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The best espresso machine for 2020: Cuisinart, Breville, Mr. Coffee and more – CNET

If you’ve ever fallen in love with espresso, you know first hand its powerful charms. Ultra-strong, rich, yet balanced espresso’s complex flavors are addictive. Making it at home though can be a tall order. A lot of coffee makers billed as domestic espresso machines are that in name only. If you don’t do your homework…

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The best espresso machine for 2020: Cuisinart, Breville, Mr. Coffee and more     – CNET

If you’ve ever fallen in love with espresso, you know first hand its powerful charms. Ultra-strong, rich, yet balanced espresso’s complex flavors are addictive. Making it at home though can be a tall order. A lot of coffee makers billed as domestic espresso machines are that in name only. If you don’t do your homework chances are good you’ll wind up with a terrible appliance, one that slings awful drinks. Make sure you avoid this pitfall and by a machine that produces superb shots all day long.The best home espresso machines have an advanced brewing process and handy bells and whistles like a double portafilter basket for double shot drinks, and a milk frother and steam wand for a cup of cappuccino or a latte. These automatic machines don’t come cheap, and you can expect to pay at least $500 for something that whips up legit cafe-caliber espresso drinks (or an espresso shot, if that’s your thing). But when in doubt, try to remember how much you’ll be saving on all the lattes, cappuccinos and double shots you get from your coffee shop thanks to your espresso and cappuccino maker.Espresso coffee is uniquely powerful and flavorful. It’s the ultimate test for home brewers.
Tyler Lizenby/CNET
You can also drop as little as $100, if you’re willing to settle for a mediocre espresso, but I urge you not to pounce on products that cost less, especially if you plan on drinking espresso regularly. A seemingly affordable espresso machine may look like a bargain at first blush, but they’re often a waste of money and counter space, too. For those on a budget, “espresso brewers” (in the $30 to $50 price range) typically lack motorized pumps and are powered by steam pressure alone. What they produce is really moka pot coffee, the sort of drink made by simple stovetop brewers; it won’t taste quite like the espresso you’re used to from the barista at your local coffee shop or cafe. That’s not inherently bad — it’s just not really espresso.

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To find the best espresso machine for espresso lovers, I spent over 80 hours putting 10 available espresso machines through their paces. I limited my testing to manual espresso machines, not the ones that make espresso from pods or capsules. I also revisited three other espresso machines I reviewed previously. During the process, I made and sampled scores of espresso shots, double shots, lattes, cappuccinos and pitchers of steamed milk and milk froth. Basically, if it was a coffee drink, I made it. I also took into account other things like water reservoir and storage, water filter, control panel, grinding capabilities, automatic milk frother length (and its ability to steam and froth milk) and more. After my experience, these are the three I’d qualify as the best home espresso machines. While they all get the job done and offer the essential features you need — like a steam milk frother, drip tray, substantial water reservoir, and easy-to-clean stainless steel base — the key differentiating factor between them is the price point. And how much you spend on an espresso machine does have a major impact on what type of coffee you’ll ultimately get.

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I also limited this list to automatic machines and semiautomatic espresso machines. I excluded super-automatic espresso makers as well, sold by Krups, Philips, Miele and others. Those models are a breed apart, costing many times more ($2,000 to $3,000). I update this list periodically, and you’ll find my testing methodology below. Still with me? Keep going, delicious espresso will soon be yours!

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You can’t beat the Breville Barista Express and its combination of performance, features and price point. For $700, the machine’s formidable grinder pulverizes espresso beans, smart technology doses grounds directly into its portafilter basket, plus its sturdy frother steams milk well and makes thick foam. It also consistently pulled the best tasting shots of espresso in my test group. The control panel may be a little intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of things, a delicious shot (or double shot) of espresso, latte or other coffee-based drink of choice will be your reward. Made from stainless steel, the Barista Express is a cinch to clean as well. And to seal the deal, Breville includes premium metal tools such as a handy dose trimmer and tamper.I will note, though, that this machine does not offer a compact design. If counter space is at a premium in your kitchen, you may want to look at the next machine on the list to make your cup of coffee.

