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Scott's Column
Espresso Machines, Epson Workforce 1100, OSX Update

July 4, 2011
By Scott Lewis

This month we go off the technology trail and look at espresso machines. Well, there is technology in making good espresso. I also introduce you to the best printer $129 can buy. We'll finish it off with a quick update on OSX running on my space PC.

Current Topics:

Epson Workforce 1100 Wide Format Printer

I finally got a printer. I always like having one handy. I was in a bind. I needed to print my taxes. Turbo Tax told me that I had to print my taxes and mail them because of the forms used. It told me this on April 12th. Yikes!

I gave the Turbo Tax disc to my ex-wife, so I would have a tough time going to a friends to print my tax forms. So I did a quick search online to see what was available at Best Buy. I did not like anything their web site listed as being available in store. With so few days to tax filing I could not wait for a printer to come by mail.

So I checked OfficeMax and Office Depot. As it turns out OfficeMax had an HP LaserJet Pro P1102w personal laser printer with wireless and network capability... for only $99. This would make a great printer to go along side a really nice Photo Printer. I really want to get the Epson R3000, but it costs over $800 and I did not have the money for that.

OfficeMax also had an Epson WorkForce 1100. This is a wide format inkjet printer that can print on paper up to 13 x 19... the same as the R3000. However, this printer is billed as an office printer. It was also only $129. For a printer targeted to the office space, it did not have Ethernet or Duplexing, and only paper handling up to 150 sheets.

Well, I don't mind any of those things. I read reviews of each printer on PCMag (Epson Workforce 1100 and HP LaserJet Pro P1102w). Both did well enough for me. I was especially taken by this statement about the Epson:

Both text and graphics quality are a small, but noticeable, step better than typical ink jets can manage, and photos are in the top tier for ink jets.

I thought to myself, what if this printer was good enough for most of my photographic work, and then I could send out the really important stuff for professional printing. I recalled an episode of The Art of Photography podcast. In this podcast Ted Forbes says he does some of his own printing... with a $100 printer. He also says not to get caught up in those printers with 6 or 8 colors.

I decided to try out the Epson Workforce 1100. I did ask the store if I could return it if I just didn't like how it printed. They said I had 14 days to return it.

Well, I printed a picture that first night... and I loved it. There is no way I am taking this back.

This printer prints photos much better than the last photo centric print I bought over 10 years ago.. for $400.

Now I am on a mission to work on a few photo projects.

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Espresso... and Coffee Too

Last month we left off that I wanted to get an espresso machine. Before investing a lot of money in an espresso machine I thought I should start with just being able to make better coffee. In the early parts of my espresso research (and on Alton Brown's espresso episode on Good Eats) the idea came up to use a French Press. This is an easy choice and they are quite affordable. I bought a Bodum 32 oz French Press. This will make enough coffee for two large mugs. Perfect for my needs.

The French Press works well enough to make coffee that has flavor, and does not taste like the crap that comes out of drip coffee makers using Folgers. In the past I would always add so much sugar and dairy to coffee it was like the coffee was just a medium to get me to drink the sugary milk. The milk and sugar were the primary items for flavor. With the French Press and properly ground coffee beans I was able to enjoy the first cup of coffee in my life... black. That's right, I drank it black... with no sugar or milk or syrup or honey. Just coffee. This affirmed that I was on the right path. And the cash outlay so far was only $115 (we'll get to the break down of that later).

Now I was on a mission to get an espresso machine. The more I read the more it became apparent that the grinder is at least as important as the espresso machine... maybe more important. One web site said that you can make better coffee with an good grinder and a cheap espresso machine, but the best espresso machine cannot make up for a bad grinder. I thought I found a good grinder... until I read the reviews. Wow... people complain like crazy about this stuff. Are they crazy. Or are they all as obsessive as I can be. I saw what looked like a really nice grinder for just over $160... and it got some nice reviews... and it got some horrible reviews. I will not mention brands here, since I did not test these grinders myself.

I found one site that said there was only one brand it could "mildly" recommend for under $200, and even then it would prefer to recommend people save their money and spend more. I think I found the grinder I now want... and it costs $450. There is no way I can afford that right now... so I bought a hand grinder. For $50 I have an excellent grinder that is extremely consistent. It is a Kyocera CM-50 CF Ceramic Coffee Grinder.

This manual grinder has no way to set it specifically. So I painted some markings on it so I could have settings. The threaded piece has 6 notches for the lock ring to engage. This means I can set the accuracy of the grinder in 1/6 turns. This is called a step grinder, as apposed to a stepless grinder. In the manual arena this is good enough. In the long run I would prefer a stepless grinder.

So, with my $50 grinder modified with marks for settings, it was time to get an espresso machine. I spent a lot of time reading reviews by both real reviewers and customer reviews on many sites. It is daunting to say the least. I could not find a machine that got universally good reviews. Yes, there were some that received very high praise, but they still had their opponents that found something bad... about the machine, the service from the manufacturer, or something.

