If you are looking to replace the GRBL controller in your existing CNC/Laser Engraver or looking to build a CNC on your own, then this guide will help you pick the controller you need.
GRBL is one of the most popular CNC controller firmwares out there. GRBL in combination with a CNC controller such as Arduino is what a lot of hobbyist CNC's use.
One really good thing about GRBL is that it eliminates the need for a parallel port on your computer. GRBL passes lines of code via USB. This lets you control it using a laptop as well.
As a maker who's obsessed with CNC's, I tested and examined a number of GRBL based CNC controllers to help build my own custom CNC's for various applications.
I tested and compared the controller boards for various factors such as ease of use, compatibility with other CNC parts, documentation and support, raw power, and overall quality.
I divided my review into two sections. The first section consists of CNC controllers under $100 and the second section talks about CNC controllers costing more than $100.
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The RATTM Motor 3 Axis CNC Controller is my top choice due to its ease of use, high value for money and excellent heat sinking features giving it a long life.
- RATTM Motor 3 Axis CNC Controller-Best Overall CNC GRBL Controller
- Openbuilds BlackBox Motion Controller-Best Premium CNC GRBL Controller
Best Budget CNC GRBL Controllers ( Under $100)
The most value-for-money CNC controller in this list, the RATTM motor GRBL based controller is a good choice for building CNC engravers and laser engravers.
As a GRBL based controller, it runs on the GRBL based Candle Software. It can be controlled from your computer using Universal Gcode Sender(UGS), as expected. This newly updated version also allows running GRBL 1.1.
The RATTM Motor 3 axis GRBL CNC controller runs on input voltage of range 12 - 24V with the recommended voltage of 24V for best operation.
It's important to know the specifications of the stepper motor and spindle that can be supported by this CNC controller.
The RATTM motor controller has a driving voltage of 12V with a maximum current of 2A. This means it can drive a NEMA 17 or smaller motor well, but it is not designed for the larger NEMA 23/24 motors. Actually, you can run NEMA 23 motors but the results are not ideal.
If you are looking to run powerful motors like NEMA 23 and higher, I suggest you look into the Premium CNC GRBL controllers at the end of this list of controllers.
If you are unsure of what stepper motor to use for your CNC application, read my guide on the best stepper motors for CNC
The controller supports a spindle of 24V with 2A current. Spindle PWM speed can also be varied via the controller.
Improving from their earlier models, the enhanced spindle drive in the controller now supports a more powerful spindle with RPM's upto 20,000.
The controller has an added outer casing in order to protect the control board in transit from short circuit. The controller also has an added power switch. A heat dissipation aluminium alloy is also added for temperature regulation.
The housing also encases a fan for cooling. Overall the heat sink on this product is excellent, giving the board much higher life.
The offline recognition mode is an added feature. Computer, as well as offline controllers, can be inserted at the same time and the offline recognition automatically identifies if a computer is plugged in.
This controller can be used in a laser engraving setup and most users report favourable results when using this controller for laser engraving.
It is compatible with operating systems such as windows XP/7/8/10, which makes it quite versatile.
Since GRBL sends code via USB, the controller also has a USB interface. The USB interface has been upgraded to make it into a plug-in type with a much stronger build, resolving the issues with the USB in earlier models.
To use this controller you need to buy a 2.5mm-5mm jack DC Power Adapter that's rated at 24V DC for optimal performance. The power adapter is not included with the controller.
With the Arduino Nano (Atmel 328P) at its core, this controller has PWM control for both the laser and the spindle. this controller offers good short circuit protection, giving it a long life.
- Highly reliable with excellent reviews overall.
- Balances price, features, and quality of components.
- stepper drivers are built-in. The stepper drivers on this controller work fine for the range mentioned, but if you're looking to go higher than the rated Amps with a bigger separate stepper driver module, then this is not what you need.
Note : If you are looking for an offline controller along with the control board, RATTM Motor offers it as a bundled buy as well-RATTM Motor GRBL Control Board and Offline Controller.
