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Pod vs manual machines: Which score better on taste?

We explain the pros and cons of each and reveal the pod machines that deliver the best tasting coffee.

manual coffee machine and a pod coffee machine
Last updated: 26 July 2023

Thinking of giving up your daily barista-made coffee in favour of a homemade cuppa to save money? With the rising cost of living, we don't blame you. 

But making the switch from a cafe coffee to an at-home brew can make serious coffee addicts nervous: will it ever be as good? What if you spend heaps of money on a coffee machine that makes terrible coffee? Will it end up gathering dust on the bench while you run back to the cafe?

These are all valid questions. And while we can't tell you how your homemade coffee will stack up against one made by a barista, we can help you to find the best home espresso machine so you can make the tastiest coffee possible and hopefully stick to your new habit.

Plus, exclusively for CHOICE members, we'll tell you which manual and pod machines rated best for taste in our tests.

If you just want to get straight to the best products, you can jump to the results now.

The basics

If you're looking for an at-home machine, you have four basic options: a pod, manual, semi-automatic or fully automatic machine. We'll look at just manual, semi-automatic and pod machines here, as they're the ones most people tend to buy. 

Manual and semi-automatic machines

These are the most labour-intensive. You'll need to do most of the steps yourself (dosing, tamping, extracting, etc) but you'll have more control over the process. This category includes semi-automatic machines, which let you adjust the grind and tamp, but usually have an automated dosing and/or extraction process.

Pod (capsule) machine

These are easy – just pop a pod or capsule in the machine and press a button. The machine does all the work for you, but you generally can't change the way the dose, tamp, or extraction happen.

Still confused? Our guide to how to buy a great coffee machine explains each type in more detail. 

Manual vs pod machines: Which will give you the best tasting coffee?

Coffee is highly subjective – one person's nectar of the gods is another's muddy water. So we enlist the help of expert taste testers to blind test coffee from our test machines, assessing the espresso for crema, aroma, flavour, mouthfeel and aftertaste. 

Coffee from a manual coffee machine tastes much better than coffee made from pods or capsules

Our coffee machine experts overwhelmingly find that coffee from a manual coffee machine tastes much better than coffee made from pods or capsules. 

We compared the taste scores from manual machines and pod machines to see which delivers on flavour. Here's how the numbers stack up:

Pod machines

  • Highest overall taste score: 80%
  • Average taste score for recommended models: 73%.
(But it's worth noting that only one pod machine scored 80% for taste; and only one scored 75%. The rest were all 70% and below.)

Manual machines

  • Highest overall taste score: 90%
  • Average taste score for recommended models: 79%.

CHOICE verdict: Manual coffee machines win on taste, hands down. 

Learning to use a manual machine

Just remember that no matter how good a manual machine you buy, if you bungle any of the steps, you could be left with a worse coffee than if you'd just used a pod machine. Buying a $3000 manual machine won't instantly make you a barista!

It can take a while to get the hang of a manual machine – after all, there are multiple steps involved, in contrast to just popping a pod into the machine and pressing a button. 

It can take a while to get the hang of a manual machine… but it's worth investing some time

Manual machines aren't too tricky once you get the hang of them, but it's worth investing some time in learning how to use yours so you can make sure you're getting the tastiest coffee possible from your machine.

And, as with all new things, you should expect to have a few disastrous attempts while you're still working it out. That's part of the fun! (Just maybe don't invite anyone over for coffee until you've got it under control.)

Which machine delivers the best taste for the lowest price?

There's no straightforward answer to which type of machine is most cost-effective, but it's important not to look at just the pricetag of the machine itself – a cheap pod machine can end up costing as much as a manual machine in the long run, once you factor in the cost of coffee pods. 

Generally, pod machines are cheaper to buy than manual machines. The ones we've tested range from $80 up to $1399. But with coffee pods costing up to $100 per kilo, the overall cost can quickly add up. 

Manual machines might cost more upfront: the ones we've tested start at $119 and go all the way up to $4499. But once you've bought it you'll just be up for coffee beans (and milk if you have it). 

Our reviews have found plenty of affordable manual machines that score better on taste than some expensive ones

If you're serious about coffee, you can spend thousands of dollars on a manual machine. But our reviews have found plenty of affordable manual machines that score better on taste than some expensive ones, so if you shop smart you can get great-tasting coffee at a great price. 

When you add up overall costs for pod machines over time, you'll end up paying more money for coffee that just doesn't taste as good as the coffee you'll get from a manual machine. 

We've crunched all the numbers: Is it worth owning your own espresso machine?

Why would you buy a pod machine?

Our test results clearly show that manual machines are a better deal in terms of taste and long-term cost (depending on the upfront purchase price). But it's important to note that manual machines aren't for everyone. 

If you're the kind of person who simply can't function before you've had a coffee in the morning, the multiple steps involved in using a manual machine might just be too much for you – in which case, chucking a pod in a machine and pressing a button could be the way to go. 

Other advantages of a pod machine

There are other reasons why a pod machine might be a better fit for you:

  • If you have dexterity challenges that mean dosing, tamping and turning knobs and switches are too painful or difficult
  • If you're incredibly time-poor and you're too busy or distracted to pay attention to grind, dose, tamping, extraction time, etc.
  • You're trying to cut down on cafe costs and you find the taste of pod coffee perfectly fine
  • You're daunted by the thought of using a manual machine and just want a straightforward machine that'll make you a consistent coffee with minimal steps.

The pod and manual machines that deliver on taste

Our in-house experts put hundreds of kitchen appliances through their paces in our labs each year. They know exactly what to look for to help you find the best product for your situation.

Our detailed espresso machine reviews include information about each machine's performance, ease of use, durability and features. Only CHOICE members can access our detailed testing data. If you're not yet a member, join CHOICE to get instant access to all our expert, independent reviews, from coffee machines and grinders, kettles and cots, toasters and TVs, and more. 

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