cheezeerider, you are NOT going to find a better smoker for the money than a 30" MES. Insulated cabinet, digital temp control, external wood chip access, internal cabinet stainless. Your only option is to build and by the time you finish you could easily be over $400. I faced the same decision build or buy, and while I have most the tools, and old customers who owned sheet metal shops, I decided the best bang for buck, and for me at the time was the 40". Why the 40" over the 30"?
After the decision to buy vs build was made, choosing a 40 over a 30 and paying double the price was the next decision. Rather than look at the money I focused on what I wanted.
► Be able to smoke enough ribs for a party of 30-40 people, we do 2 or 3 big bbqs a year, and ribs is always featured at least two of them.
► I wanted to lay ribs flat or not have to cut or roll them to fit. The 40" model allows you to put a whole rack of ribs either flat or stand on side in rib racks. I use rib rack when smoking 9 or more racks of ribs.
► Overall capacity, Being able to smoke ribs, whole chickens, a whole turkey, brisket, etc, all at the same time, or having a shelf available to smoke appetizers while waiting for the main course to finish was important.
► After carefully reading the SMF electric forum at that time almost 3 years ago, Though most 30" owners were happy with their MES, the most complaints came from 30" owners, it appeared that 40" owners were really happy with their purchase and using their MES. I still believe this, but it is a gross generalization.
If your smoked Q is good, you will be asked to smoke for more than just your family. The MES hasn't made me a better cook, we all know that its the cook not the cooker that makes better food, but the MES makes the cooking easier, so I can concentrate on other things to make a great meal. I just did my son's wedding rehearsal dinner for 40, while the ribs were smoking I prepared 4 or 5 other dishes, the only thing I had to do with the MES was put wood chips in, the MES managed the temp and times for me, making the cooking easy. If I had to tend another smoker always tweaking the temp, the smoke, hot/cold spots, etc I couldn't have done as much other work required to make the evening a success.
Last point there are many great products you can buy for smoking your meat, but the MES for the home smoker is as simple as it gets that can deliver quality Q.