The longruner CNC controller kit is different from other controllers in this list that it is an Arduino and Shield combination unlike the others where everything is integrated into a single controller box.
This kit has the Arduino board (ATmega328), CNC Shield, and stepper drivers separate.
This means there is a bit of initial tinkering required to get your settings right, however, it also gives you the freedom to use other stepper drivers if you decide to upgrade without changing the control board.
Interestingly, this kit also has 3 NEMA 17 stepper motors bundled with everything else. Unfortunately, Longruner does not sell a kit without the motors in case you already have the motors with you or want to use other motors.
Consider the fact that 3 NEMA 17 stepper motors are included in the kit when you compare the price of this bundle with the other controllers, which do not come with motors.
The manufacturer recommends an input power of 12-36 V DC for the CNC shield. However, the Arduino board can be powered via USB (5V DC). The shield needs the extra power for the stepper drivers and motors.
Note that the Arduino UNO board in this kit is referred to as longruner board by the manufacturer, which is actually an Arduino clone.
The CNC shield in this kit has the RAMPS 1.4 board design, originally designed as a part of the RepRap project.
The RAMPS 1.4 design means that the shield has all the sockets and ports you need to smoothly connect everything you need, including up to five stepper motor drivers, six end stops, an SD card reader and a display unit.
The CNC shield supports four-axis motion, unlike the other controllers in this list that support 3 axis only. This shield allows you to either clone any of the X,Y,Z axes to use as the fourth one or even have a true fourth axis (XYZA) without cloning.
Thus this kit can be called as a budget Arduino CNC 4 axis controller.
Thus this kit is designed as open ended as it could be for people looking to play around.
This kit includes three DRV8825 stepper drivers, which is an upgrade over the A4988 stepper drivers that power most of the other integrated controllers in this list. This also means it can take 2.5A of current, unlike the A4988 which can only theoretically run currents of 2 Amps.
If you want help on which stepper driver you need for your CNC, check out this guide I wrote- Stepper Drivers for Every CNC Application
As for software, this controller kit has Arduino at its core making it automatically compatible with GRBL. However it is only compatible with GRBL 0.9 and not GRBL 1.1 unlike the other controllers in this list.
This kit does not have an offline controller in it, however you can buy a GRBL compatible remote separately and use with this.
The kit also comes with brackets, mechanical switch end-stops, cable, and 4 aluminum heat sinks along with the various screws.
Lastly, this product has a good after sales service. They usually respond within 24 hours to any query.
- Open-ended design lending customisability
- Upgraded DRV8825 stepper drivers
- Can support up to 4 axes.
- Supports GRBL 0.9 only
The Beauty Star GRBL based controller is a highly popular CNC controller board that has an offline remote hand controller bundled with it.
The controller supports 3 axes and is suited for a tabletop CNC engraver or laser engraver. It does support the latest GRBL 1.1 version.
The bundle package comes along with a USB cable and a 1G SD card along with the controller board and the offline remote controller. This product has an easy setup and functionality without any glitches. This makes the beauty star controller useful for quick projects.
The offline controller has LED lights installed on it and an intuitive axis button for easy change of axis. This offline module makes it easy to home the spindle without using the PC.
The offline controller also has options for file engraving. Codes can be written into the root directory without the use of a computer .
The Beauty Start Controller has the A4988 stepper driver in it. The stepper drivers are built into this controller as well, with smooth compatibility up to NEMA 17 motors. Although the manufacturer claims it can work with a NEMA 23, I don't recommend it.
- Supports GRBL and universal g code sender
- USB connection
- Uses 5.5 - 2.5mm DC power interface
- Atmel 328P master chip
- A4988 stepper motor drive
- MOSFET spindle drive chip with highest 60V ( recommended level of 48V 10A)
- Supports stepper motors 12V 2A
- Easy setup
- Comes along with SD card 1G
- Offline controller
- Cannot upgrade stepper drivers.
The ICROATO GRBL 1.1 controller comes with 3 axes control with a rated input power of 12-24V (24 V preferred). The controller works well with operating systems like windows xp, 7,8 and windows 10.