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For those who crave great espresso at home but are nervous about getting the technique down, the Breville Bambino Plus is the perfect choice. It’s dead simple to use and to keep clean. It’s also compact yet pulled delicious shots of espresso second only to Breville’s Barista Express. I especially appreciate how easy it is to froth milk with the Bambino. Just insert the steam wand into the Bambino’s stainless steel milk pitcher (included), then press one button. Less than a minute later, you’ll have expertly steamed milk foam ready for lattes and cappuccinos.

While it lacks its own coffee grinder, making an espresso, cappuccino or latte from the Cuisinart EM-100 has plenty going for it. This espresso machine has a compact design but is powerful enough to brew from fine coffee grounds. It also pulled flavorful espresso shots, second only to the Breville Barista Express in terms of quality, taste and strength. The machine features a long stainless steel frother for steaming milk and a built-in cup warmer heating element too. A solid espresso machine at about a third the price of the Breville.

How we test espresso machines My evaluation process for espresso machines is similar to how I test standard drip coffee makers. First, I hand wash and dry all removable parts and accessories. For most espresso products, that includes the portafilter basket, metal portafilter inserts, water tank and so on. Next, I run one brewing cycle with just hot water to flush away any residual material from manufacturing. Most espresso machines, save for fancy super automatic models, lack an integrated coffee grinder and I prefer to test with freshly ground coffee. So I supply my own grinder — the Breville Smart Grinder Pro. I chose this grinder for two reasons. First, it’s calibrated more for espresso and less for drip or other brewing styles. That means it produces a grind that’s quite fine. Second, its grind size is also consistently uniform. Both factors are critical for a proper espresso brewing process. To pull shots, I start with the suggested method outlined in a given machine’s product manual. Usually that covers the amount of coffee grounds expected per shot, along with any guidelines regarding coarseness level. Likewise, I follow tamping instructions (light, medium or hard tamp) if the manual provides them. Whenever possible, I brew double shots of espresso for all my test runs. I make sure to record the weight of the grounds I use, plus the weight of espresso for each shot I pull. This data, along with readings from a portable refractometer, allows me to calculate two important percentages: total dissolved solids and extraction percentage. And just like any coffee brew, the ideal extraction percentage for espresso is a range between 18% and 22%. This yields a balanced cup, assuming you perform an even and efficient extraction of coffee compounds from your grounds (both flavor and caffeine). Not many home espresso machines can brew quality shots. This one was pulled from the Breville Barista Express.
Tyler Lizenby/CNET
If you over-extract, you run the risk of leaching out unpleasant flavors (bitterness) after the good. On the opposite end of the scale, under extracted brews tend to have undeveloped flavors. Lacking sugars and other caramelized organic chemicals, these shots will taste sour, weak and watery.       Unlike making a cup of drip coffee, espresso should be concentrated. While excellent drip typically has a TDS percentage of 1.3 or 1.4, great espresso has a much higher percentage. The Breville Barista Express, for example, produced shots with TDS percentages as high as 12.4. These shots I pulled were balanced though, with an extraction of 18.6%. The test beans I use are the same variety I employ for standard coffee makers — Costco Kirkland Colombian. It’s a medium dark roast, suitable for brewing espresso as well.   Many espresso machines have steaming wands for frothing milk. The Breville Bambino makes steaming milk especially easy.
Brian Bennett/CNET
Lastly, I try my hand at frothing milk with each coffee machine equipped with a steam wand. I record the overall experience with the steam wand, whether the process is a snap, a tricky chore or somewhere in between. Steam milk to create cafe-style espresso drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.
Brian Bennett/CNET
Want more options for your cup of coffee? Check out this list of espresso machines I’ve tested in addition to the ones above. More coffee advice from CNET and Chowhound

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Amazon Echo review: The best Alexa smart speaker in years – CNET

The new Amazon Echo boasts a striking spheroidal design. Chris Monroe/CNET Amazon’s fourth-gen Echo smart speaker is a ball to use — literally. Alexa’s new countertop speaker is spheroidal, a striking departure from the soft-cylindrical speakers of past generations. And honestly, six years after the first Echo launched 10,000 (or at least a few dozen)…

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Amazon Echo review: The best Alexa smart speaker in years     – CNET

