Superautomatic Espresso Machine Buying Guide
Looking for a superautomatic can be a daunting experience. Many of the comparison charts we have seen confuse more than help. Reviews by so-called experts sometimes just add to the uncertainty of which machine to choose. Which of the many options offered are really necessary for you and your particular application?
We will try to simply give you a review of the features and what they do - so you can decide whats important and what’s not. More detailed reviews can be found on each of the machines own product page.
Since the most basic machine and the top-of-the-line machines will both “make” espresso (coffee) and “steam” milk, deciding on which machine to pick really comes down to your budget, options and features you need or want, the overall speed, performance and finally - the “look”. It is a lot like buying a car – what you need and what you want rarely match. Happily though, even the most basic superautomatic will easily get you to your coffee destination!
Its an all-in-one espresso and coffee machine that with a push of a button: grinds whole beans, meters the correct dosage of ground coffee for brewing, places and tamps the ground coffee, brews the coffee and finally dispenses the used coffee in an internal dump box. One step espresso. Essentially, all you do is add espresso beans, fill the water reservoir and the machine does the rest - from bean to cup.
In short, it takes the (for some) work out of making an espresso or coffee and certainly all of the mess. Convenience is always mentioned as a main benefit and it is. Probably the most overlooked advantage is the consistency in cup after cup, whether the operator is experienced or a first timer (and you need not fear guests using your machine, especially if it is a digital machine).
Hot water is also available, as is steam for frothing milk. Many machines now come with more than one type of system for frothing milk - for even more flexibility. Aside from the ability of making all your favourite espresso drinks - espresso, latte, cappuccino - a superautomatic can also make a very long espresso. This has come to be known as a cafe creme or creme cafe. This is stronger than a drip or french press coffee ( maybe more flavourful is a better description) but much weaker than an espresso. Many find this drink a great improvement over drip coffee and quickly retire their "old" coffee makers.
Superautomatics are gaining a lot of popularity. A lot of it has to do with the consistency, simplicity and convenience that these machines have to offer. While some purists give these machines less than their due, we firmly believe that consistency, simplicity and convenience are what many of our customers want!
Fast - They are faster than drip coffee, faster than a French press, faster than making instant, and faster than traditional espresso machines. If you need to get out of the apartment or house in a hurry and every second counts from a cold start, not much will beat a superautomatic. Factor in the no cleanup part and you are way ahead of the game.
Convenient - No mess, no coffee grounds on the counter, no grinding, and no dumping of the portafilter puck. No preparation time to speak of.
Fool Proof - Not just fool-proof but almost child-proof (one of Saeco’s ads says “so simple, even a child can operate it”), almost idiot proof and guest proof! There are a lot of folks out there that no more want to learn the art of espresso making than want to reformat their computer. Don’t discount the fact that neighbors, friends, and dinner party guests can usually all operate the device without you hovering nearby and worrying (often with good cause). We quite often service traditional machines with burnt out elements that house guests have inadvertently run dry.
Consistent - Superautomatics make very consistent espresso (some will argue consistently mediocre, but we will cross that bridge that in the next section).
Practical - If all of us were the espresso purist that some "purist and hobbyist" websites and discussion groups would like us to be, everyone would spend their days questing for tiger-flecked espresso or micro-foamed milk in every session. Fact is, most people have lives to live and for every purist and hobbyist there are 99 regular folks who just want a consistent, easy to make espresso, latte or cappuccino. And face it – the average machine probably makes 1,000 drinks a year. This moves the art of espresso for many from the category of gourmet oneupmanship to a daily, practical and hopefully enjoyable experience. A lot of folks don’t want an "espresso session" they just want an espresso break! Never overlook the practical side of life and what it is you want out of the espresso experience - not what others suggest you need.
The Cost - Not necessarily a reason unless your budget is less than the cost of a basic superautomatic. Dollar for dollar you will usually get more machinery in the traditional category. But more machine does not translate to better espresso in every case. In the traditional category it is user-dependent; in the superautomatic it is not.(although better results are still obtained from fine tuning the machines to your particular brand of bean) Regarding cost, it is almost always a fact of life that speed and convenience cost more whether it is a faster, more powerful microwave, computer - or an espresso machine that does most of the work.
The Quality - of the espresso, that is. We will say it here first – a short espresso on a Superautomatic is not “perfect”. It is not as good overall as can be obtained on a good traditional machine. But as we have said before, and will continue to say, consistency is often higher for casual users – balancing out the gains of the traditional machine. Only you will know how much effort you are willing to put into the “art of espresso making”. Remember, this is a process that can be repeated many times a day - obviously a superautomatic in a office setting can make a lot of sense.