You can get going on this controller right after you install the GRBL firmware through the USB input. Although you do need to have/buy a DC power input adapter for this control board as the power jack is not included in the bundle.
The controller has spindle PWM support and the power for it comes straight from the distribution board rather than from the control board. It comes along with motor drivers.
The controller can support up to a 12V 5A laser .
The good quality USB cable and control board makes it easy to work with and connect to the controller. The controller comes with features like an E-Stop button and limit switch button.
This board has a good heat sink design, preventing the board from heating up even during heavy cutting tasks. This has resulted in a long product life for most buyers of this controller.
With the stepper driver built in, this controller can obviously do microstepping, however you need to calibrate your steps ratio when operating it for the first time.
- Presence of E-STOP and limit switch button
- Step ratio has to be calibrated
The Sainsmart controller is the most economical option in this list of controllers.
It runs at an input power of 12V/4A, unlike most other controllers in this list which run at 12-24V. This makes this controller suited for a small CNC/Laser engraver.
it is important to understand the limitations of this controller. While it can smoothly drive an 18W laser, it gives mixed results for lasers that have a power rating higher than 18W.
This controller houses the A4988 stepper motor drivers and can thus power up to a 1.5A motor.
According to the documentation of this controller, it supports NEMA17 and NEMA23 stepper motors with phase current less than 1.5A. Although I don't recommend buying this controller for stepper motors higher than NEMA 17, as it might be underpowered.
Unlike most other controllers in this list which have the stepper drivers welded to the board, the stepper drivers on this board can be replaced by simply unplugging it and replacing it with a new one.
The controller runs on GRBL 1.1 and uses universal Gcode sender to communicate with a computer.
The controller is also equipped with a maximum support 400W DC spindle motor along with a fan interface and TTL signal output interface.
The power supply voltage can be varied depending on the load but comes with 12V 4A as standard. The controller also supports probe interface, 3 axis limit interface and DC 005 2.0 power interface.
The manufacturer of this controller, SainSmart is a popular CNC maker and has documented the product well. Due to them being a big brand, they also have a responsive after sales support team.
- Stepper drivers can be upgraded
- Can power only small CNC applications
Best Premium GRBL CNC Controllers ($100+)
The xPRO V5 is really the monster CNC controller in this list. In terms of specs, performance and ease of use it is much better than the other controllers, however this obviously comes at a price. The xPRO V5 is also 4-5 times as expensive as the other controllers in this list.
xPRO V5 can be powered by a 24V DC power input. Your best bet is to buy the Meanwell 24V/14.6A power supply bundle along with the xPRO V5.
To start with, the controller is one single box with everything built out for you to just plug and play.
And when I say plug and play, I do mean it. There's very little to do with the xPRO V5 before you can get started.
Plug in the 24V power supply and you're good to go.
xPRO V5 runs on GRBL Esp32, which is a rather new version of GRBL. This is a regularly updated version of GRBL with excellent compatibility with most GRBL senders and post-processors.
The Esp32 is not just a difference in software but hardware as well. The Esp32 board is an upgraded version of the Arduino Uno.
Esp32 packs considerably more RAM and Flash with a 32 bit board compared to the Arduino which is an 8 bit microcontroller.
Most importantly it has built in wifi and bluetooth support which is its most distinguishing feature. This means, you can operate your CNC from your computer or even your phone through wifi without using a USB.
This controller supports 4 axis motion with either a true 4th axis added or a clone of any of the XYZ axes.
The stepper driver on this is the Trinamic TMC5160 which can drive motors up to 6 Amps. The 2-2.5A stepper drivers on the other controllers pale in comparison.
TMC5160 is a step up from the highly popular TB6600 stepper drivers as well.
This means it can drive even high-torque NEMA 42 motors with ease and blaze through NEMA 23 motors with its high driving current.
You can hook up to 2 motors for each of the four axes in this controller and that lets you connect up to 8 motors in total on this single controller. This lets this controller do heavy cutting jobs with ease.
It offers 1/256 microstepping unlike most steppers in this list which offer only up to 1/32 microstepping (DRV8825).
