Some years ago I began visiting friends who actually enjoy coffee, so I started drinking it to save them making tea just for me. One day the bloke acquired a second hand stove top espresso maker called an 'Atomic'. These things might look like an elegant sculpture but in reality it was a miniature method of producing proper espresso, then foaming milk, that worked on a similar principle to a big cafe machine.
They eventually gave me their old electric one cup coffee machine that worked on a similar principle. I read some instructions and made... STUFF. It looked a bit like coffee, and it was sort of drinkable, but barely better than instant. So I began reading and trying a few other similar coffee makers.
Then one day I tried something different. All the instructions for all the boiler type coffee makers say NOT to tamp the coffee. They also suggest you let all the coffee run through into the collection carafe.
Another thing I read was that ideally coffee should go through at about 30ml in about 25-30 seconds. Now, 30ml is not a lot of coffee. 30 seconds is quite a long time. If you don;t tamp the coffee you can get about 300ml of thin watery stuff out of these things in 30 seconds.
I tried it. I got a cheap alloy tamper and pressed down firmly, polished off the top of the grounds as I had read, then popped the filter thingy into the coffee maker. Turned it on and waited for something to go bang. After all, there must be a reason why you don;t tamp, right?
All went well however and in 30 seconds I had about half a cup of something that for once tasted like strong bitter coffee. So I measured 30ml and marked a glass, set a timer for 30 seconds, and pressed harder on the tamper. That went well. I got about 35ml of dark liquid with a thin, fine golden foam over the top. I tasted it. Instead of bitter, it was more or less sweet, and the taste lingered in my mouth half an hour after I tasted it.
I was hooked. A friend had visited and seen what I was up to and he had dropped in a Krups 871 he'd had for about 20 years. Nobody had been able to make a decent coffee with it. I tried it and WOW! It also made great steam, and I started playing with milky coffee drinks. I also got a grinder and played with settings. Before long a few friends had decided the coffee in my kitchen was nicer than the coffee at the local cafes.
But coffee is a personal thing and becomes a bit of a hobby. I am on a very tight budget and I was trying to make nice coffee. Eventually I found a Breville 800ES for $10 in a second hand shop and a spare Krups 871 for $15 in another. The Breville was about $850 new. It was old when I got it, but a couple of years of continuous use and it is still going. I've heard bad reports about them, but I would buy another.
Then the frustration began. I tried the pressurised basket in the Breville, but hated what I was getting. I replaced it with one of the Krups filter baskets. That gave me what looked like perfect coffee with the ideal amount of golden crema on top and it tasted pretty good, but not the same sweet stuff the Krups boiler machine gave me.
Now, it is possible to make coffee and steam milk at the same time with the Krups 871, which has a steam knob, but not with most other boiler machines like the little Sunbeams. You can;t do that with the big Breville 800ES. You make coffee, or you steam milk. On the other hand, the Breville is a great source of hot water and steam for other things, like chocolate, or fluffy omelettes.
So now I use both. I turn on the Breville, put the portafilter from the krups into the Breville, then grind the coffee and tamp it. Then I run some hot water through the Breville into a cup to heat the portafilter and the cup, Turn the Breville to 'Steam" setting and take the portafilter, pop in the basket of coffee, put it into the Krups and turn it on.
Empty the water out of the cup and put it on the Krups, then steam milk on the Breville. By now the Krups 871 is dribbling coffee into the cup.
Watch the stream of coffee. That is the second trick with ALL these little boiler coffee machines.
1 - Tamp the coffee firmly, so you get about 35ml in 25-30 seconds.
2 - Watch the stream. As soon as you start getting big air bubbles, take out the cup, and put something else there and turn off the machine.
3 - OPEN the steam knob to release pressure. Release the lid carefully after a while if you need to make another cup, but do it SLOWLY because the steam remaining can rip your skin off.
4 - Get a burr grinder, something like the Sumbeam 480 is cheap. Get Robert Timms beans if you want a smooth coffee, and something like Harris if you like bite in your coffee. Grind on about setting 8.
There's another thing common to all machines. Most come with a froth enhancer for making foam. If it comes off - take it off. Learn to make foam, not froth. You do this without the enhancer.
It is a good idea to go to a proper coffee shop and get an espresso and drink it with no sugar occasionally. Then go home and make a few with your machine. Eventually you'll get something more or less right. You probably won't make top quality coffee with a cheapish home machine and packaged beans, but you can make something very close.
I have never yet tasted anything that was like real coffee from a pod machine. I was tempted to get one, but so far they all taste more or less like instant.