Epomaker is quickly becoming the enthusiast keyboard firm to watch, having delivered one of the best pre-mades money can buy with the GK68S (reviewed here) earlier this year. Not content to rest on its laurels, Epomaker has returned again with the GK96S, one of the most impressive keyboards we’ve seen this year and with a surprisingly budget price. It features a space-saving 96-key layout, full RGB and macro programmability, your choice of PBT or ABS keycaps, left-handed versions, Bluetooth, and more. Starting at $69 on Kickstarter now, is it worth your pledge?
The GK96S is a unique keyboard in more ways than one. It’s layout is compact yet fully functional. It’s incredibly stylish. The keycaps are high-end (note: I tested the PBT version) and feel great under the fingers. It’s also the rare keyboard that offers a left-handed version! Add Bluetooth 5.1 with a large 4000mAh battery, hot-swappable switches, and native Mac support and you have a keyboard that’s not just well priced, but feels like a steal.
If you’ve never tried it, the 96-key layout might look a little funny, but it is my hands-down favorite. In essence, it trims any spare space, pushing the numpad right up to the alpha cluster and moving the editing and navigation keys above that. The only sacrifices are that Home, End, and Insert are now secondary functions on the number pad. You’ll also find that the keys to the right of the spacebar have been squished down to 1-unit each.
In practice, what this means is that you have all the functionality of a full-size keyboard in a package that’s little larger than a standard TKL. If you’re the kind of gamer who needs a number pad but also appreciates the extra desk space of a compact board, this is a layout you’re likely to love.
The GK96S takes things up a notch by trimming the board in a stylish array of black, white, and orange keycaps. Depending on your pledge, you can choose between all black and white, PBT or ABS, but it’s worth the extra $10 to upgrade to PBT. The caps Epomaker uses are their own GK1 profile which are sculpted to cradle your fingertip and feel great to use. They’re also thick-walled and dye-sublimated, so the legends will never fade and they offer a solid, satisfying typing experience. Remember how I gushed about the keycaps on the Corsair K100? Only downside is that they’re not backlit, but the RGB creates a beautiful bed underneath the keys that still lets you see the legends, even in the dark.
Compared to the GK68XS, some of the savings is clearly found in the case which is plastic this time instead of aluminum. I tend to prefer heavy, CNC machined cases but this one feels solid, without a lot of empty space within. The board also features a metal mounting plate for the switches, which helps it maintain a decent heft. Still, it’s more lightweight than many of my keyboards, which makes it my go-to board for throwing in a bag and taking with me on the go.
It also helps that the GK96S offers wired and wireless connectivity, making it easy to use with mobile devices, laptops, PCs, and Macs. It comes with a nicely braided USB Type-C cable and connects wirelessly with Bluetooth 5.1, The connection process never hiccuped or dropped. I was also impressed to find that I could quickly swap devices, writing an article on my work PC and swapping to my laptop with a quick key combo and almost no delay at all in between.
For gaming, the keyboard is excellent. It offers full programmability, including multi-layer support through the same software suite used by the GK68XS. You can create multiple layers to supply unique layouts for individual games and then save them to onboard memory. The numpad makes a perfect macro cluster for MMORPGs. I also found it useful when working in spreadsheets and with repetitive web forms.
Some other cool features it brings to the table are hot-swap switches, with your choice for optical or mechanical (the optical version is called the SK96S) and pre-lubed stabilizers. There are multiple switch types available for each, though the breadth of options in the mechanical world is far greater. If you do go optical, you’ll have your choice of linear, clicky, and tactile options and be able to enjoy a theoretically faster gaming experience thanks to the lack of debounce delay. The version I was sent featured optical switches, and replacing them was easier than ever since there are pins to align (opticals use a prism, so it’s all light-based). Hot swap is really one of the best features available in keyboards today, completely allowing you to change the feel of your keyboard for far less money than buying a whole new slate.
That said, pulling the caps out caused scratches all over the plate. Even taking extra care, there was no way to avoid it. It’s nothing you can see when the keycaps are installed, but does make it look a bit less clean than I like when changing switches or blowing out dust.
The stabilizers are also excellent. They’re plate-mounted, which isn’t as highly regarded as expensive screw-in stabs, but Epomaker has done a great job of lubing the stabilizers. There’s no rattle at all, which makes me wonder if they didn’t go they extra step and dampen them as well.
Taken as a whole, this is a tremendous keyboard and even more so if you’re a lefty. The southpaw version is one of the best nearly-custom mechanical keyboards you can buy right now and it’s good to see a company finally offering a number pad to left-handed users. I’ve ever seen some right-handed gamers opt for it because of the extra mouse space that version offers on the right side. That said, you should know that the southpaw removes the physical arrow keys. Epomaker appears to have some solutions in mind with allowing other keys to double as arrows, but it’s something to keep in mind.
If you’ve followed this site for a while, you probably know of my love for mechanical keyboards. I currently own around 50. I share that so you understand that I have no need to buy another keyboard. And yet, I like this GK96S so much — its lightweight body, its reliable wireless, its awesome color scheme — that I’m picking up a second one just so I can have one at work and another to swap mechanical switches into. I am simply floored that a board this good is selling as cheaply as it is. If you’re at all interested, I encourage you to check out the Kickstarter. Pledged boards are set to start shipping in December.
The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.