Some who ONLY drink short espresso’s may find a superautomatic not perfectly to their high quality standards, but then again you should weigh this against the convenience and mess factor. Having said that, the more liquid (milk or hot water) you add to your drink, the less the difference, since the espresso nuances become more muted in milk (and long espresso too). If you enjoy Café Crème ( or Americano’s), the differences also become negligible (since more hot water is added). If you drink cappuccino, latte’s or mocha’s the average user will not likely see any noticeable difference.
The "I like Control and I like Cooking factor" - A very important and often overlooked consideration. There are people who like to cook and there are people who like to eat. It is not always the same person! Making espresso could be compared to cooking or preparing a meal. Some people love it; some don’t. Remember, this is coffee and the average espresso machine probably makes 1000 to 2000 drinks a year or more per year. For some, that turns the process - no matter how much they appreciate the ritual - into a “chore” that they would prefer ( by choice or time necessity”) to eliminate.
If the journey is as important as the destination, then a more traditional setup is for you. For many, making the espresso drinks is the journey. You will know who you are.
If the machine is a gift try to anticipate where the new owner would be “coming from”. Again, whether you are a purist or not, don't let the "aficionado websites" (or your friends) cloud your thinking - coffee through the ages has always been about enjoyment - mainly yours!
The same basic components that you would find in a "manual or pump" machine will still be found in a superautomatic. A water pump, boiler (or dual boiler), a steam wand and control dials and switches are all still found. The main difference in a superautomatic is that the removeable portafilter and brew basket ( the handle assembly) is replaced by an internal brewing chamber. Additionally, a high quality conical or burr grinder grinds and dispenses the coffee into the brewing chamber. A small computer board controls all the various functions of the machine (with your customized input, of course). On many machines, the digital display will prompt you through all programming functions and even automate the cleaning cycles for long lasting, trouble free operation!
Although the operation of most machines is quite similar there are enough differences that a brief description and explanation of them is in order.
The choice is either a single heating system (Saeco Odeo Go II, Jura ENA5, for example ) or a dual heating system on other models (actually a boiler plus a heat exchanger). With the "dual boiler" system, when you switch to steam mode, steam is available within about 10 seconds. The single element system usually takes about 50 seconds. After steaming milk on the dual element system the machine is immediately available to make more coffee. With single element systems, you must either wait 5 minutes for the boiler to cool down naturally, or purge the boiler of steam by running hot water through the steam wand for 10 seconds, before making any more coffee. Again, the more milk - based drinks you make in a day (or dinner parties you have) the more likely you are to choose the faster dual element system. If you primarily use the machine for making espresso or Cafe Creme, a single boiler is fine. A few Saeco machines (Saeco Odeo Giro) and all the Jura ( except S9 - double boiler) and Bosch units while having a single boiler have a function called Rapid-Steam which acts more like a double boiler system, but not quite as fast. A boiler and a half might be a good description for these systems!
The brew group is a very important component of a superautomatic - it contains the coffee brewing chamber -and performs the function of tamping the freshly ground coffee from the grinder, pre-infusing the coffee grounds, extracting the espresso under high pressure and finally dumping the spent coffee puck into the removeable grounds container (dump box or dregs drawer).
Removeable and Non-Removeable Brew Group
There are two main systems of Brew units on the market today - as you may have surmised by the heading. Saeco, Gaggia (and the discontinued Solis brand) use a brew unit that can be removed for easy cleaning. After opening the service door and pressing the release lock lever, the brew group can be removed for weekly rinsing out of coffee residue and the occasional cleaning of the screen with the supplied brew screen "key". Typically, these units are very rugged, however one drawback is that the brew chamber is designed for a single shot of coffee. To make a double espresso or coffee the machine will brew two consecuttive espressos - one after the other.
Jura and Bosch use a non-removeable brew unit. Since these units are "built-in", these machines typically have a more sophisticated (and automated) cleaning cycle which is controlled by the machine. In some ways, this system is actually more beneficial to the longevity of the machine, since the machine itself determines the optimal cleaning frequency. This could be a benefit for those locations where cleaning may be inadvertantly neglected. In addition, the built-in brew units of the Jura and Bosch hold much more coffee (up to 16 grams vs. 9 grams for Saeco) and can therefore make a true double shot at once. The Franke Flair, a more commercial machine, also features a rugged brew unit based on the Jura.
The bypass doser allows you to feed the machine a second type of coffee (usually decaf), in addition to the “regular” coffee beans which the machine grinds. The bypass doser only accepts pre-ground espresso coffee. This feature would be very handy if there are two types of espresso drinkers using the machine, or for offering a choice to guests. Almost all machines have this as an standard feature, but many of the basic Saeco machines do not.
