Espresso machines are a complicated bunch of gizmos. You can get more frightened of the variety of different machines than than the menu at a coffee bar. First you must make the distinction between automatic, semi auto, manual, and super automatic, or even combo machines. So what exactly is each one and what does it do.
These are old school, lots of fun, and a fair amount of work. If you enjoy the process of making a good cup of espresso go for one of these. You will have to pump the machine to get the water to flow through at the right pressure and some people find these to be a little more exercise than they want to do first thing in the morning. These machines can be very attractive and classy looking. Expect to have to do all of the work from grinding, to tamping, to filling with water, and emptying. These machines also take some practice.
Semi Automatic Machines
These do some of the work for you, but not much. They will normally have a water reservoir and a pump that forces the water through the grounds. Grinding, tamping, emptying, and cleaning are still up to you.
These are nice and easy, not as much fun or hands on, but if you are going for high volume or don’t want a whole lot of clean up and you want to minimize the equipment necessary these can be a good route. You simply add beans and water and out comes espresso. Make sure you get a model with a good burr grinder. Some models you can hook up to a water source, some you will have to fill a water reservoir. Most of these models are also have a self cleaning function.
These babies are bad to the bone and usually reserved for commercial establishments, serious addicts, or the ultra wealthy. Thinks a couple thousand bucks for a good model. They do it all. From grinding, to tamping, to pumping, cleaning, cup warming, and giving you a back rub they do it all.
There is an increasing number of combo machines available because lets face it, some people just can’t handle that much caffeine. Like alcohol you must build your tolerance. These machines fit into all levels of the espresso machine hierarchy but they also have the ability to make good old fashioned coffee.