This is an easy machine to love. I should know, I'm a repeat customer!
Positive Product Points
Classic styling, excellent finish (stainless model), rigid body, reasonable recycling times, Italian engineering (Saeco), excellent price, long-lasting construction. This machine makes lots of dry steam. Quick warm up. Quiet operation and easy clean up. Most important, awesome, dark thick crema on every espresso pulled (3-5/day for 4+ years.)
Negative Product Points
The plastic steam knob seems flimsy, as does the drip tray. Constant manual priming of the boiler will slow you down a bit if you're pulling a large number of shots. The relatively small boiler also limits this machine's ability to produce lots of hot water for tea, or Americano's (in Canada that's an espresso topped off w/hot water.)
I'm a big fan of this machine. I just purchased my second, more than four years after my first. Apart from a slight re-design to the handle , this is the identical machine to the 1998 model. After four years of daily use and abuse, there wasn't a bit of rust on the body, unlike the Coffee Gaggia that first got me addicted to espresso machines. The welded steel body is rigid (important when you give that handle a good tug), the controls easy to understand (and made easier by the included video) and the cleanup reasonably easy. The only problem with machine #2 is a slight imperfection in the milling of the portafilter assembly, making it tough to tighten smoothly into place. For now I'm using my old portafilter, which works fine.
As mentioned, this is my second Barista, my first lasted in excess of four years of twice-a-day operation. I'd still be using my first Barista if it weren't for a loss of pressure caused by a leaking valve in the steam wand assembly. I'm hoping that Saeco Canada will be able to repair for under $75 (watch for a follow-up review.) It's possible that priming the boiler by running water through the steam wand caused additional wear and tear on that particular valve. From now on, I'll prime by running water through the brewhead.
I strongly recommend using de-mineralized water ONLY in this, or any other espresso machine. The cost of buying bottled water is a bit high, but it will extend the life of the boiler by years. Another real plus for me is the Italian design. Just open this baby up and check out the commercial-grade brass fittings and electrical contacts. Four years on, the inside is as clean and tight as the day it was purchased.
I rarely make more than two Lattes or espressos at a time; but when guests are waiting, the recycling time seems slow. Anyone making more than two drinks at a time should consider that you can't steam milk AND run the pump at the same time. It also doesn't auto-prime, and can't be plumbed into a water supply. For those features, you'll need to move up the food chain to a commercial model - at probably three to four times the price.
I spent a lot of time agonizing over upgrading to a semi-commercial machine like a Wega, or Rancilio, but in the end returned to the Barista. For the cost ($350 CDN) I can live with a life expectancy of 4-5 years. At $3.50 per latte at Starbucks this machine will pay itself off in a little over three months, and after that, it's money in the bank..
Since I never required any in-store help, I can't comment on the knowledge of Stabucks staff re: this product. I was impressed that store staff would advise when the product would go on sale, thus saving $150.