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Nestle Nescafe Dolce Gusto Mini Me review: Near cafe-caliber espresso drinks without all the hassle

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The mechanism to insert a pod should feel familiar if you've used a pod-based coffee machine before. To insert a drink capsule, you lift the locking lever and pull the capsule tray out of the machine. Now drop in a pod, slide the tray back into the slot, and pull the locking lever back down. This causes a sharp needle to drive into the drink capsule and puncture its seal. It's a good idea at this point to confirm you've set the water level correctly -- recommended settings are shown both on the capsule face and retail packaging.

The most basic beverages the Mini Me makes are a shot of espresso, cup of Americano, or an 8-ounce mug of coffee. All these options require just one coffee capsule plus necessary tank water. Moving the water switch to the right and releasing it commands the machine to push hot water under (according to Nestle, under 15 bars of pressure) into the capsule. Brewed coffee then ruptures a foil seal on the capsule bottom, escaping into your cup.

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Dolce Gusto coffee capsules are small and made to simulate espresso-style coffee. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The whole process takes a short 36 seconds which is lightning quick compared with other pod-style coffeemakers. The Starbucks Verismo produced 8 ounces in 57 seconds, while the Keurig K500 took a shorter 49 seconds. Even the supremely flexible Bunn MyCafe MCU's swift completion time of 42 seconds was not quite as brief. That said, the majority of Dolce Gusto coffee pods create a mere 4 ounces of liquid (if used as directed) and not a full 8-ounce coffee cup. Also keep in mind that the Verismo pumped out a shot of espresso (2 ounces) in just 13 seconds. Regardless, all these devices delivered a hot drink in under 60 seconds. Nestle's own Nespresso VertuoLine , however, took its sweet time (1 minute, 51 seconds).

As for the quality of brew you can expect from the Mini Me, if you're an espresso connoisseur you won't be blown away. Compared with the genuine article, or even fresh drip or French press, there's just no competition. Once beans are ground, their quality degrades substantially in hours. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of roasted versus green coffee beans. True coffee flavor simply can't survive within grounds for months merely because it's wrapped up in an airtight module.

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The Mini Me makes decent espresso-like drinks. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

That doesn't mean the Mini Me doesn't do an admirable job of slinging very drinkable espresso-style beverages -- it does. Most of the coffee drinkers in our appliance reviews office, myself include, were pleasantly surprised by what the machine served up.

Even though certain aspects of Dolce Gusto drinks I sampled had an artificial twinge I didn't care for, especially ones with lots of frothy milk, I prefer the coffee from this machine over K-Cup brew. The Starbucks Verismo system packs the most real coffee essence in pod form, but the Dolce Gusto is pleasantly satisfactory.

My refractometer tests reflected what I tasted, with TDS (total dissolved solids) figures coming in at a high 2.2 percent. Granted this reading was produced with Dolce Gusto Lungo espresso capsules exposed to a scant 4 ounces of water. Opening up one of these pods myself confirmed that packed within is 0.2 ounce of finely-ground coffee. This is a hair less than the 0.3-ounces you get with a standar K-cup. That said, K-cup brewers typically call for 8 ounces of water. That usually translates to a diluted brew with TDS falling within 0.8 to 0.9 percent; the ideal TDS percentage should be between 1.15 and 1.35 percent, at least for standard drip coffee.

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The Dolce Gusto Mini Me tries its darnedest to deliver cafe-style coffee. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Conclusion

When I first got my hands on the Nescafe Dolce Gusto Mini Me, I wasn't too impressed. Sure, for $100 it promises delicious espresso-style drinks without all the headaches, expense, and waiting around usually involved. Of course, many coffee-pod appliances have made the same claim. To my surprise, the Mini Me does in fact have some solid coffee-making abilities, and it makes drinks quickly.

That said, I don't like how the Mini Me is limited to only Nestle's Dolce Gusto branded beverages. For single serve cups of coffee, the $169 Bunn MyCafe's flexibility to make coffee either through K-Cups sold by third parties or using your own grounds, keeps that device on top. Of course for better performance in the flavor department, the Starbucks Verismo rules the coffee pod roost. Keep in mind though that jumping onto the Verismo wagon costs more, with 12-packs of espresso pods priced at $11.95 (compared with 16-packs for $10 on the Dolce Gusto side). Of course the Mini Me is a good alternative to Nestle's own Nespresso VertuoLine ($299) which is pricey but offers a similar level of coffee taste.

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