The grind adjustment is pre-set at the factory and usually works perfectly right out of the box. All the machines have about 14 settings, for fine-tuning the grind if necessary, and for compensating for grinding burr wear over the years. All new Saeco machines have quiter ceramic grinders, which Saeco claims will last longer than steel burrs. Because ceramic grinders should stay sharper longer, Saeco has moved away from grind adjustment knobs and instead uses time (actually motor rotations) to determine the correct grind and dosage for the brew unit. So with Saeco, no user adjustment to the grind setting are available, instead the SBS knob and Aroma adjustment are used on some models and the Odeo Giro uses Aroma adjustment only.
A digital display gives a description of every function of the machine (out of water, out of beans, when to de-scale, adjusting coffee brew temperature, determining proper settings - the list is long). It does make the machine nearly foolproof to understand. The only time this might be an issue is when you might want the digital display most -when the machine is new and you are still “learning the ropes”. It might take an extra minute or two to figure out what needs to be done.Also try to anticipate who will be using the machine. The more “operators”, the more a digital may be preferred, since those people are less likely to know the machine, and will have an easier time using it.
This is mostly a function of the digital display listed above, since with the digital display comes an increase in the number of adjustments and features that can be accommodated in the machine. For instance, the temperature of the brewed espresso can usually be changed, energy saving modes and pre-grinding can be activated on some machines. As a rule, the more expensive the machine the more features offered. Think of the other appliances in your home such as a dishwasher or microwave - are they loaded or basic - do you use all the features and functions available?
The dosage is the portion amount of coffee that will be ground and brewed. The adjustment allows you to control the strength of the espresso shot, although it can also be controlled indirectly by varying the amount of water. Still, for those who like a stronger or weaker shot, the adjustment is a useful feature. On Saeco, Gaggia and Solis machines, double shots are obtained by pressing the brew button twice, so a double contain anywhere from 12 to 18 grams of coffee depending on the Aroma setting chosen. Jura and Bosch machines have a wider range of dosage available (from 5 to 16 grams) and therefore are able to brew both single and double shots in one cycle - a real time saver for those who need it. They also have 2 Aroma settings (Aroma standard and Aroma Robust)
Saeco, Gaggia and Solis machines have a drink capacity of about 25 to 200 ml (1 to 8 ounces). This will make you anything from a strong, short espresso to a cup of Americano or Café Crème. The drink size can be further varied by adding hot water, adjusting the SBS and Aroma controls (if equipped) and of course by adding steamed milk etc. Dial machines (Saeco Odeo line and Saeco Talea Giro Plus II have a simple, convenient dial to control drink size. Saeco and Gaggia digital display machines have 3 pre-set sizes (6 sizes if you include doubles). By simply holding down any of the brew buttons during the full brew cycle, reprogramming of that particular button is accomplished. Both methods work well – the more people that are using the machine, the more likely the digital will be appreciated.
Most machines except the basic ones have a cup warmer which can be turned on or off. In addition to warming the cups, the flat surface is a very handy shelf for showing off your favourite espresso cups! If you prefer, you can always heat up your cups the traditional way by preheating them with the hot water dispenser.
Saeco Odeo Go
Saeco's most basic machine. It has a single boiler (in fact it is Saeco's only machine now with a single boiler, except for the Easy) It comes with fixed pre-set coffee bean dosage, but like all Saeco's, benefits from an accurate ceramic grinder. An easy to use twist dial regulates coffee volume. Like all Saeco's accomodates taller cup sizes with the adjustable drip tray. No pre-ground doser. This machine is suited for lower volumes, those who drink mainly espresso and Americanos along with occasional milk frothing duties. Available in a charcoal/silver finish with swivel base.
Saeco Odeo Giro
Another economical machine with a single boiler, with an improvement - it has the Rapid-steam feature. In layman's terms, this would be a "boiler and a half" machine. The Rapid-steam feature allows you to produce steam more quickly than a single boiler machine, but not as fast a a true double boiler machine. And unlike a single boiler machine, it is possible to use the coffee function right after steaming without waiting or purging the machine. So in this way it acts like a double boiler machine. It also features Adjustable Coffee Strength, ceramic grinder, dial selection of drink size, swivel base plus a choice of orange/silver or charcoal/silver finish.
Saeco Talea Giro
The Talea series is Saeco's newest lineup and all models contain ceramic grinders, double boilers, SBS (adjustable brew strength system), and adjustable height drip tray. All models also include choice of mild, medium or strong "aroma". The water reservoirs are accessed from the left side and the dregs drawer are accessed from the right. All the Talea's have option to take the Milk Island accessory.
The Giro is the basic model in this lineup with a twist dial to regulate coffee volumes. The drip tray is manually adjustable and there is no pre-ground option on the Giro.
Saeco Talea Ring Plus
Saeco's most popular machine this year, the Talea Ring Plus has every feature including bypass doser, iPod like ring to control all functions of the machine and a digital display to display every operation, setting and activity. Active cup warmer, bypass doser, easy to program menu, metal panerello frother and finger sensitive motorized drip tray are just some of the many features.