The new Amazon Echo boasts a striking spheroidal design.
Chris Monroe/CNET
Amazon’s fourth-gen Echo smart speaker is a ball to use — literally. Alexa’s new countertop speaker is spheroidal, a striking departure from the soft-cylindrical speakers of past generations. And honestly, six years after the first Echo launched 10,000 (or at least a few dozen) smart speakers, a reimagined design was overdue.The big question of the new Echo is, well, how reimagined is it? Voice assistants are growing and changing all the time, but for the most part, they do what they’ve been doing for years already: answer questions, set timers, control your smart home gadgets, play music and so on. So why buy a new Echo?Amazon has faltered recently with its core smart speaker, as the more budget-friendly Dot has become a better entry point to the market and 2019’s Echo Studio offers higher-end sound for audiophiles. That’s left the $100 Echo as a sort of undefined middle child in the growing family of Alexa-powered speakers. But 2020’s Echo is genuinely different, and it’s not just because of the new spheroidal profile. This Echo has turned up the sound quality and added higher-end smarts than the competition, all for the same $100 price tag, leaving it one of the most forward-looking smart speakers released in years.

LikeImproved sound quality and powerful bassBetter smart home connectivityEasy and quality stereo pairing

Don’t LikeA bulky designNo revolutionary upgrades

Getting the ball rollingAmazon’s 2020 Echo boasts two important upgrades that should inform your decision to buy it or not: improved sound quality and smart home hardware.When it comes to sound, the Echo represents a significant improvement over the third-gen speaker from 2019, likely in part to the fact that the third-gen Echo essentially copped its design almost wholesale from an older device. In addition, the Echo has adaptive sound, so it can adjust to the acoustics of the room in which you use it. I personally didn’t notice dramatic differences in output from room to room, but the speaker sounded good in the various rooms and on the various surfaces I used for testing.The Echo sounds better than the last generation, but how does it sound compared to the direct competition? Google’s $100 Nest Audio, which dropped only a couple of weeks before the Echo, is a solid device. But the Echo simply boasts more power: the Echo’s volume at 85% is about equivalent to the Nest’s max.What’s more, between the Echo’s 3-inch woofer and dual 0.8-inch tweeters, bass and lower-range mids are richer and stronger. Listening to bass-heavy music, like Lil Wayne’s A Milli or Travis Barker’s recent Run the Jewels collaboration, Forever, the Echo keeps the low end thunderous even at high volumes, whereas the Nest Audio ends up feeling treble-heavy as the bass begins to drop out.

