If you've ever been jealous about coffee drinkers' ability to wake up to a freshly brewed cup of joe thanks to the automatic timers that are almost standard on coffee makers, you'll probably love the Breville BTM800XL Tea Maker (Est. $240). This tea machine really is fully automated: All you have to do is load the steeping basket with tea leaves and program a start time, water temperature and brew time, and then go to sleep. Come morning the steeping basket will automatically lower into the hot water, starting the infusion process, and your tea will be ready and waiting when you get up. If you're not quite ready to get up, the Breville BTM800XL has a setting to hold the tea at temperature for 60 minutes at a time.
The Breville automatic tea maker took top honors in a prominent test kitchen's evaluation of tea machines; testers noted that the well-perforated steeping basket is a key feature for getting a good brew. It also draws a pile of rave reviews from users who declare it idiot-proof, and say it'll brew the best tea of your life.
You can select from pre-programmed settings for specific types of tea (black, green, Oolong, etc.) or program your own custom brew settings, which the machine will remember for next time. If you'd rather boil water for noodles, breakfast or even blanching vegetables, you can remove the tea steeper and use the Breville BTM800XL as a 1.5 liter (6.3 cup) electric kettle.
There is some back-and-forth discussion between users about how easy the Breville automatic tea maker is (or isn't) to clean. Since the carafe has integrated electrical components, you can immerse it or run water over the exterior; however, Breville recommends not using soap to maintain the integrity of the tea flavor, and say that it actually improves tea flavor over time. They recommend you merely rinse it with warm water. If there is scale build-up, it can be cleaned more thoroughly using a water and vinegar solution. All other accessories are dishwasher safe.
One feature everyone does seem to agree on is the Breville BTM800XL's attractive styling. The glass-and-steel construction looks so good that frequent users say they're happy to display this tea machine on their counter. They also love watching the magical-looking operation as the brewing basket, controlled by magnets, slides silently up and down a narrow column inside the kettle. A few plastic-hating reviewers are unhappy at the little bit of plastic in this tea kettle, but what little plastic does contact the water is BPA-free.
Although the Cuisinart TEA-100 Tea Steeper and Kettle (Est. $115) doesn't do as many fancy things as the Breville Tea Maker, users still love it for being a good, solid tea machine that helps make the brewing process foolproof. Think of the Cuisinart kettle as a coach that helps you brew the perfect pot every time. You program the water temperature and steep time, but instead of raising and lowering the steeping basket itself, the TEA-100 emits a loud beep that prompts you to do it. Early risers, be warned: some say that beep is so loud it might wake other family members or neighbors that prefer to sleep in.
Even though it doesn't have as many bells and whistles as the Breville Tea Machine, users praise the TEA-100 for being a sturdy, affordable alternative to the Breville. There are a few quirks that draw some complaints -- chief among them the fact that the lid doesn't come all the way off the steeping basket, which makes both filling and cleaning it a challenge -- but in general, users love the TEA-100's great glass-and-steel looks, overheat/boil-dry protection, sturdy construction and dishwasher-safe accessories. (As with the Breville, you should not wet the bottom of the carafe itself.)
Like the Breville Tea Maker, the Cuisinart TEA-100 can be turned into a regular electric kettle (just remove the tea infuser) and it has a keep-warm setting that'll hold your tea temperature for 30 minutes at a time. Both machines are great deals, so the main question boils down (pun not intended) to deciding whether you want a machine that'll do everything on its own -- in which case we recommend you go for the Breville Tea Maker -- or one that will help you brew the tea perfectly yourself, in which case the Cuisinart TEA-100 is a great buy.