I was so excited when I heard about the Glowforge Aura. I’ve had access to a Glowforge Pro at the school I work at, and knew laser cutting had enormous craft room potential if they could get the price down.
And they did. But not enough to make it worth recommending.
The Glowforge Aura is an innovative machine that cuts and engraves wood, leather, cardboard and dark acrylics up to 1/4″ thick. However, it has a weaker laser and lacks critical functionalities present on other machines, which combined with its hefty price tag makes it a poor buy.
I want to take this moment to emphasize that this post was not sponsored in any possible way, not by Glowforge or any of the other companies mentioned in this post.
All laser-cutting products and accessories were paid for with my own money, and my (admittedly strong) opinions are based entirely on my own experiences.
That said, there are affiliate links throughout the post, both to products I do and don’t recommend. I receive a small commission if you use them, with no additional cost to you.
Glowforge Aura Specs and Implications
I always scroll past this section when reading reviews, but don’t do that here! I’m only going to talk about the important ones, promise.
First off, the Glowforge Aura is a diode laser, not a CO2 laser. Honestly, I don’t really know the technical difference between these two things, but it’s important because diode lasers are significantly weaker than CO2 lasers.
Diode lasers cannot cut anything clear. That includes glass and clear/light acrylic. They’re also a lot slower.
However, any laser cutter at the $1000 price point is going to be a diode laser. CO2 lasers start around $4000, so this is only a deal-breaker if you were hoping to buy the Aura primarily for cutting light acrylic.
Secondly, the Glowforge Aura is a 6-Watt laser. This mostly affects the speed and cut depth – higher watts move faster and cut deeper.
This is the first red flag of the Glowforge Aura. Most $1000 diode lasers are 10-watt machines.
I wouldn’t consider this a deal-breaker either though – I have a 10-watt machine as well, and truthfully as a casual crafter I don’t notice a huge difference in speed between the two.
Glowforge Aura Functionalities
The Glowforge Aura can cut wood, leather, dark acrylics, cardboard, and paper. It can engrave a much larger list of things, including wood, leather, metals, fabric, stone, ceramic, and more.
The Glowforge Aura cannot cut vinyl, light acrylics, or glass.
So if you were hoping to get this as an upgrade to a Cricut, it’s not there yet. Which is an important thing to note, because the Glowforge Aura’s main competitor (the xTool M1) comes with a blade that CAN cut vinyl.
And as someone who is Not A Cricut Person (tm,) having the ability to dip my toes into vinyl crafts without buying a Cricut is a big plus.
The size restrictions on the Glowforge Aura are also worth mentioning. It has a 12″x12″ bed, and can take materials up to 3/4″ thick.
It also has a passthrough slot that can handle materials up to 12″ wide and 1/8″ thick. And that thickness is a hard limit – I put a 1/4″ thick piece of plywood through and it did not go well.
The Glowforge Aura advertises that it can cut up to 1/4″ thick on one pass. I’ve never managed it on one pass for either leather or wood, but it does get there with a few passes.
It’s unlikely to cut deeper than that though, if you’re thinking that you can just keep doing passes forever to cut through 1/2″ or 3/4″ materials.
I had that misconception, but did a ton of experiments with 1/2″ plywood and found that multiple passes have diminishing returns.
Glowforge Aura Performance
When the Glowforge Aura works, it works well. It cuts what it’s supposed to cut, engraves what it’s supposed to engrave. I made a very nice lanyard and accompanying badge holder as my first two projects:
The problem is that the Glowforge Aura doesn’t always work.
Or, more generously, the learning curve is bumpy and a new Aura user will do something mildly wrong, and then spend 30 minutes troubleshooting before actually getting to their project.
At least, that’s how it’s gone for me.
Let me tell you about my sagas.
For my first and second projects, I worked in a garage and then on my porch respectively. Turns out, the Glowforge Aura doesn’t like sun.
For the garage project, “something went wrong” during the calibration process, so I went and ate dinner. When I came back, the Aura worked again. I later found out this was probably because the direct sunlight made it too bright for the camera to function properly.
The porch project was a bigger deal. The arm of the laser kept getting stuck during calibration, and was concerning enough that I actually emailed support.
You hear all about it in this Youtube video, but after a 3-day back and forth with support it eventually worked again without any major interventions.
I’m still not really sure what went wrong, other than maybe when the Aura gets too warm something deforms a bit and the arm gets stuck.
(Also worth noting – the support people have access to all the pictures your Glowforge’s camera takes. I was a little creeped out by that.)
I accidently put something too large through the passthrough slot. It fit comfortably – I didn’t think I’d done anything crazy until my cut came out strange.
