Today we are bringing you a review of a mechanical, full-sized compact, wireless and hot-swappable offering from Epomaker, the GK96S. Epomaker are the people who have brought us the ever-popular compact 60% entry keyboard, the GK61. The Epomaker GK96S is their take on the compact version of the full-sized 1800 layout. If you want to learn more about this form factor, there is a guide about the compact full-sized layout here. If you want to learn about mechanical keyboards in general, we have a comprehensive mechanical keyboard guide that can be accessed here.
Picking up the box, the first thing we noticed was the weight of the package itself. There’s a heft to it that you would not expect from an entry mechanical keyboard. For those of you who are into the custom mechanical keyboard scene, you will know the heaviness that comes from a full CNC’d aluminium case. While not at the same weight bracket, it’s still noticeable, and to us, this is a good sign.
The packaging of the box itself is on the minimal side. There is the “SKYLOONG” logo emblazoned on the top of the box. While it is on the larger side, it is by no means gaudy and is still simple and minimal. There is some additional branding on the sides and at the bottom of the box, but still on the minimal side. Exactly the way we like it here at Minimal Desk Setups.
Opening the box itself, the keyboard is wrapped in a plastic sheet to protect it from being damaged. This is a nice touch and one that shows care and attention to the smaller details from Epomaker. The additional tools that come provided are tucked away neatly in the back compartment, saving space and additional material that would otherwise be required to hold the tools.
Contents of package
The contents of the box are fairly minimal but contain everything that you would need for your first mechanical hot-swap keyboard.
- GK96S Keyboard (including switches, keycaps and hot-swap sockets pre-installed)
- USB-C Cable
- Keycap and Switch Puller Tools
- Instruction Manual
- Additional Accent Keycaps
Build Quality and Feel
Holding the keyboard in the hands, you can feel the weight that you felt when picking up the box. As mentioned before this is a good sign, it shows that Epomaker has chosen to go with the thicker plastic design for the case. And you can see it as well, the case is made from thick plastic, thicker than what you may see in some other mass-produced keyboards. Acoustically, this gives the keyboard a richer sound when typing. Physically, this gives you confidence it won’t break on you even if you mash away at the keys.
Aesthetically, the keyboard is very simply adorned and designed. There are some simple angles on the sides and the back of the case, and this gives the keyboard a nice touch of depth and character. There is no prominent branding on the visible faces which is a very nice touch. A lot of companies will put their branding on some visible face of the keyboard, but this may detract from the clean aesthetic if not executed properly. This is not the case with the GK96S, there is no visible branding and having a white case colour, it remains clean and minimal. On the bottom of the keyboard, you will find the height adjustment feet and a label with the serial number. Once more, not a lot of branding at the back and this is all in theme with its simple and minimal design.
The keyboard (not including switches, keycaps and stabilisers) is composed of only 4 parts. The case, PCB, plate and battery (for wireless connectivity). The plate is made from aluminium, which is a hard material, and will give a solid feel when typing. The plate and PCB are screwed into the case in a configuration known as tray mount. This configuration along with the hardness of the aluminium plate is known to result in a stiff typing experience with little or no flex with each keypress.
The keyboard is simply and sturdily designed, we can’t find much to fault here with the case construction and visuals. It feels solid and heavy for a keyboard constructed from plastic. The choice of white case colour further highlights its clean and minimal visuals. Along with the simple angles on the sides and front, this gives the keyboard character and makes it stand out amongst its competitors that choose to go for the box design.
Full sized but compact
Immediately, the first feature that you will see is the compact layout of the keyboard. It takes the full-sized 1800 layout and gets rid of all the spacing between the key clusters. This makes the keyboard about 35% (from Epomaker) less than its full-sized cousins. You now get the versatility of all of the keys of a full-sized keyboard but in a smaller form factor. We love this design as it’s different from the compact 60/65% keyboards that we often recommend, and it allows us to maintain full functionality in that compact form factor.
Bluetooth and USB-C Wired
The GK96S comes with a USB-C port to both charges the 4000 mAh battery, and use it as a wired connection. The large battery means that you can type confidently for days through its Bluetooth 5.1 connection, all without the worry of running out of juice. The GK96S can connect up to 4 devices at once and can quickly switch between any of the devices at any given time. This is a handy feature as it brings multi-tasking to another level. Working on different platforms is now easier, and you don’t have to invest in separate hardware or expensive solutions such as KVM switches.
Dual Mac and Windows System
The GK96S comes with dedicated Windows Keys on the left-hand side of the space bar and Mac Keys on the right-hand side of the space bar. This allows you to seamlessly switch between different operating systems without having to reprogram the keys, saving time and increasing efficiency. Most keyboards can be used between macOS and Windows, but the bottom row modifiers do not take into account the different arrangement and functionality. To circumvent this issue, one option is to remap the keys every time you switch Operating Systems, which can become a hassle and is time-consuming. The alternative is to have a dedicated Windows and macOS keyboard, but then this takes up room and costs money. Dedicated keys on either side of the spacebar is a new and smart way of tackling this issue.
For most keyboards in this modern era, keycaps are interchangeable and allow for endless aesthetic customization. However, the GK96S comes installed with Kailh Hotswap sockets, this means that you can now easily swap out the switches on the keyboard as well. Don’t like the feel of linear switches? Pull them out and replace them with tactile ones. Want a different weight? Pull them out and replace them with ones of your preferred weight. This allows everyone to enter the custom mechanical keyboard world without having to pay the premium price of entry.
