COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Technology in the kitchen

Of all the tech gadgets I've had a chance to use, the one that creates the most interest from visitors to my home is a super automatic cappuccino maker. Few can believe there is a device capable of creating an excellent cup of espresso, latte or cappuccino in about 30 seconds with little more effort than the push of a button.

The latest models utilize technology we're more accustomed to seeing in computers, including microprocessors, scrolling displays, flashing lights and programmable options. And some are priced as high as a computer.

All of the machines work much in the same way. You fill one compartment with coffee beans and a second with water. At the push of a button an internal mechanism grinds the beans and packs the coffee into a well inside the machine. Heated water from a boiler is forced through the fresh grounds under high pressure and then flows into the cup. The spent grounds are then dumped into a compartment that's emptied after every 10 or 20 uses. You froth the milk by immersing a steamer nozzle that protrudes from the machine into a pitcher of cold milk. All of these machines make coffee or espresso by varying the quantity of water.

The machines range in price from about $400 to over $2,000. For those that buy a cappuccino or latte each morning, the machines can pay for themselves in a year or less. I've been evaluating two models, the Saeco Magic De Luxe (www.saeco.com) made in Italy with a street price of about $700, and the Swiss-made Jura Impressa F9 from Capresso (www.capresso.com), selling for $1,800. They are representative of what you get for under $1,000 and under $2,000.

While both produce espresso that's as good as what we get from coffee shops, the higher-priced Jura has a number of features that produce a hotter, more consistent coffee drink. The Jura has two temperature settings, normal and hot. It preheats the water and internal mechanism by running warm water through the system when first turned on for the day, and then cleans the machine by running water before the machine is turned off. As a result, the coffee is substantially warmer than the Saeco, whose temperature can only be adjusted at the factory. Coffee from the Jura is about 25 degrees warmer than from the Saeco. While both are drinkable, Saeco's is warm and not hot, at about 140 degrees.

The Jura, with its two heating elements, can go from making espresso to frothing in 20 seconds, the time it takes to heat the water to steaming temperature from espresso temperature. It cools down almost instantly. This means it's easier and faster to make a variety of coffee drinks, espressos, lattes and cappuccinos in succession. With the Saeco it takes about a minute to go from coffee to steam and several minutes to go back, much less convenient for making a number of drinks at one time. Both machines have a bypass capability that permits using ground coffee (such as decaf) instead of whole beans.

The Saeco frothed the milk more effectively than the Jura. It quickly turns a half-inch of milk at the bottom of a 12-ounce pitcher into aerated foam that filled the pitcher with little liquid left behind. The Jura creates a mixture of warm milk with a layer of finely aerated bubbles, great for a latte but not for a dry cappuccino.

The Jura is a most attractive product, with its contemporary design, clad in chrome with stainless steel parts. It is fully programmable to turn on and off at preset times, has an adjustable lighted spout and illuminated touch controls. The Saeco is constructed mostly of plastic; its plastic mechanism is fully removable for cleaning. The Saeco is taller than the Jura and may not fit into the under counter space of some kitchens.

If the smell of freshly brewed espresso doesn't wake the house, the noise will. Both machines make a lot of noise, with their internal grinding, tamping and emptying, and the steaming of the milk.

For more information, I recommend the Web site www.wholelattelove.com, which provides detailed information, reviews and comparisons of dozens of machines. Both of these machines are available on this site. The Saeco is also available from Costco Online (www.costco.com) and the Jura from Williams-Sonoma (www.williamsonoma.com).

My wife was skeptical when I bought the Saeco machine about four years ago, but she's come to appreciate it for its convenience and its ability to get me into the kitchen to make my own coffee. So if you are in the market for a machine, my advice is this: If you like your coffee very hot, have limited under counter space and an unlimited budget, the Jura is the machine for you. Otherwise, the Saeco is quite adequate and a good buy.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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