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How to buy the best coffee machine

Automatic or manual? Pods or capsules? Our expert guide will help you choose.

two espressos pouring from coffee machine

Australians love coffee. And whether or not we're drinking a little too much, it's certainly important to us that we drink good coffee. Which is where home coffee machines come in.

Coffee machine types

There are several general types of espresso machines on the market:

Pod and capsule machines

Capsules (often referred to as 'pods') make up the bulk of espresso machines we buy in Australia. To use them, you insert coffee capsules which are are the size and shape of a single-serve UHT milk holder. They're hermetically sealed in aluminium or plastic, giving them the added advantage of staying fresh for about nine months.

Easy Serving Espresso (ESE) pods are discs of coffee compressed between two layers of filter paper (not to be confused with the coffee capsule pods). These aren't hermetically sealed like the capsules. Some machines can cater for both pods and ground coffee by providing a separate filter basket and possibly a different shower head for each.  

Nespresso is the biggest-selling capsule machine type. Nespresso capsules come in various styles depending on whether you are using an "original" type of machine, or its newer Vertuo ones, which accommodate a range of cup sizes (and are only compatible with 'official' Nespresso capsules). The prices for capsules can vary.

Some come with a built-in milk frother, while others require you to buy one separately. Some don't need you to use one at all, and instead sell separate milk capsules. In our tests, the quality of these milk capsules is generally poor.

How they work

A pod or capsule of coffee is inserted into the machine, it then pierces the capsule to allow hot water to flow through and the shot is poured.

Cost

From $37 to $600+, plus pods

Pros

  • Very simple and convenient to use.
  • Many flavours of coffee available.
  • They require very little cleaning up.
  • Usually have a small benchtop footprint. (One Aldi Expressi machine is 27 x 13 x 35cm for example, while a Nescafe Dolce Gusto Piccolini is only 29 x 16 x 23cm.)

Cons

  • Enthusiasts may find coffees from these machines lack depth or intensity of flavour.
  • Aluminium-based capsules can be recycled via various schemes, but usually end up in landfill, which is very wasteful of the aluminium and other material that goes into making them.
  • They do cost more to use in the long run than freshly-ground coffee, but are still cheaper than going to a cafe.

Automatic espresso machines

These are a small but significant part of the market. Major brands include DeLonghi, Gaggia, Jura, Melitta and Miele. While most people prefer to either work a manual model or enjoy the convenience (and cost savings) of a capsule machine, the automated machines definitely have their fans and can be very handy in a small office kitchen or a busy household.

Cost: $500 to $5000.

How automatic coffee machines work

Your cup goes under the spout, you press the button to grind the coffee beans to make the espresso, then make your desired beverage depending on your desired strength and volume. Some also automatically froth milk for a cappuccino or latte.

Pros

  • Easier to use than the semi-automatic and manual machines.
  • Use freshly ground beans rather than a capsule and you can control the grind to your requirements.
  • You can usually save several 'programs' or user profiles with your favourite styles of coffee.
  • Some have 'self-cleaning' modes, which minimises the hassle of washing and descaling the machine.

Cons

  • Can be more expensive than other types of machines, and their higher price isn't a guarantee they'll make good coffee.
  • Can be quite heavy, from 8 to 12 kilos.
  • The depth of the machine can exeed 40cm, so you need to be able to spare the bench space.

Manual espresso machines

These let you experiment and get more hands-on with your coffee. They require a bit more knowledge, and practice, of coffee-making techniques such as grinding, dosing and tamping.

Major brands include Breville, DeLonghi, Gaggia, Lelit, Profitec, Rancilio, Sunbeam and Smeg.

Usually, you'll need a separate bean grinder before using them, which is an added cost, but they generally come with a milk frothing capability.

The bench space they take up will vary depending on the complexity and design of the machine but tend to be from 20-40cm wide.

Weight can vary from around 3kg to 19kg.

Cost: $200 to $2000+

How they work

You manually put the required amount of ground coffee into the group head, then set the machine to pour. You'll need to cut the flow of coffee yourself (unlike a semi-automatic machine).

Pros

  • The depth of flavour from using fresh coffee.
  • The satisfaction of making your own cup of coffee the way you like it.
  • They can look like works of art and spruce up a boring kitchen; even the budget ones offered by brands like Kmart have a retro appeal. 

Cons

  • Difficult for beginners with no coffee-making experience.
  • Ground coffee needs to be prepared before use.
  • Ongoing maintenance.

Our home espresso machine reviews compare more than 40 manual, semi-automatic and pod coffee machines.

Semi-automatic coffee machines

A semi-automatic machine mostly operates like a manual machine would, but will automatically cut off the flow of coffee once a pre-set amount has been poured into your cup (a manual machine will require you to cut the flow of coffee yourself).

Pros

  • Versatile; gives you the best of both worlds in terms of having control of your cup while not worrying about when to stop the coffee flow.
  • Less costly than a fully-automatic machine.

Cons

  • Like a manual machine, there is still a learning and experimentation process.
  • Ongoing maintenance.

Key features to look for

Clear and simple controls

Digital displays are generally easier to understand than indicator lights, especially when programming the machine.

Adjustable grinder

Lets you adjust the grind to suit the bean and machine. (Automatic machines have built-in grinders.)

Variable coffee strength 

Means you can adjust the intensity of the coffee to your taste.

Space 

A big espresso machine is fine if you have plenty of bench space in your kitchen, but you may want one that takes up less room.

Froth enhancer

Some machines come with a froth enhancer on the milk-frothing wand. This is supposed to make frothing easier, but it often produces large bubbles rather than the fine foam that's suitable for lattes and cappuccinos. 

If the enhancer is removable you may find it easier to produce fine, velvety foam.

Cup-warming tray

Helps keep your cups at a warm, constant temperature, which stops the coffee from cooling down too quickly.

Double shot 

Many models can make two espressos at once, but they often just grind one dose of beans for this, usually about the same amount they'd make for a single cup, which leads to weaker coffee. 

If you often make two cups, look for models that make them in quick succession rather than at the same time; these models grind a fresh dose for each cup, which is the best way for a good, strong cup of coffee.

Warm up time

The warm-up times can vary depending on the machine; a manual machine might take 1-2 minutes while a capsule might be about 20-30 seconds.

Dual boiler vs heat exchanger?

On a manual/semi-automatic coffee machine, a dual boiler means you can froth milk and make coffee at the same time (from each boiler), but these machines cost extra. Coffee machines which use a heat exchanger system only have one boiler which keeps the water at the right temperature for steaming milk (which is too high for brewing coffee), but there is a metal tube inside (the heat exchanger) that fresh water flows through which warms up to the temperature required for brewing coffee. They take up less room than a dual boiler system but you can't brew and steam at the same time.

Other useful features include a 'water tank empty' reminder, a height-adjustable spout to accommodate larger cups, and adjustable coffee volume.

Key features to look for

Clear and simple controls

Digital displays are generally easier to understand than indicator lights, especially when programming the machine.

Adjustable grinder

Lets you adjust the grind to suit the bean and machine. (Automatic machines have built-in grinders.)

Check the good and bad points for each model in our home espresso coffee machines reviews and automatic espresso machine reviews to see how they fare with making two cups.

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