Fully programmable via software
The GK96S comes with software that allows you to map the keys to your preference, program the RGB light effects and update the driver software. The large mainstream manufacturers of keyboards often provide software with their keyboards as well. However, they are usually limited to customization of light effects and assigning macros only, and even then, you will be limited to which keys you can assign them to. The GK96S software lets you do all that plus allows you to use what is known as Layers. Layers allow you to give every single individual key secondary, tertiary and quaternary functions. By using a combination of the FN and other keys you can now, quickly control music, change RBG effects and run macros amongst other functions, which increase your productivity and efficiency.
The physical typing experience is on the stiffer side with the “harsher bottoming out” feel. This was expected with the tray mount configuration and aluminium top plate. However, we did feel this was offset slightly with the Gateron Black Switch spring weight. They have a bottom-out force of 70g and is a linear profile, there is a slight cushion as you press down which does give a sensation of a softer typing experience. The switches are unlubed and this can be felt on the keypress, particularly at slow speeds. However, at normal typing speeds, the unlubed nature of the switches will not be noticeable. This can be adjusted quickly as the switches are not soldered in and with the right tools, the switches can be lubed to give that smoother typing experience.
Acoustically, the sound is on the higher and slightly scratchy side. The high pitch is most likely coming from the GK1 profile of the keycaps and the hollow space inside the keyboard itself. For those that prefer a richer and deeper sound, some foam in the bottom of the case will help dampen the sound a little bit. Swapping out the keycaps to a different profile will also have an effect. We have found that a cherry profile keycap does give a deeper sound when typing. The scratchy sound can be reduced by lubing the switches but this can be a time-consuming process.
The stabilisers are factory lubed and this is very appreciated and a nice touch. Unlubed stabilisers are known for generating a very annoying rattling sound when using the larger keys. This can, and most likely will, detract from the typing experience. Most manufacturers will not provide lubed stabilisers and accessing the stabilisers to address this issue, by yourself, may not be an easy task. The construction of the keyboard may make it impossible to access the stabiliser without having to dismantle and desolder the parts. This is difficult and a time-consuming task, as you will have to reassemble and solder everything back together again when you are done. Epomaker providing lubed stabilisers solve this issue and take the hassle away from having to even consider it. The lube amount is just about right, as the larger keys do not struggle to return to their starting positions and pressing them does not result in a ‘mushy’ feeling.
The RGB and Software Experience
With the keycap being thick PBT, it was clear from the start that the lights were not going to illuminate through the keys. The keyboard gets a very subtle glow as the casing of the switches is also translucent.
Very subtle and quite dim even at full brightness. The hardest part about judging the RGB experience was actually understanding how the software works. Without the software, the keyboard comes with 5 default RGB modes which you can cycle by pressing FN+ – (minus). The default modes are quite adequate in most cases, but if you want to customise the experience you have to use their software which is downloadable from here. The software packs heaps of features, but for us, it was a bit confusing to use at the start and quite unintuitive. Without reading the full in-depth instructional manual provided by Epomaker, navigating the software would be a very difficult task for anyone. However, with that said, the features that the software provides are quite holistic. You get full control of the RGBs on any key as well as a large range of Preset Macros for games like Dota or LoL.
Comparison with other boards
Compared directly with the Keychron K2, the GK96S is on the large side. The K2 falls into the compact 75% category, missing the Numpad section of the keyboard. This means that it will take up less space and is certainly a much more attractive option for those who are looking to save space. Another difference comes from the material of the case, the K2 offers both plastic and aluminium, whereas the GK96S only comes in a plastic variant. Both keyboards come with Gateron switches, ABS or PBT keycaps and similar plate mounting profiles. Furthermore, both keyboards offer wireless connectivity with macOS and Windows support. There’s really not much to separate the typing experience of both boards and we feel that it comes down to how much space do you have and whether or not you need that Numpad. There is also a difference in the pricing as well with the K2 starting at $69 USD compared to $109 USD for the GK96S.
Straight up, both of these boards look nearly identical. They both are roughly the same size and key layout. Both keyboards offer wireless connectivity and support both Windows and macOS layouts. Typing experience-wise, they are both very similar on the stiffer side due to the tray mount configuration. Further typing differences will come from the different switches that they use. The GK96S uses Gateron switches and the F96 uses Cherry switches, neither switch has a distinct advantage over the other. Looking closer, we can see that the case design is different with the F96 coming in an industrial and aluminum box design compared to the modern angles that come with the GK96S. The keycaps will also look different with the F96 coming with PBT Cherry profile keycaps (which is one of the most commonly found profiles), and the GK96S using its own unique ABS/PBT GK1 profile. Starting at $209 USD it is on the more expensive side, but the materials used are on the more expensive. In this instance, we feel that the final decision comes down to what aesthetic and material that you would prefer for your setup.
The Epomaker GK96S is a very strong competitor in the entry mechanical keyboard market. It is mass-produced but it takes a lot of cues from the custom mechanical keyboard scene. Thick PBT keycaps, lubed stabilisers and full customisation of each key to name just a few. The compact but full-sized layout will appeal to those looking to save space but still retain full functionality. We love anything that’s clean and minimal, and the GK96S ticks all the boxes. We would have no issues having it in our setup!