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That said, if you prefer more acoustic music, the Nest Audio provides marginally better performance of complex, midrange-heavy songs. Both speakers, though, really capture the texture of vocal-heavy music. The Echo, with its slightly better low range, sounds slightly better to my ear when playing Johnny Cash’s gravelly baritone in Hurt, whereas the Nest Audio sounds slightly crisper in its treatment of Lianne La Havas’s subtle vibrato in No Room for Doubt.As with Google’s new speaker, a pair of Echoes can be set up to work in stereo format. The effect is great, particularly with songs that take full advantage of stereo panning or asymmetric sound, such as The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army or Pink Floyd’s Money. Unlike the Nest Audio, the Echo has a 3mm line in/out port for connecting to other speakers.Both Amazon’s and Google’s smart speakers offer great sound quality for the $100 price tag, but after side-by-side testing with dozens of songs, the Echo takes the prize by a small but significant margin. It’s more powerful, and if you like hip-hop or trap music, the Echo will treat you well. Otherwise, they’re fairly comparable, with the Nest boasting a slight edge when it comes to some acoustic and classical music.A-round the houseThe Echo’s sound quality is admirable, but Amazon has distinguished its midrange smart speaker even more from Google’s Nest Audio and Apple’s HomePod Mini with its built-in hub, which features a Zigbee receiver and Amazon Sidewalk Bridge. If those things don’t mean anything to you, don’t worry. Essentially, Amazon has built in two new ways for smart home devices to connect to its smart speaker.The Zigbee receiver lets the Echo connect with countless smart home devices, from lightbulbs to flood sensors, without the need for an additional hub — the middleman device that translates various types of radio signals so your low-power sensors can communicate with your WiFi network. This small design decision has seriously broadened the range of gadgets Echo users can install in their house without the extra hassle and expense of a smart home hub.I tried installing a couple of Zigbee devices and found the process to be totally painless. This isn’t revolutionary — in fact, Amazon included Zigbee receivers in their $150 Echo Plus and their $230 second-gen Echo Show — but it is bringing better home connectivity to a broader audience, and that’s a clear win for Amazon customers.Plenty of window, flood and motion sensors rely on low-power communication protocols like Zigbee to extend their battery life.
Chris Monroe/CNET
What’s less clear is how Amazon Sidewalk, which Amazon says will launch later this year, will affect Echo users. According to a recent Amazon blog post explaining it, Sidewalk will allow users to “contribute a small portion of their internet bandwidth, which is pooled together to create a shared network that benefits all Sidewalk-enabled devices in a community.”Practically, that could mean a larger functional network for devices toward the edges of your property — say, outdoor lights or Tile tracking devices — or even beyond. It’s a cool idea, though how much you benefit from it will largely depend on where you live, and how big of a change it will represent for most customers remains to be seen.Home theater in the roundThe other home feature I was excited to try with the new Echo was setting up a home theater group. Connecting a voice assistant to your entertainment system feels like a real improvement, if you haven’t done it before. And the new Echo, using Alexa, works pretty well here.I used a 4K Fire TV Stick to create the group, and it felt great to be able to simply say, “Watch The Boys,” to Alexa, only to have your TV turn on and begin streaming the Prime show. The speakers worked fairly well, though I had one drop out of the group while I was testing it. If you have fast Wi-Fi, then it seems this setup would work well. In a house with multiple people streaming or using bandwidth in other ways, although relying on your Echoes for stereo sound might lead to more frustration than it’s worth.Amazon’s Fire TV Stick can join two Echoes in a home theater group in the app in under a minute.
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The other big problem I ran into was streaming music. I expected to be able to stream music as usual from the Echo speakers while the TV was off, then flip it on to stream video when I wanted. Alas, streaming music on the connected Echoes automatically turned on the TV, which scrolled lyrics to the songs. And when I manually turned off the TV, the music also stopped.Using Alexa to control your TV and dual Echoes for stereo sound as you stream is cool — it’s much better than you could do a few years ago. But the kinks still aren’t worked out to the extent I want them to be, so I still wouldn’t recommend picking up new Echoes for your entertainment center unless you have fantastic Wi-Fi and don’t plan to use the speakers for music, too.

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Ball is lifeThe best changes to the fourth-gen Echo might be sound quality and home smarts, but the most obvious change is its spherical design. Of course, this design isn’t some aesthetic revelation: Most smart speakers look basically interchangeable at this point, with a layer of fabric mesh over soft geometric shapes. Google’s recent Nest Audio is vaguely rectangular, and Apple’s soon-to-launch HomePod Mini is similarly spheroidal.The new Echo has a larger footprint, which isn’t ideal for kitchen countertop usage.
Chris Monroe/CNET
The ball-like profile, according to Amazon, enables the improved sound output, but it also comes with a few practical drawbacks — chiefly a larger footprint. If you’re planning to replace the third-gen Echo or an Echo Dot with this speaker, you’ll probably have to slightly reorganize your shelf. It’s a small complaint, but the kitchen countertop is some of the hottest real estate in many homes, and dedicating more of it to a smart speaker might not feel ideal for those of us with limited space.The Echo comes in three colors: the standard charcoal (black) and glacier white, plus a muted twilight blue. That’s a bit more conservative than Google’s array of pastels, but again, many of these aesthetic distinctions feel like minor quibbles.Those criticisms aside, the 2020 Echo feels like a much more worthwhile gadget than last year’s third-gen Echo. The powerful sound and smarts distinguish it from the competition, and with an ever-improving Alexa, buying a smart speaker hasn’t felt this good in years.