In researching how good do I need... I stumbled on an issue. I was looking in the $300 price range. I thought I found a really good machine. Then while looking at models in this price range I came across a kit to modify the portafilter (the handle/basket setup that holds the coffee grounds) to be a non-pressurized portafilter.

At the lower end of the espresso range, espresso machines have a pressurized portafilter. This allows the machine to be more tolerant of poorly ground coffee. Which goes back to the need to spend a lot of money on a grinder.

This caused me to raise the bar and look for an espresso machine in the $600 range. At this price range you get non-pressurized portafilters. You also get higher quality plumbing internals that will allow the machine to provide more stable water temperatures. One of the many key elements to good espresso is the temperature of the water. Inexpensive machines will use plastic for the internal plumbing, rather than brass or other metals that are sturdier and less prone to heat changes.

While looking at these higher end machines I found that ideally you want a machine that has two boilers. One for the espresso and one for the steam used to prepare your steamed/frothed milk. Since the espresso and milk use different temperature water... it pays to have two boilers with each one set to the appropriate temperature for the task at hand. With a single boiler you cannot steam milk and pull shots of espresso at the same time. Granted, if you only have one set of hands you are only doing one task at a time... but the key with two boilers is that you start a shot, then steam your milk while the shot is pouring. Then you can just stop the espresso pump with only a minor pause to your steaming milk. And the temperature for each is hopefully ideal.

To get espresso machines with two boilers starts to push the price range over $1000. Ouch!

Knowing I could not afford any of these machines I decided maybe I should make sure I really want to do this. I saw a review of the Delonghi EC155. This is an espresso machine for only $80. And it seems to get a lot of favorable feedback... especially for the price.

I am not telling you to run out and buy this machine. But... if you are not sure about espresso then this is a great starter machine. You can start learning the ritual of making espresso... the grind, the amount of coffee, the tamp, the time, etc. etc. It is likely you will not get great espresso out of this machine, but you should be able to get your technique down so that you can get good espresso. And if you are mostly interested in milk based drinks (machiato, cappachino, cafe mocha & lattes) then this is a very good machine.

I was able to create cappachinos better than Starbucks within the first two bags of coffee beans I bought.

I did get some accessories with the machine. Some would be necessary, others not. I will cost out the necessary item here:

Delonghi EC155                              $79
Kyocera CM-50 CF Ceramic Coffee Grinder     $49
Bodum Chambord Coffee Press - 32 oz.        $39
Art Milk Frothing Pitcher                   $17
Digital Food Scale                          $29
Water Kettle                                $24
Tamp                                        $ 6

The food scale and kettle I picked up at Target, and were nothing special. But you do need them. You need to weight your coffee in the portafilter. And you need some way to boil water for the French Press (though I could have used a pot).

I did not include other little things I picked up, like cups and saucers or shot glasses from a local liquor store (they have the lines on them so you can easily see how much espresso you are getting). With a total cash outlay for the above items running $243 this is much more affordable than even the $300 machines I looked at... that still used a pressurized portafilter.

Next month we will continue this discussion on how I make espresso. I am not good enough that I would call myself a barista... yet. I can make cappachinos that taste at least as good as Starbucks. But we will get to that later.

In the mean time know that it is possible to get good espresso at home. However, I am lusting after that $1,000 machine and the $450 grinder. Those will have to wait a while.

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Mac OSX Snow Leopard Revisited

When last we visited my secondary PC it was running three operating systems... Snow Leopard was running as version 10.6.5. However, the latest version is 10.6.7.

When I installed Snow Leopard on the 320 GB drive I had a problem with 10.6.5 crashing when I plugged in my USB thumb drive. This is the same problem I had with 10.6.7 that I let Apple install as part of its own update.

To get around 10.6.5's crashing issue I installed the Retail DVD (10.6.3) then copied the files from the thumb drive to the OSX desktop. Then I installed the 10.6.5 update from there... without the need for the USB drive.

Once I was finished I was able to use the USB drive without any issue. So... I thought maybe this same method could work with Apple's own update to 10.6.7.

Here we go again. I booted from the iBoot CD. Swapped in the Retail DVD of Snow Leopard (10.6.3) and installed it. I copied all the supporting files I needed from the USB drive to the OSX desktop. Then I let Apple update the computer. Finally I installed MultiBeast and the nVidia & audio drivers.

Everything came off without a hitch. So now I am running a truly "vanilla" install of OSX Snow Leopard, version 10.6.7, from Apple themselves... with minimal hacking.

I even bought a game for it. A friend recommend Spore, so I picked up a copy of it for the Mac. This will give me an excuse to use it.

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Conclusion

That's it for this month. I have been very busy lately. I moved at the end of May, have a visit form my best friend form New York, then followed that up with going to NY for my brother who had to have a heart procedure.

All in all I am looking forward to the summer slowing down a bit.

But... I have a new project in the works. I'll tell you a little about it next month.

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