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Manual vs. Automatic Espresso Machines - Which Is Best For You?

I get a lot of questions every day, but one of questions that I see most often from people who are new to the world of espresso is this: Should I buy a manual espresso machine or an automatic, what's the difference?

It's a good question! Today I'm going to go into detail describing the two different types of espresso makers and hopefully clear up any mystery there may be surrounding which is the better choice.

Manual Espresso Machines

I thought I'd talk about manual machines first because they are normally what an espresso newby is going to be interested in.

First off, what are they? A manual machine is a simple machine consisting of a water tank, an arm that holds coffee grounds (or pods or capsules or discs or whatever you like), a drip tray to hold your espresso cup, a steam frother so that you can make tasty cappuccinos or latte's or mocha's or whatever, and usually an on/off button and sometimes some sort of LED readout (for fancier models).

Briel Manual Espresso Machine

Here you see a simple Briel Manual Machine. It's not fancy, there are no bells and whistles, it just creates a single shot of espresso. Why do we call it manual? Because you have to manually put the coffee grounds into the arm, manually press the "on" button, wait for the espresso to come out, and then manually press the "off" button to turn the machine off.

I know what you're thinking (at least, if you think like me!), you're thinking that doesn't seem like very much work. You're right, putting coffee grounds into the arm, tamping it down and pressing a button doesn't really take any effort.

Here are the main benefits of a manual machine:

  • Much much cheaper than an Automatic Espresso machine
  • Relatively easy to use
  • Less complications when something breaks
  • Smaller, take up less counter space
  • Easy to maintain
  • Did I mention cheaper?

Here are the main detractors of a manual machine:

  • Don't have as many options
  • You have to clean the grounds out afterwords - and they're messy!
  • Don't usually have much control over water temperature
  • Can overflow if you shove in too much coffee grounds
  • Are time consuming, you can only make one shot at a time and then you have to clean it out and reload it manually to make another shot

If you walk into any sort of store that sells espresso machines (Walmart, Target, Macy, or any other department type store), chances are you'll see a bunch of manual machines. You might see one automatic machine, but unless it's specifically an espresso machine store, you won't see much else. The reason is because more people buy manual machines because they are much cheaper, hundreds and sometimes even thousands of dollars cheaper.

Some common manual espresso machine brands include: Briel, Cuisinart, Krups, Gaggia, Breville, DeLonghi, and Saeco. You can expect to pay anywhere from around $100 up to $350 depending on the brand, the options (LED Digital readouts, pod adapters, etc etc).

So what is an automatic machine and why in the world would you need one if a manual is so easy?

Automatic Espresso Machines

Jura-Capresso Automatic Espresso Machine

Automatic machines are usually large, bulky items that take up a lot of space on your counter top. Think of them like little coffee centers; small appliances in themselves. They have lots of bells and whistles and do absolutely everything for you - and I mean everything.

They generally store your beans, grind the exact amount needed, infuse the exact amount of water to create the perfect cup of espresso, turn themselves off, and dispose of the used coffee grounds - all automatically at the push of a button.

Not to mention that they usually have nice digital readouts and fancy electronic buttons. Want 4 shots of espresso? Type 4 into the keypad, press the button, then sit back and wait. Heck, they usually have cup warmers too so that your espresso cup is nice and warm when the espresso hits it!

Here are the main benefits to automatic machines:

  • They do absolutely everything for you
  • Usually produce multiple shots of espresso at the touch of a button.
  • Dispose of coffee grinds automatically
  • Heat up to just the right temperature
  • Usually Have Cup Warmers
  • Once you learn how to use them, they're easier to use than a manual machine
  • Look cool on your counter
  • Great if you entertain friends a lot and need to make lots of espresso

Here are the main detractors of automatic machines:

  • Incredibly expensive; $500 - $4,000 easily.
  • Can sometimes be hard to learn how to use them
  • If they break down, they're harder to service
  • May be overkill if you don't drink a lot of espresso regularly
  • Take up a lot of counter space
  • Did I mention, they're REALLY expensive!

Some of the major automatic espresso companies include: Jura-Capresso, Gaggia, and DeLonghi. And it's no joke that these machines are expensive. You can find cheaper models in the $500-$800 range, but one with all the bells and whistles is going to cost you $1,500 - $3,000 easily.

So Which Is Right For You?

If you're just getting started in the world of espresso, then stick with a manual machine. They're great to sort of teach you about espresso, help you learn what you like, and get you used to everything involved. As time goes by and you become more familiar and comfortable with things, you may want to bump up to an automatic machine.

The great thing about starting out with a manual machine is that they're cheap. A nice entry level Cuisinart manual machine costs around $120 (See the Cuisinart EM-100 review in the Cuisinart section on the menu to the top right), and a Briel Chamonix costs around $199 (see review in Briel Section).

You can also check out our guide to buying your first espresso machine below for more tips.

If, on the other hand, you're an old hand at espresso; you know what you like (the kind of beans etc) and have been making espresso in your home for quite a while but feel like you need a little more firepower, then it might be time to take the plunge into the fascinating world of automatic machines. Good luck, it can be a lot of fun!

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