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Acer’s new smart speaker is a colorful contribution to the market – CNET

Acer’s new smart speaker will be available in early 2021. Acer If you’re interested in smart speakers, but not impressed by what you’ve seen from Amazon, Google or Apple, there are third-party speakers out there. Acer on Wednesday announced the Acer Halo, a $109 smart speaker with DTS sound, LED display and more.The Acer Halo sits…

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Acer’s new smart speaker is a colorful contribution to the market     – CNET

Acer’s new smart speaker will be available in early 2021.
Acer
If you’re interested in smart speakers, but not impressed by what you’ve seen from Amazon, Google or Apple, there are third-party speakers out there. Acer on Wednesday announced the Acer Halo, a $109 smart speaker with DTS sound, LED display and more.The Acer Halo sits on a base lit up by RGB lighting you can customize. The glowing lights can sync with streaming music, too. That music streams from a speaker with DTS sound designed to project in 360 degrees to fill the room.

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On the front of the speaker’s gray fabric cover, an LED light display provides visual information like weather or time. Acer is working on an app that will let you personalize the message or image displayed via LED.An LED display on the front of the speaker displays information.
Acer
The smarts behind this speaker come from Google Assistant. You’ll use the usual “Hey, Google” voice command to request music, podcasts, news and answers to questions. The Acer Halo is equipped with two far-field omnidirectional microphones to detect ambient noise and voice commands. A physical switch is available to mute the microphones.Acer isn’t the first third-party manufacturer to try its hand at a smart speaker. We’ve seen successful models from Bose and Sonos, among others. The Acer Halo Smart Speaker will be available in North America in early 2021 starting at $109. Its European price of 119 euros converts to about £110 or AU$200. 

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Google smart displays are getting a makeover, dark mode included – CNET

Google smart display interfaces are getting a new look.  Google Smart displays are just a few years old, but updates and redesigns are already in the works. Google just announced a brand new look for the user interface of its Google Assistant-enabled smart displays such as the Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max. Keeping tabs on…

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Google smart displays are getting a makeover, dark mode included     – CNET

Google smart display interfaces are getting a new look. 
Google
Smart displays are just a few years old, but updates and redesigns are already in the works. Google just announced a brand new look for the user interface of its Google Assistant-enabled smart displays such as the Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max. Keeping tabs on your homeThe overhaul starts with several new screens. The home screen now displays a quick glance at your day. In the morning that section is called “Your Morning” and it progresses throughout the day, displaying information like news, events on your calendar and the weather.

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Other new tabs across the top of the home screen will direct you to specific categories. Those tabs include Home Control, Media, Communicate, and Discover. Each tab holds tappable cards and widgets. On the Media page you’ll find music, videos, shows and recommendations. You’ll also be able to see and control what media is playing on other connected devices in your home. Media widgets will be customized to show content from your preferred streaming service. The Home Control tab displays a dashboard of all the connected devices in your home and tappable cards to adjust any device settings, like dimming lights or viewing the doorbell camera.The Communicate tab houses cards for video and chat settings, and the Discover tab displays ideas for things to do with your smart display like playing a game, hear a joke or find a new recipe. Dark mode and ambience settingsIn addition to organized tabs, Google-enabled smart displays are also several new ways to wind down in the evening and wake up each morning.Relaxing ambient sounds are coming to Google Assistant-enabled smart displays. 
Google
With dark mode on, your smart display’s color scheme changes, reducing light emission. You can set dark and light modes to activate automatically depending on ambient light of the sunrise and sunset. A selection of ambient sounds is also coming to smart displays for added relaxation options. A Sunrise Alarm feature is also making its way to smart displays, gradually increasing the brightness of your screen for 30 minutes before your alarm time. You can manage alarms on your display, set different alarms for weekdays and weekends, as well as choose alarm tones. Meetings and calendarsIn recent months, the team at Google improved Google Meet and Duo on smart displays and announced plans for Zoom to come to the device. Now smart displays will be able to link multiple Google accounts, so you can see personal and professional meetings all in one place. You can also cancel or reschedule meetings on your smart display. If you use Google Meet on the camera-enabled Nest Hub Max display, you’ll be able to move around the room while staying in frame. Google smart displays will support multiple accounts for calendars and meetings. 
Google
These new features and the new interface design will be rolling out in the coming weeks to all Google Assistant-enabled smart displays in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Spain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, and US.  

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