Epomaker has a reputation for some solid budget keyboards like the SK61, but the GK96S is looking to takes things a step further. With a tight layout, hot swappable switches, and a wired/Bluetooth connection toggle, the GK96S has a lot going on—especially considering the $109 price tag.
But while that all sounds great on paper, some issues start to arise as you use the keyboard.
Table of Contents
The first thing that grabs your attention about this keyboard is the key layout. The GK96S uses a 96% layout, which is ideal if this is your first compact board. This layout packs most of the keys you’d find on a full keyboard (except for a few navigation keys) into a compact form factor. You still have the number pad (there’s even a southpaw version that places the numpad on the left side of the board), dedicated arrow keys, number row, and function row, but it eats up much less space.
Considering the relatively small number of keyboards using this layout, it only makes the GK96S more desirable. Especially when you consider the various alternative functions packed into many of the keys (like media and volume controls through the Function row).
When it comes to build quality, Epomaker used a nice, thick plastic shell for the keyboard’s exterior, and it comes in either black or white (mine’s white, and it looks fantastic as you can see above). You might expect plastic to feel cheap, but Epomaker managed to make this keyboard feel surprisingly solid. It will not bend in your hands and the keyboard has a smooth finish, which makes it look and feel great. And when you turn on the RGB lighting, it nicely fills in the spaces between keys with some vibrant colors (although, the light won’t shine through the legends unlike other RGB keyboards). I have no complaints here.
Underneath the board are two kick-out feet alongside some rubber pads to keep the keyboard in place. Besides that, the actual body of the keyboard is featureless outside of the USB-C port located on the top left. Any USB-C cable can work here, so it’s nice Epomaker went the extra mile and included a nice, braided cord in the box.
But speaking of connection, a major feature of this board is being able to switch it between wired and wireless mode at any time. Wireless works through Bluetooth, and you can have the GK96S connected to three devices simultaneously. You can also completely disable Bluetooth with FN + Space if you only want to use the keyboard wired.
When it comes to the battery life, I don’t have any complaints here either. Epomaker states the GK96S is capable of running for around 80 hours with the lighting on, and that’s backed up by a beefy 4000mAh battery. I never got close to burning through this thing’s battery, even after an entire day of use with the brightness cranked up. And if you turned off or even just lowered the brightness, I’m sure this thing would last quite a while before needing to be charged—exactly what you want out of a wireless keyboard.
Overall the GK96S really knocks it out of the park when it comes to hardware. But before we move on, I wanted to note some strange bugs I ran into when using the board. At times, the keyboard would misread inputs and spam certain keys that I wasn’t pushing, which of course caused some issues when typing. This happened in both wired and wireless mode, so it’s hard for me to be sure what’s causing these issues. Because none of this was reproducible, and it only happened a few times in my month of using the keyboard, I don’t want to harp on it too much, but it’s worth noting all the same.
How Does It Feel to Type on?
One of the main reasons people spend extra money on mechanical keyboards is because they feel good to type on, and when evaluating that, there are two major things you need to look at: the switches and keycaps.
The GK96S keycaps are made out of high-quality PBT plastic (there is a more affordable, ABS keycaps set available as well), so they will last a long time. The printing is clear and the splashes of orange and black keycaps give the keyboard a unique look. You’ll also get a few spare keycaps in the box, meant to replace the arrow, delete, and escape keys in either blue or black. The additional functions (such as Bluetooth controls through the number row) for every key are also printed on the keycaps.
That’s definitely appreciated, as I’ve used keyboards with alternative functions before that didn’t do this, and it’s annoying to constantly consult the manual because you forgot which key combination lowers the volume.
Right under those keycaps are the switches, and you have a lot of options here. Epomaker offers eight different switches you can have installed, covering the full range of mechanical switches. My model came with Gateron Blacks, which are nice, smooth linear switches—I’d recommend them or the Gateron Yellows if this is your first mechanical keyboard (unless you want the keyboard to make some noise while typing, then go for the Blue or Green switches).
Typing is mostly great; the only issue I ran into was that a few keys would occasionally feel stiff, which is distracting if you’re in the middle of using the keyboard for an extended period. This is likely because of consistency issues between the switches on the board—while understandable at the price point, it’s still disappointing to see. At the very least, there is a way to fix it if you’re so inclined.