Almost all laser bundles and spindles are supported by this controller. It uses a 0-5V PWM signal to drive most lasers and small spindles.
For driving the VFD's and larger laser modules it uses the 0-10V analog signal, making it very convenient.
The xPRO V5 does everything that the other controllers do and more in a much better way.
Additionaly it uses the latest USB type C for fast connectivity. The xPRO V5 also has a built-in heat sink and temperature-controlled cooling fans.
This controller is powered by a 32-bit processor wrapped in an ABS case with integrated cooling.
The xPRO V5 comes fully assembled and programmed with XYZ probe input, integrated relays, E-Stop switch, and power switch.
In terms of what this controller can do for you, the xPRO V5 can most 3 axis CNC mills with dualdrive motors and 4 axis CNC Mills with a rotary table.
The documentation for the xPRO V5 is quite good with their github wiki page detailing everything you need to get things done.
An Ohio based US company, Spark Concepts has very quick response times and after sales service for this product is more than satisfactory.
If you are looking for a plug-and-play type CNC controller with the power to do almost any DIY CNC work, and you don't mind paying it a bit extra for the convenience and power, then the xPRO V5 is for you.
- Extreme power and versatility to do any task
- Plug-and-Play without initial setup time
- Pricier than the other economy options in this list.
- Buyers can face a waiting time as the product is not always in stock
The Openbuilds BlackBox is another premium option similar to the xPRO V5, having a very similar price.
Unlike the xPRO V5 which runs on GRBL Esp32, the openbuilds blackbox runs on GRBL 1.1, which is the standard version these days when it comes to GRBL.
With Toshiba stepper drivers that can run 4A motors, the BlackBox controller performs very well on NEMA 23 motors in a CNC. By this I mean high torque NEMA 23 motors and not the normal NEMA 23 stepper motors.
For comparison, the performance of the stepper driver on the BlackBox is much better than the TB6600 which is another stepper drive by Toshiba ( A Japanese company).
The stepper drivers on the BlackBox allows up to 1/32 micro-stepping compared to 1/256 on the xPRO V5.
The whole controller is built as one box with an almost plug-and-play setup. However, it does have a bit of an assembly required which could take around 30 minutes to setup, unlike the xPRO V5 which is ready to play from the get go.
The assembly is very simple with detailed instructions from openbuilds and clearly labelled parts.
Compared to the xPRO V5 which can accept Gcode through wifi, the blackbox passes Gcode only via USB as expected from a GRBL 1.1 controller.
Users of BlackBox can take advantage of its seamless integration with OpenBuilds CONTROL which is the Machine Interface Controller software from Openbuilds, which is a better software than Universal GCode Sender in many ways.
Openbuilds Control has built in calibration tools for axes, surfacing toolpath wizard, XYZ probe library and an easy to use GUI for changing GRBL settings.
One major advantage of the Openbuilds BlackBox over the xPRO V5 is the highly active community around Openbuilds products. Almost any question/issue that could arise from a potential buyer has been asked and answered in the forums by their team of makers.
So, if you are someone who prefers a community around the product to engage with, then Openbuilds is a good choice.
Openbuilds also has highly responsive after-sales support where they walk you through any issue you face to find the solution.
If you ask me whether I'd go with the xPRO V5 or the Openbuilds BlackBox, I'd say it's a tough choice. But I'd give a slight edge to the BlackBox due to the much better community support (ecosystem) which is very important in my opinion.
The OpenBuilds BlackBox is a powerful GRBL controller that's capable of running almost any hobbyist CNC/Laser Engraver/Plasma Cutter. Combined with excellent documentation, support and community makes it highly popular among hobbyists looking to build something more powerful than the run of the mill 3018 desktop CNC.
- Extreme power and versatility to do most tasks
- Highly active community around the product
- Pricier than the other economy options in this list.
- No WiFi support
Whichever CNC GRBL controller you choose to go with, ensure that it is compatible with the rest of your CNC setup including stepper drivers, stepper motors, spindles, and power supply.
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