I appreciate a good cup of coffee, but I love a reliable and easy coffee machine. This past year, I’ve taken shot after shot of caffeine from dozens of cold brew coffee makers, French presses, and cappuccino machines—all in the name of WIRED. I’ve even popped a few Nespresso capsules on lazy days.
Despite having a countertop packed with espresso machines for months, I had never tried all-in-one, super automatic espresso machines. They always piqued my curiosity, but they’re quite expensive. It seemed like a stretch that any coffee machine would cost more than $1,000. However, they promise a lot for that price: Dump in beans and water, then get flawless espresso at the push of a button.
Some months back I finally caved and pulled in two of the more popular fully automated machines. DeLonghi and Saeco (owned by Philips) are two of the top brands in the super automatic world, so I tested out one of each brand’s midrange machines: DeLonghi’s Magnifica S ($800 – $1,100 on Amazon) and Saeco’s Incanto Carafe ($900 – $1,100 on Amazon).
p class=”paywall”>Both the Magnfica S and Incanto grind, compress, brew, and dispense espresso with the tap of a button. They’re both about the size of two stacked cinder blocks on your countertop. But there’s a reason for the bulk: they’re a nonstop train to Espresso Landia.
Wait, What’s a Super Automatic Espresso Machine?
Espresso is great at a bakery or coffee shop, but at home it’s a hassle. Making a good shot takes a lot of learning—and a lot of love for good espresso—to get it right.
With a typical (less super) espresso machine, you must grind your own beans or buy them ground, measure and pack a shot’s worth of grounds into a portafilter, and lock the portafilter in. Some machines ask you to meticulously heat your water to the perfect temperature too. It’s not a laborious process, but it can take a while to make more than one cup of espresso. You have to literally rinse and repeat; your portafilter requires cleaning after every shot.
It’s a process ripe for automation. Even with a sea of a somewhat manual espresso makers crowding my usable kitchen space, some weekdays I’d opt for regular coffee or Nespresso. At seven in the morning, I don’t always have the time or mental faculties to create perfect espresso.
A super automatic espresso machine is designed to do most of the work for you—like a Nespresso, just one that pumps out superior results. You pour coffee beans into a hopper and refill at tank with water every few days, but the Magnifica and Incanto grind the beans on demand, compress them into a hockey puck of fine grounds (about the size of a stack of half-dozen Pogs), heat the water precisely, and force that hot water through the compressed grounds.
In less than a minute, a fresh shot of espresso shoots out the nozzles to your specifications. Single, double, Americano, one cup, two cups … it’s all possible at the press of a button. Both of my models came with a milk-frothing attachment for cappuccinos and lattes, and as well as hot water attachment.
What’s WIRED About These Machines?
I used these machines for half a year. They provide shots of espresso at a speed that only a Nespresso, with its pod system, can match. Depending on the beans, that espresso often tasted much, much richer and fresher than the prefab stuff. Nespresso has a lot of flavors, but the pods you buy are still are not ground on the spot and just cannot have the aroma or taste of a freshly brewed espresso.
Even when I have a dead soul at 7 am, it’s not hard to press the on button, wait, put a coffee cup under the nozzle, and hit go. It’s easier than measuring scoops of coffee grounds for a drip machine, or loading a French press.
I’m sure some of you, dear readers, could drink neat shots of espresso every day. But after several months of primarily drinking from these machines, I began to value their ability to dispense hot water on demand to dilute my double shot into something more closely resembling a cup of coffee, and on weekends I would sometimes go all out, detach the water nozzle, and stick in the milk-frothing jug to make cappuccinos and lattes. Both the Incanto and Magnifica S make as good a latte as any machine I’ve used.
My Time With the Magnifica S
DeLonghi’s Magifica S was the first machine I tried, and I got a rude awakening the first time I ever turned it on. It was pretty loud, and after it warmed up with a series of robotic gear-turning noises, it immediately began an automatic cleaning cycle, pushing a double shot (2 fluid ounces) of hot water through the system. I scrambled to get a cup to place under it, and managed to capture most of the water. The rest went into the drip tray, which is clearly designed to hold a large volume of water.
About 20 minutes later, I was sipping my very first (quite delicious!) espresso and checking my email when I heard the machine whir back to life. It began making robotic noises again and began to spurt water. It was cleaning itself again. I figured this was normal, so I let it be. After all, I was living the super automatic coffee life now. A machine this advanced would sort itself out.
I came back into the kitchen an hour later to find a wet countertop and water dripping onto the floor. Some of the water had missed the drip tray. Out came some towels to clean up the mess.
After that day, I began a new ritual of always placing a cup underneath the super automatic machine to capture water when it turned on, and again when it shut off. I also began to break into a cold panic every time I heard its mechanical whir in the distance, often sprinting to the kitchen to make sure I had remembered to place a cup under it. The machine had lost my trust.
