I'm drinking a decent cappuccino made by a coffee machine that can communicate with my cell phone and/or tablet.
It also makes a really good espresso from whole beans, can froth milk, and go from standby mode to ready to brew in roughly a minute. As far as coffee makers go, it's the fanciest one that's ever graced my kitchen countertop.
The machine in question is the Saeco GranBaristo Avanti made by Philips (phg). It is part of a class of machines known as super automatics, because they do everything for you—from grinding your favourite beans to pumping water over them at the appropriate pressure to make an espresso. The machine can even rinse the entire brewing apparatus when it's done, so all you have to worry about is keeping the machine full of water and beans to enjoy coffee at the push of a button.
You do have to clean out the grounds and perform basic weekly maintenance, such as monthly filter changes and descaling of the machine, which is true of all of super automatic coffee makers on the market. And even the price of this machine, which ranges from between $2,200 to $3,000 online (I found it for $2,500 at Williams Sonoma before the Christmas week rush) is in the mid-range for this class of coffee maker. At the high end one can expect to pay $6,000 and about $300 on the low end.
Is it smart enough?
What makes this Saeco different from other models is that it comes with a Bluetooth radio and its own app that you can download on iOS or an Android tablet and phone. The app offers you a way to order and customize one of 16 pre-determined drinks: such as making the coffee portion stronger, hotter or even more diluted by adding more milk. If you like your customizations you can save them for future use.
Since the coffee maker connects via Bluetooth you have to be within fairly close range of the machine, although I was able to get the machine to brew a cup of coffee while I was about 50 feet away upstairs in my bedroom.
You cannot, however, order your coffee from outside your home, and even ordering it from the bedroom poses a risk, because there's no way to know if there is a cup under the spout. A sensor in the tray would be a nice feature, in this case, to halt the brew process if a cup isn't actually there.
However, everything else—including the beans and the water level—is monitored and the app or the machine itself will let you know if the Saeco needs attention. If you don't have a phone handy, the machine alerts you on an LED touch screen, which is surprisingly intuitive considering all of the functions crammed into the display.
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In the few days since the machine has arrived it has made 41 coffee drinks, six frothed milks and delivered four cups of hot water. I know this because the app offers a section called "My coffee statistics," which provides of all that information. It also lets me know that my favorite drink is an espresso (we've made 10).
As I show in the video above, the app is the easiest way to order something if you're a fan of customized drinks, although it's a pain to use if you don't have a phone or tablet handy. In that scenario, I tend to change my order to select one of the pre-set options rather than hunt down my tablet, or scroll through the menu to find my customized list.
The need to order drinks via a device makes the Bluetooth almost feel like a gimmick, although if Philips eventually connects the coffee maker to other devices in the home it might become more useful. For example, if the machine were to connect with my fitness tracker to know when I'm awake and warm up the coffee machine while I got ready that could be very handy. Although, I'd need to be pretty desperate for caffeine since the machine takes maybe a minute to get to a point where it's ready to brew.
How's the coffee?
Finally, for those of you who aren't into apps and probably wondering about the most important point in the entire review: How's the coffee? It's pretty good. I had a variety of people over to taste it, and everyone felt differently about their cup of coffee, but the machine makes a consistent cup of java. I found the regular coffee to be too weak for my taste and the flat white to be watery. The espresso is good and the ristretto—which is a shorter pull of an espresso that is less bitter—is, indeed, less bitter.
The milk drinks are a mixed bag. The latte and cappuccino are good, but the flat white is a failure. The milk container is detachable and the milk frother is easy to use. My daughter enjoyed the steamers for her hot cocoa. The machine also has a nifty little cleaning cycle it can run after each use, which is really handy to avoid sour milk getting pushed through the nozzle if you want to refrigerate the milk container in between uses.
It froths whole milk and 2% well, but almond, soy and skim milk didn't froth up as well. I couldn't find someone who drank those types of milk in their coffee regularly to get their opinions on how this machine handled them, unfortunately. The almond milk had an almost toasted kind of flavor that wasn't unpleasant, but the texture was still more watery than whole milk.
The ability to customize coffee drinks and adjust the grind means you can really play around a lot to find a setting that should work for you. The beans you use will also lend a lot to the enjoyment of your cup as well. And here's one other nice aspect of this machine: It comes with two bean hoppers (the place that holds the beans) which means you can swap out different beans really easily. The Seaco even has a setting that grinds any leftover beans in the machine when you make the switch, so your old beans don't contaminate the new ones.
The designers of this machine have clearly thought through the details. I currently have a lower end Seaco, and I'm thinking that when my machine breaks I might want to trade up. Surprisingly, if I do, it won't be for the Bluetooth and the app, but for the detachable milk container, and the ability to order up the occasional cappuccino using my mobile device.
I usually start my day with an Americano or espresso, but have found myself enjoying the ease of getting a fancier milk-based drink without the drama of streaming my own milk. Letting a fancy computer do it for me, might be worth the extra cash. And by then, maybe the price will have come down.