Hi Cartmanizm and welcome :)
firstly let me say that there are a lot of opinions here and most people (like me) have owned 2 or 3 machines in their life so take their (and my) advice with a grain of salt! Theres nothing wrong with getting opinions from everyone, but in the end I would definitely recommend going to a showroom and playing with some machines. If you tell the sponsor beforehand youre from coffeesnobs theyll usually make a time to show you through their machines and give you feedback on whats good and not.
There are also some good deals at the moment on pretty good combos if you look at the sponsors pages such as here, here and here!
Now, a question:
Originally Posted by 0B293A3C252926213225480 link=1331820350/0#0 date=1331820350Do you want a full auto or not? Theyre a completely different beast, and your best full auto coffee may only equal your average manual coffee. They require a different amount of cleaning and maintenance, have more electronics, motors & microswitches, and are harder to service yourself (should you want to in the future).Maybe some pre-set buttons for Cappacino, Latte and Cafe Machiato would be good
I would direct you to either a heat exchanger (HX) or a dual boiler, as one of these set up right will deliver you endless (almost) steam and coffee at the same time.
A minimum grinder would be a Compak K3(T), Macap M4(D) or Mazzer Mini (E) - doser or doserless. My favourite being the Macap for its superiour timer. They range from $450 to $1100, price not necessarily showing the "best". Its more important to splurge on the grinder than the machine so if you can, look at a bigger burr set than these. Although you may not want to for your very first in case you give it in ;)
Finally, save ~$100 for a good tamper, plus some cleaning cloths, group head brush, microfibre cloths for the steam wand & cleaning the chrome, maybe even some silicon "skinz" to stop the scratches, a couple of different sized milk jugs, and even a set of good cups (rather than the assorted mugs in my drawer!). Plus the weekly / monthly delivery from your local fresh roaster. If youre going to use supermarket beans, then dont even bother spending $500 on the machine :P
Hope that helps :)