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The argument over a thermo-block versus a boiler machine has toned down a bit since the intervention of better temperature control and better manufacturing. Earlier thermo-blocks were made to get the water to as hot as possible as quickly as possible. In this, they had losses of liquid water into steam (which was partially recaptured in the drip-tray). They would also have the tendency to get the brewing water too hot, those damaging the coffee. But they did get the water hot and quickly. Boilers on the other hand are slow. Yet they are sure to bring the water and hold it at the proper temp. With today's temperature control, it no longer seems a toss up between the two. In this author's opinion, since no commercial machine uses a thermo-block, I am more inclined to look at those machines that use boilers. And the more popular manufacturers tend to agree.
Other Toys and Features: pressurized portafilters, pods and capsules Some toys are available for today's espresso/cappuccino machines. Pressurized portafilters seem to be popular. But, in this auther's opinion, unless you know what you're doing, you could make potentially good espresso turn into drek. With these fancy portafilters, you still need to dose and tamp properly. That is all I will say on the subject.
Frothing attachments are also popular. And some work. If you buy a machine, and it has a unique device that supposedly froths better, play with it and give it a shot. It may be that you NEED this device to work the frother correctly. But it may turn out that it is unnecessary to have said device. It seems, from my experience as well as others, that wands with a normal, "jet-styled" tip seem to perform the best. They look like the ones on commercial machines.
Espresso can be purchased, today in pods and capsules. But, be warned that you can't always get a guarantee on the coffee's freshness and quality. Also, only a very few machines can take pods and capsules. See below. Dollars for dollars, it is still wise to buy your own coffee and use what you need. It may be messier (see below), but in the long run, it is more economical (and fun!).
A Manufacturer's Review: Availability, Cost, Extras For brevity and clarity, this section will be the meat of the guidance portion for this article. Major manufacturers are outlined with their products. Combined with the above and what is to follow, you should find it an easier choice as to your machine purchase. Also, due to the numerous different models available, I have left out pictures of all the machines (where I could) and only included the company's logos. If you know of a company that is not mentioned in this article, please send email to and I will be happy to reply.
Probably one of the largest manufacturers of home espresso and cappuccino machines, Saeco (aka Estro) produces the widest range of machines. From simple pump units for first-timers, to upper-ended, all-metal workhorses, to the infamous Superautomatic machines that give you your drink at the touch of a button. As a side note, Saeco machines are sold in Starbucks coffee houses, under the name Estro.
Saeco is located in Milan, Italy and sells units strictly for both American and European markets. Saeco is the first, and probably the best source for the automatic line of machines. Be forewarned that their non-automatic and semi-automatic machines come with a "technology enhanced" portafilter. (see Other Toys, below) Machines can be had directly from Saeco via their website at http://www.saeco-usa.com or at coffee store retailers throughout the United States. In addition, on-line sources and auctions may, at times, carry these machines. Be forewarned, again, that machines of that nature may be refurbished and you should always ask before purchasing. Saeco is a good, sound buy for any of their machines.