, why not be safe and do it?
All in all, I'm very pleased with my Barista Athena. It's the right level of sophistication for a first-time owner who knows what quality espresso tastes like, is willing to learn the technique, but isn't quite ready to jump into the super-fancy or commercial-grade market. I wish this model were available in stainless steel, but its plastic housing is attractive and doesn't run the risk of peeling and rusting the way I've heard some of the painted-metal Baristas do.
When I got the press pot, it was like finding an enjoyable substitute for the espresso drinks I craved but didn't want to leave home to get and over-pay for. When I got the Athena, I stopped buying espresso drinks, period - mine are better, and I don't have to go any further than the kitchen for my fix. I'm not saying I'm pulling God shots, and I'm hampered by not owning my own grinder, but the Athena consistently produces very good-to-excellent espresso without huge effort on my part.
I'll update this review after a few months, but no problems so far.