Normally, mechanical switches are installed onto keyboards through soldering. You see this a lot in the custom keyboard community (yes, there’s a custom keyboard community) with people building their own keyboards and then soldering the switches onto them. It’s a great way to make sure you get exactly what you want out of a keyboard, but it’s very time intensive and requires you to own a soldering iron (and know how to use it).
Hot swapping is an alternative to this; this means there are little modules on the keyboard’s circuit board you can slot any hot swap-compatible switches (make sure there two pins on the bottom of the switch) into, no soldering required. It’s incredibly convenient whether you’re new to customizing mechanical keyboards or have been doing it for years. However, I wouldn’t necessarily call it smooth sailing—hot swapping can still be a bit finicky.
While the GK96S comes with a handy tool for removing keycaps and switches, uninstalling a keyboard’s worth of switches is still quite the effort. You have to put a lot of work into pulling and shimmying these switches out of place, which is a pain to deal with (even if it’s something all hot swap keyboards suffer from).
As you can see below, I swapped out a few of the preinstalled Gateron Blacks for some switches I had lying around. I didn’t run into any issues installing the new switches, and the keys still work fine. General issues with hot swapping aside, this is a fantastic feature to have considering the price, especially if you’re into customizing keyboards.
Before we move on though, a fair warning for hot swapping in general: Some of the switches you remove will be damaged in the process. Because switches need to be firmly planted into the PCB, removing them can bend or break the small pins on the bottom of the switch. It’s unfortunate, but there’s no way to completely avoid this (though you can straighten out the pins with tweezers to fix them sometimes).
Extremely Customizable, but Not Easily Customizable
Now that we’ve properly discussed the physical board, let’s talk about its digital side. The GK96S’ software, on paper, offers everything you’d want out of a keyboard program. You can reprogram every key to do whatever you want, the RGB lighting is just as customizable, and you can create in-depth macros. The problem is Epomaker’s software isn’t exactly intuitive—especially in the lighting department.
Let’s start with what the software does right though: reprogramming keys. There’s a wide range of actions you can set the keys to do, whether it’s media controls, opening the calculator, or executing a macro. And the process is pretty simple—just select the key you want to reprogram and then choose what you want it to do. Creating macros is also relatively smooth, and there’s a ton pre-made that cover multiple games like Overwatch and League of Legends.
But if you want to get into customizing the lighting, that’s where the real issues with the program arise. There are some nice touches here like the vast array of preloaded lighting profiles and the option to download any profile to the keyboard’s internal memory so it can be used in wireless mode (something larger keyboard companies don’t often include).
But the process of creating a custom lighting profile is unnecessarily complicated, and it took me a while to figure it out even when consulting the manual.
I figured it out eventually (to save you the headache, you have to have all the settings for the lighting effect selected, including the ones you did not change, before you hit save), but a lack of intuitive design is something from which the entire program suffers. I don’t think you should have to break out the manual because you want to create a simple lighting effect, and other companies like Razer and Corsair have proved that’s possible with their software. But everything from the way it looks to how it operates makes Epomaker’s software difficult to use and harder to learn—it’s by far the biggest issue I have with the keyboard as a whole.
It Could’ve Been More
For $109, you’re getting a great layout, some solid hardware, a long-lasting battery, wireless and wired connectivity, and hot swappable switches. It’s a great package on paper, but unfortunately, the issues start to pile up quickly.
The hardware is mostly great, but the inconsistencies with the switches and strange bugs I ran into bring it down. The messy software is a huge problem, especially because it’s necessary to use it to customize the keyboard. It’s a shame though, because with some better software and more attention to detail this keyboard would be fantastic.
But even then, everything considered, I still think this is a solid if flawed keyboard. The amount of features Epomaker packed in here is impressive, as even many premium keyboards don’t include everything that the GK96S does. Basically, this keyboard, despite the issues, has a lot going for it and I don’t want to underplay that. If you’re willing to deal with the problems, I would recommend it. At the same time, if you’re not willing to ignore these problems, then I think you should stay away.
Here’s What We Like
- Solid hardware
- Good layout
- Long Battery Life
And What We Don't
- Messy software
- Strange bugs
- Switch inconsistency