Regardless, the passthrough slot apparently has a 1/8″ thickness limit. I put a 1/4″ piece of plywood through, and ended up with this:
As you could probably guess, it’s supposed to be a circle where I’d drawn the circle.
I couldn’t figure out why the cut lines on my lanyard weren’t cutting. The decorative engraving printed just fine.
As it turns out, in the Glowforge app, if your design is even a little bit outside of the printable area of the machine, the app will just ignore it.
Which makes sense, but wouldn’t it be nice if there was a pop-up or something that told you your design was outside of the printable area?
There is not, so instead you just get to spend 30 minutes googling until you figure out why your lines aren’t printing.
You could chalk all of this up to the learning curve, as I haven’t really had any major issues after the first three projects or so.
But a better product wouldn’t have this learning curve.
I find it especially appalling that the Glowforge Aura is marketed as “easy to use,” when in fact it’s fairly finicky.
Glowforge Aura Software Considerations
The Glowforge Aura operates through a web-based application. The upside of this is that there is no physical connection between your computer and the machine, so you can operate it from a desktop computer as well as a laptop.
The downside is… well, there are many downsides.
1. The Cloud-Based Glowforge Software is Slow
In order to operate the machine, you upload your design into the app, then hit “print.” Your computer sends it to some server somewhere (Seattle, maybe?) which then sends it back to your Glowforge.
Fine. This is how the internet works. Not a shocker.
But it takes forever. In the meantime, your Aura is “calibrating,” where the laser dances around pretending to do something for 30 minutes.
I don’t know if it’s actually doing something, or if Glowforge just wants you to feel better about the 30 second processing time, but regardless, it’s annoying. See for yourself:
And it’s unnecessary. I also have the xTool M1 (see my comparison here,) which has a hardwired connection between the computer and the machine. When you hit print, it’s ready to go instantaneously.
You might be thinking that this isn’t a big deal. What’s 30 seconds at the beginning of a project?
The problem is that you often have to do multiple test cuts before your real cut, both to make sure you’ve aligned everything properly and to make sure you have the right settings if you’re not using special “proofgrade” material purchased from Glowforge.
Each one takes 30 seconds of processing time, even if the cut only takes 10 seconds. It adds up.
2. The Glowforge App Lacks Features
When you open up the Glowforge app, you’re met with this screen:
First, I want you to notice how many things have a purple lightening bolt next to them. All those features are behind a $50/month paywall.
Yes, you read that right. $50 a month. Ridiculous.
Without purchasing premium, you can A) resize your image, and B) rotate your image.
With premium, you can also add text, make some basic shapes, flip your image, and make your design into a puzzle.
Handy, but not worth $50/month.
Lets pretend Glowforge Premium was free for all. What else would I like to see to give a positive review of the app?
The main thing would be the ability to separate pieces into different layers. In the luggage tag above, what if I wanted to engrave those inner ovals instead of cut them like I’m doing to the outside of the shape?
At the moment, I’d have to open my file in some other program, change the colors of the ovals, and reupload the file into the Glowforge app, because there’s no way to separate those ovals from the outline cut once I’m in the Glowforge App.
3. Cloud-Based Software puts Glowforge In Control
The final reason I don’t love the app is more philosophical, but I’m going to mention it anyway.
If you’re a Cricut person, maybe you remember a few years ago when Cricut tried to put a limit on the number of designs you could upload a month. Any more than that and you’d need to pay $9.99/month to use your machine.
There was mass outrage, and Cricut backtracked quickly.
But anytime you’re working with a cloud-based software owned by the developer, this is a risk. And while Cricut walked back the policy, that’s no guarantee that Glowforge would do the same if they ever chose to go that route.
All-in-all, you’re safer going with something run on downloadable software, which you can always opt not to update if this happened.
Is the Glowforge Aura Worth it?
If the Glowforge Aura was truly the first of its kind and did not have any similar competitors, I’d say go for it. I have a lot of complaints, but at the end of the day I can still make the cool wood and leather projects I wanted to make.
But the Glowforge Aura wasn’t the first of it’s kind. It was the second. And I was unhappy enough with it that I went and bought the xTool M1 after a few weeks.
I’ve kept them both, because the Glowforge Aura is all the rage right now, and when I post projects here I need to be able to give settings estimates for the Glowforge.
But if given the choice, I always do the bulk of the work on the xTool M1. It’s faster, easier, and I can make last-minute edits to the project file in the software itself, which is a big time saver.
It also does more things, which you can read all about in my comparison post.
So, ultimately, I don’t consider the Glowforge Aura to be worth it. It’s slower and more expensive than its competitors, and uses cloud-based software that locks critical features behind a paywall.
I’d recommend taking a look at your other options, and seeing if they make more sense for you.