Review: Glowforge Aura | Zero2Billions

Laser cutters are nothing new, but Glowforge has a long history of adding something the category sorely lacks: Ease of use. Today, the company announced Aura. Smaller, cheaper, and even easier to use than its larger sibling, it’s perfect for education, crafts, and light prototyping work.

Carrying a price tag of $1,199, the Glowforge Aura can engrave wood, leather, acrylic, paper, stone, metal, and other materials. The company doubles its ease of use by offering specially selected materials for the machine. The built-in camera reads QR codes, and the correct settings for cropping, printing (i.e. marking but not completely cutting) and engraving are selected automatically by the machine. Of course, you’re not limited to materials provided by Glowforge, and you can use the machine’s built-in settings as a starting point for your own crafting projects.

Aura can be expelled through a window, or paired with an air filter so it can be used indoors. The air filter automatically pairs with the Aura, and turns itself on to expel smoke and vapor from the device while it is running. At least, that’s the theory – in practice, I filled my apartment with smoke several times when the air filter failed to turn on.

The air filter is great when it works. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very consistent, and I found myself sitting in a puff of wood smoke, wishing it had only a manual “on” button as well as its smart features. The button that looks like an “on” button, isn’t it. Image Credit: Kamp Haje / Zero2Billions

After a dozen back-and-forth emails with the customer support team, they sent us a new air filter—which worked more consistently, but also failed to turn on for a few cuts. Not ideal, but the team assured me that a software update would make the air filter more consistent over time. This issue also showcases the downside of having a “foolproof” system meant to “just work” – if something goes wrong, I’ve never found a way to manually activate the air filter to get the smoke out.

Update: Shortly before this article went live, I got an email from Glowforge CEO, Dan Shapiro, who let me know that they listened to my feedback, and put in place how to run the air filter manually.

“We just implemented your suggestion: if the printer is not connected, the button turns green and can be used as a button to toggle between power off, medium, and full,” Shapiro emailed me. “It should serve as a backup in case anyone in the future ends up here again. That update just came out so all new owners will have it.

On the right side of the photo, contrast to the chair: It was… more smoke than is comfortable in my apartment. Image Credit: Kamp Haje / Zero2Billions

The built-in camera mentioned above makes the machine almost very easy to use. With web-based control software, you can see exactly where you will be cutting, and position your material accordingly. The software lets you choose the type of cut you want to make, along with the order of the cuts — in my experience, engraving and cutting the inside of complex designs before cutting the outline of the molding is usually the best way to go.

The problem is that the camera isn’t super accurate. I’ll get back to it when I try to carve the phone case in a minute, but even using Glowforge’s official Proofgrade materials, there are quirks. Below, you can see the rabbit I tried to cut; the software thought I was fine, but when cutting, the beastie’s fingers were dangling from the edge. That meant I had to reprint part of it, wasting material.

Trying to cut the rabbit near the edge, but deep inside… Image Credit: Haje Kamps / Zero2Billions

Over the years, I’ve used tons of different laser cutters, and most of them have one thing in common: They’re incredibly powerful, but also incredibly difficult to use. Some of them need to be focused manually; others need to be carefully configured through trial and error every time you use new material. Aura didn’t have this problem.

The Aura Glowforge is for laser cutters what Cricut is for vinyl cutters: Professional users used to more industrial machines will be disappointed. Aura has limited flexibility and cannot be used for as many use cases as it used to. Overall, the Aura has all the pros and cons you’d expect from a craft-grade kit. The thickness of the material is limited, so if you want to laser engrave something one inch thick, you may be out of luck.

I’m also having trouble with materials that, in theory, fit inside Glowforge. I tried engraving a phone case with a laser, for example, but on the first few attempts, the laser shot from the side of the case. After a fair amount of trial and error I was able to get things setup and calibrated as expected. However, if part of Aura’s target audience is students and builders, a phone case seems like a pretty obvious choice.

I tried a tiny one millimeter test score to see if the laser was producing the right power. Funnily enough, Aura tried to cut about 10mm beside her target area, time and time again. Image Credit: Kamp Haje / Zero2Billions

Finally, I asked Aura to draw a circle around the Apple logo on my phone. The alignment is off, but other than that, it looks like the laser isn’t focusing properly (the lines should be much thinner than that), resulting in one broken leather phone case. Womp-womp. Image Credit: Kamp Haje / Zero2Billions

The professional in me was annoyed that the Aura lacked the “outline print” feature found on professional lasers: It would make the laser perform a low output pass outside the print area. It won’t mark the material, but it does show if it’s aligned correctly. I was also annoyed that I couldn’t find a way to manually focus the laser.

Still, whining about these limitations is working against the Aura – it doesn’t pretend to be a professional tool. In its press materials, the company describes it as a “craft machine,” and positions itself as a replacement for craft cutters: Replacing the razor blade with a beam of light, essentially.

Glowforge’s software comes with a number of great fonts for creating stencils. In the foreground: One of the functional pieces I made with plywood, dowels and wood glue. Image Credit: Kamp Haje / Zero2Billions

Time will tell if the positioning works, but I suspect it’s no coincidence that the company is trying to downmarket: The advanced amateur market is covered by the original Glowforge engine; $7,000 Pro, or $5,000 Plus. Neither of those price points are hobbyist-friendly, and the $1,200 price point puts it well within the reach of the makers, hobbyists, and crafters who see the need to create repeating patterns quickly.

Glowforge Aura also works with the Magic Canvas functionality I covered a while ago, which even removes the need to be able to design your own prints. Magic Canvas turns simple descriptions into real art forms like hardwood jewelry, slate coasters and more. Perfect for craft markets and working on projects with kids, Magic Canvas can produce custom clip art in many different styles, making crafting more accessible than ever.

In reviewing the kit, I played around with a number of different materials, but in the end I cut out a lot more paper than I expected, and used the paper as a spray paint stencil. I also cut out some functional parts that I was supposed to 3D print, but I realized that stacking plywood with dowels and wood glue to hold it all together made parts that were stronger and quicker to manufacture — not to mention more resistant to heat — than parts made with a 3D printer.

The Aura Glowforge isn’t the cheapest laser cutter out there, but it packs a lot of ease-of-use and safety features into a relatively affordable package. The teenager in me really wished these things existed when I was a teenager; it would be so much fun to learn to make and get creative with one of these.

Aura goes on sale today, and can be purchased direct from Glowforge, or available through various retail channels.

Related Articles

Back to top button