This is my first manual espresso machine after starting with a cheap full auto and later upgrading to a semi-auto BES870XL. I love the sheer amount of control that I have over my shots, from the pressure the machine brews at to the amount of water that goes into the shot (more so with a double), pre-infusion time, and flow of the steam coming out of the wand. It takes a lot of time getting dialed in right to produce a good shot, and I am still working on my technique, though it has improved greatly in the past few weeks that I've had this machine.
Out of the box:
I'll start with the most disappointing thing for anyone who reads this: The tamper this machine comes with is a cheap, flimsy, plastic 48mm disc that doesn't even cover the surface area of your 49mm portafilter. If you don't have one already, save yourself the extra wait and get yourself a nice, heavy 49mm tamper when you buy this (I got a solid stainless tamper by Silmur and it's perfect) and throw the plastic one into the trash upon arrival.
Now for the good: Everything was well-packaged in molded styrofoam to minimize the chance of impact damage. Everything came out looking shiny and beautiful with no damage. Assembly was pretty straightforward, and the owner's manual gives you just enough information to get started. Disclaimer: the manual does not tell the user how to adjust the pressurestat if you find that your machine is not in the right zone out of the box, or if you really want to fine-tune your extraction. But fear not: simple but tedious pressurestat adjustments are a quick Google/YouTube search away (butter knife and small ratchet with phillips and flat head bits to get the job done not included).
Brewing with this bad boy requires a ton of patience. If you're new to manuals, do not expect to pull amazing shots right away. Even semi-autos have their nuances, though not nearly as many. First, make sure that you can see the meniscus (that bottom line at the top of your water) in the sight glass. This will ensure that your boiler is neither under nor overfilled. It doesn't take long to heat up and get to pressure. Once it's ready to go, the rest is up to you (take lots of notes; it helps!). After a few weeks of active use, I've just about gotten it down (until I get different beans, that is). The steam wand is another well-designed piece of this machine, and produces the silkiest microfoam I have ever made. You control the output, and it is immediate steam on demand. Do let some out to get the wand up to temp and avoid it shooting straight hot water into your pitcher before frothing it up. Back to brewing: It does seem to run a bit hot, and I've read that the general consensus is that the ideal brewing temperature is right when it gets up to pressure, and then after that the user should to apply a cold cloth to the groupset to keep temperatures down and avoid burnt shots. I'll start following that advice and see how my extraction improves.
I've been having a ton of fun with this machine, and don't think I could ever go back to anything short of a manual espresso machine after this experience. It's definitely one of my favorite additions to my coffee-making collection, and I'll probably love it even more when I finally do pull that perfect shot.