The other problem was how much water the cleaning cycle wasted. For every double shot I would make, it would run two shots of water through itself to clean. Mechanical hygiene is important, but with a somewhat small 60-ounce tank, I had to yank the tank out and refill it at least a couple times a week. Again, less super or automatic than I had hoped for.
After a few days I discovered a new task. The Magnifica S refused to dispense coffee, instead showing a weird symbol on its display. The tray of spent coffee grounds needed dumping. Or so it said. Really, the tray wasn’t full, but registered as full due to a shallow design and overly sensitive sensor. I shook it a bit, stuck it back in, and the sensor inside decided it would push on for a few more cycles. A few days later, I had to dump the grounds. Since I had failed to stop all the water, I had to clean the drip tray out too.
The Magnifica S has a nice dial to let you swap between drinks, but the icons aren’t always clear. There’s a learning curve to it. With buttons like 2X (it doubles the espresso output of any setting), you can sometimes end up with more or less espresso than you realize. After months, I still don’t think I fully understand the meanings behind all of the weird symbols the DeLonghi shows me. The user manual lives on top of the machine for when I run into trouble.
Saeco to the Rescue?
When the Saeco Incanto arrived, I was ready to give up. I thought the S in Magnifica S must stand for “stress.” Using it was like watching a 3-year-old pour milk; I was often worried it would spill liquid everywhere. The amount of cleanup and hassle rivaled many manual machines. Why did it have to waste so much water? Why was the interface still confounding me after weeks and weeks?
The Incanto calmed me down. Everything about it felt simpler than the Magnifica. It still cleaned itself at startup and shutdown, but only used half as much water to do so. Since its water tank was up top, I could pull out my faucet hose and fill it up too. (The Magnifica has a slide-out, side-mounted water tank.)
The buttons on the face of the Incanto are dead simple. You press “Single” for a single shot, “Double” for a double, and “Latte” or “Cappuccino” for a milky drink. The downside to this simplicity is how difficult it is to perform tasks that aren’t on the six provided buttons. Navigating the settings on the small display took some getting used to, and instead of the Magnifica’s knob twist and button press to get hot water, Saeco requires you perform a five-button shuffle to make it happen.
I have never able to get either machine to take already ground coffee well; they both prefer whole beans. Supposedly both can accept ground coffee, but there is a trick to it I never mastered in my attempts. I felt like I was dumping grounds into oblivion (or right into the gears of the machine) when I tried.
Both the Saeco and DeLonghi user manuals also ask you to remove their brewhead and clean them once a week, and also do a deep clean once a month. Being a normal human with many things to do, I expected a $1,000 machine to make life easier. I did not perform these routine maintenance procedures with rigor. After several months, I opened them up for a good cleaning.
The DeLonghi Magnifica had grounds all up inside it, and even a few pieces of dust in a couple exposed (why are they exposed?) screws and moving parts in the machinery. The tiny included brush helped me sweep most of it away, as easily as an archeologist in a movie exposes dinosaur bones, but I worry that coffee dust will infiltrate more of the mechanics in time. I don’t know how well the delicate moving parts will handle it. I also didn’t vacuum out the insides (recommended by the manual) because I didn’t have a vacuum with a hose attachment.
Despite my affinity for it, the Saeco Incanto was tougher to clean. It has a larger brewhead that required a lot of water and an intense brushdown, and the brush supplied in the box looks like it’s made for use with water-based paints. Under the Incanto’s removable brewhead was a tray I didn’t know existed. When I discovered it, it was covered in a sprinkling of coffee grounds and mold. It needs cleaning more often.
Good Espresso, Not So Super
Despite my preference for the Incanto, my wife began using the DeLonghi again after a while. It made better espresso with more crema (the microfoam that floats on top of a proper shot). As much as I despised the Magnifica S for its interface and the large amount of water it used to clean itself, she was right; it made richer coffee with a better head of crema than the Incanto. Both were excellent overall, but the coffee from the Magnifica tastes better. Neither machine could match what a manual espresso machine can do when run by a skilled operator.
These machines are priced sky-high and there’s a lot more maintenance to them than meets the eye. I can’t help but compare them to Nespresso machines. Such cup-based machines don’t have the depth of flavor that you can get by choosing beans and grinding them right away the way you can with an espresso machine, but they’re quicker, far less expensive, and require a fraction of the cleanup. Over time, the cost per cup of espresso can be cheaper in a super automatic machine than Nespresso, but that depends on your choice of beans, and assumes these machines will last for years without need for repair.
Super automatics make great espresso, but beneath all that automation there’s a fair amount of maintenance work that has to get done. Making coffee is a dirty process. These machines do their best, but they aren’t able to eliminate that mess. They can only hide it for a while.
That said, I still felt a little sad when I boxed up the Incanto and Magnifica S. Once I had their rhythm down, I had really gotten used to a nice clean shot espresso at the start of each day.
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social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/automatic-espresso-machines