Saeco Talea Touch
The top of the line for Saeco has all the features of the Talea Ring Plus and an intuitive 3" diagonal touch screen display which makes it quicker and easier to change drinks,, or change programming options.
Saeco Royal Professional
Heavier duty version - suitable for office locations. Two methods of steaming milk; the standard Rapid-steam Panerello frother or the automatic Cappuccinatore activated by push-button. The Cappuccinatore is an automaticmilk frother that operates with a plastic line which is inserted into a handy milk container. Hot frothed milk is automatically dispensed into as many cups as you want! The Royal Professional is suitable for offices and small bistros.
Saeco Royal Coffee Bar
Same as the Royal Professional, but with a handy plumbed-in connection for more convenience. Still includes the pourover water tank if required. Choice of water source is selected by program mode. Best model for office, hair salons, small bistro etc. We have available the plumb-in kit for regular water supply and also the Flo-jet system which connects to a standard bottled water container.
Gaggia superautomatic machines use most of the same internal parts as Saeco, but the feature list and "marketing philosophy" are slightly different. Gaggia designs their machines to appeal to a more "traditional" or european espresso philosophy if you will and have a more premium, upscale look and cachet, than their sibling, Saeco. Therefore the pricing is slightly higher than for the equivalent model iof Saeco. Gaggia superautomatics all come with a 360 degree swivel panerello milk frother (Saeco's swivel in one direction only).
Gaggia Syncrony Compact Digital
Similar to the the Syncrony Compact but features a double boiler,digital display and electric cup warmer. Digital display offers up a number of additonal features besides the "visual component" of the display . Everything from setting water hardness levels to standby power levels are possible. The Syncrony also features adjustable coffee dosage and grinder adjustment, and metal burrs, as opposed to Saeco's ceramic burrs. Available in a dark silver finish with swivel base.
This was Gaggia's top of the line machine ( until the Platinum line came along) and has all the features of the Syncrony Compact digital plus a cobalt blue display and all metal exterior including brushed stainless steel finish. Three coffee presets are available and can be easily reprogrammed by holding down the "button" during a cycle untill the new volume is obtained. Swivel base, dual boiler, digital; programming, decaf chute and more.
Gaggia Platinum Vogue
The Platinum series is Gaggia's newest lineup and all models contain ceramic grinders, double boilers, SBS (adjustable brew strength system), and adjustable height drip tray. All models also include choice of mild, medium or strong "aroma". The water reservoirs are accessed from the left side and the dregs drawer are accessed from the right. All the Platinum's have the option to take the Milk Island accessory.
The Vogue is the basic model in this lineup with a twist dial to regulate coffee volumes. The drip tray is manually adjustable and there is no pre-ground option on the Vogue.
Gaggia Platinum Swing Up
Gaggia's most popular machine this year, the Swing Up has every feature including bypass doser, iPod like ring to control all functions of the machine and a digital display to display every operation, setting and activity. Active cup warmer, bypass doser, easy to program menu, metal panerello frother and finger sensitive motorized drip tray are just some of the many features.
Gaggia Platinum Vision
The top of the line for Gaggia has all the features of the Platinum Swing Up and an intuitive 3" diagonal touch screen display which makes it quicker and easier to change drinks, or change programming options.
The Jura machines are quite different than the Saeco/Gaggia/Solis machines. Jura (and also the Bosch and Capresso) use a robust, built-in brew unit that is capable of holding from 5 to 16 grams of coffee thus allowing a very wide range of coffee strengths including the ability to make true "doubles" in one cycle. Those who drink espresso's only will be impressed with the Jura. Jura machines also have a more flexible panerello frothing system for making both foamy cappuccinos and low foam lattes ( Saecos lean towards making foamy milk, except with the new Milk Island Version 2, which is adjustable.) All Canadian Jura machines include a Froth express frother at no extra charge.
Jura Impressa E80
The Jura has a single boiler with digital programmability for complete ease of use. Espresso and coffee sizes are easily set with the selector dial, including the ability to make true double shots at once. The Jura E80 also feature adjustable coffee dosage and grinder adjustment. Similar to the E8 in the US.
Jura Impressa E85
Same as Jura Imprezza E80 above, but in silver finish. Similar to the E9 in the US.
Jura Impressa F50
Similar to the Jura E80 and E85 above, with these additional features. The digital display has two more digits (10 digits) making it a little easier to read. The adjustable brew spout is constructed of chromed metal (instead of plastic E80/85) for a more solid feel and better heat retention of your espresso. Dual white LED's to gently illuminate the brewing area in low light, with auto-off after 1 minute. The Jura F50 also has a programmable auto-on timer (in addition to the auto-shutoff timer of the E80/85). Built-in Clock and Clock display. Automatic ground coffee sensor to detect if the bypass doser is being used.
For the complete story on the full Jura lineup go to the Jura Buying Guide.