I like coffee and I've always lusted after a "real" espresso maker. I had a $50 Krups machine once, which I used all of once and then returned. Not only was it just not that good, it was a pain to clean (and resulted in part of the steam wand being dropped down the garbage disposal!)
I recently came across a Saeco Gran Aroma machine for $249 from Costco.com and thought I'd give it a go. The bottom-line is that it is a very nice machine and is fairly compact and looks good to boot. The biggest disadvantage is the "maintenance time."
In the Box and Setting Up
It came really well packaged and satisfyingly heavy. You get the machine itself, the portafilter, a coffee scoop, a single cup filter insert (the portafilter has a double filter insert already installed), an ESE pod adapter, waste grounds tray and wooden block. Setting the machine up was easy enough though there were no instructions on the waste grounds tray and wooden block. Turns out that the wooden block fits into that tray so that you can bang the portafilter on it to get rid of the coffee grounds. An omission is a tamper, and while you can use the flat bottom of the coffee scoop to tamp down the grounds, this is no substitute for a real tamper like this one.
FIll the reservoir up with water, turn on and put in some coffee, right? Not quite. This is a semi-automatic machine, which means that it needs some TLC. First, you turn it on and let it warm up for a bit (less than a minute). Then you prime it by running water through the espresso portion and opening the steam valve. This cleans out the system. Now you're ready to make espresso!
If you want to steam milk, you press the steam switch, wait a few moments, then open the steamer until steam starts to come out. The first time you do this, hot water will come out for a bit, so you want to until just steam comes out.
I was impressed with the quality of the foam that I was able to get first time. The secret is to use ice cold milk and a light touch. Nonetheless, the "panarello" steam wand of the Saeco seems to make it pretty foolproof.
This is the biggest disadvantage and will be true for all semi-automatic espresso machines: clean up is time consuming. You do need to flush the system and because of the priming requirement, you need quite a few receptacles handy to catch the hot/dirty water.
This is a good machine. It feels like it will last and I've heard that Saeco uses commercial-quality internal components. I love the fact that it is solid metal (save for the drip tray and water reservoir). If you have the time to use it, I recommend it. Personally, I'm not sure if I will keep it specifically due to the priming and clean up requirement. For my particular use, a super-automatic may be better, so I am going to give the Saeco V'spresso a go. No, it isn't stainless steel (though it is all metal on the inside), but except for milk steaming and frothing, it does everything automatically including grinding beans with a built-in burr grinder.