Building a Keyboard: Epomaker GK68XS, Akko Keycaps, Gateron Switches 15

Building a Keyboard: Epomaker GK68XS, Akko Keycaps, Gateron Switches

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Introduction

Epomaker Logo

Right after the review of the Epomaker GK96LS was done, the Epomaker company representative mentioned that it supports a lot of different switch options, including some that are not familiar to most people. This is a big selling point of the keyboard, with the hot-swappable switches presented as user-customizable switch choices on a per-key basis. The hot-swap socket has become popular with many brands recently, several of which we have reviewed on TechPowerUp over the course of the last few months. However, there remained the issue that the feature was still a post-purchase modification as most such implementations did not allow for the purchase of a keyboard case and the PCB itself. So when Epomaker asked whether I'd be interested in checking out some of these newer, uncommon switch offerings, I decided to do a keyboard build to explore the process. Thanks again to the company for helping with the parts used in this article!


The original idea was to do a quick-look article of the switches themselves. However, I felt there was more I could do here. After all, they had even offered to send a blank keyboard case to use and test the switches. The entire world of custom keyboards has never been more accessible than it is now with companies putting out kits that are easier to put together than a PC. Indeed, the hot-swap switch socket is a revelation because it doesn't take any solder work to where I hope this article will be part of a series that explores different options beyond boxed products. Sure, there are still plenty of custom mods even here for those wanting to take the extra steps, be it in modded stabilizers, lubing switches with lube stations, and even a Frankenstein's Monster keyboard that mixes and matches components from various switches. For now, however, let's go with one of the simplest and approachable ways—using a few different switches paired with an Epomaker case and Akko keycap set, and let me know if this is something that interests you further.

Epomaker GK68XS: Packaging


As with the Epomaker GK96LS, we see the collaboration with Skyloong for the GK68XS here. The packaging has the Skyloong logo on the front, and there are side and center flaps to keep the contents inside in place during transit. Opening the box, we see a pretty neat fabric carry case instead for the actual case components. Underneath it is a brochure of Skyloong/Epomaker products.


A cardboard compartment at the top houses the accessories that come with the GK68XS, and we see a smaller cardboard box that has a plastic ring-style keycap puller as well as a metal switch puller. I would have liked a metal wire-style keycap puller instead, especially on an enthusiast product such as this one, if only to minimize the odds of scratching the keycap sides when used. A plastic pouch contains a split guide plate for the space bar key that allows for three switches instead of a single long key on the PCB, as we saw before with the Epomaker GK96LS. Kinesis also did put it to good use on their new TKO keyboard. This one has stabilizers on two longer key locations, and a third 1u key spacing on the right. The included keyboard cable in a silver braid is quite nice and goes from a male USB Type-A connector on one end to a male USB Type-C connector on the other, both of which are gold-plated to add some oxidation resistance.


The GK6G8XS case comes inside a soft fabric carry case with a cover that goes under a rubber latch for safekeeping. Unfurling it, we see the case inside a plastic wrap with more Alcantara-like fabric inside. It definitely makes for a premium unboxing experience while retaining a classy look.


Epomaker includes a pamphlet inside the plastic wrap that goes over the safest way to insert the switches and how to replace the stock space bar placement with the split space bar module we saw before.

Epomaker GK68XS: Closer Look


As the name suggests, the Epomaker GK68XS is a 68% form factor keyboard, and it has the case with the PCB integrated to support the design with the entire alphanumeric section, an arrow-key cluster with some additional keys from the Ins-Pg Dn cluster, and no Fn key row. No numpad to be seen here, and this is a popular form factor in the enthusiast keyboard community as well. I have the plastic case variant here, but the company also sells this in an aluminium case version in either silver or purple finishes at a higher cost. The -S variants also support a wireless connectivity option on top of the wired option of the non-S variants, which are otherwise identical functionally. We have the PCB pre-installed for user convenience, and the case has a frosted finish in an otherwise tall profile.


The other side of the case is completely bare with no stickers anywhere, so much so that there is no logo either. The frosted plastic acts as a diffuser for side lighting, and we can see that there is an underlighting option on the PCB that results in bottom lighting as well. There are no keyboard feet to raise here, nor do we see any rubber pads that would get in the way of this clean, single-unit machined plastic case. Instead, small built-in spherical contact pads prevent scratches to the rest of the case while adding some elevation to an already high profile.


There is an inset USB Type-C port in the top-left corner facing away from the user for the cable to plug into, which also charges the internal battery for wireless keyboard connectivity. Otherwise, you will need a spare USB Type-A port on your PC, and USB 2.0 will suffice for power and data alike, although USB 3.2 Gen 1 (USB 3.0) is recommended. At this point, you can start plugging the switches of your choice in. As we can see, the PCB also has a guide plate for where the contact pads for the two-prong Cherry MX-style switch are found.


I did see screws on the PCB, so I simply had to see what's between the PCB and the case. Especially with that teaser of the LED strip for bottom lighting and this being a wired/wireless keyboard case! Two sets of flat Phillips head screws have to be removed here, with the longer set holding the plate/PCB to the case and the shorter set keeping the guide plate on the PCB itself. Once done, you can remove the primary PCB, which reveals the shorter space bar PCB held in place with three screws that also need to be removed to either replace it with the triple-key guide plate we saw before or completely remove the PCB. An internal cable connects the PCB with the battery, which is specific to the GK68XS owing to the battery for wireless connectivity. Once dislodged, we also get a better look at the battery. Epomaker is using a 1900 mAh battery here, which is only just average for such wireless mechanical RGB keyboards in 2021—battery life will be horrible if you have the lighting on.


The PCB is black, and there are a lot of soldered components, including the USB Type-C connector next to several tantalum capacitors. A daughter PCB for the bottom lighting through the case has just been glued to the primary PCB. I do not know if this option is present on their metal case variants, especially as there won't be any side or bottom lighting with those.


Solder quality is very good here, and we can see that this PCB design is specifically for the GK68XS. The Kailh hot-swap switch sockets are the magic behind the easier keyboard build feature, which is in turn compatible with pretty much any two-prong Cherry MX-style mechanical switch. Per key, an SMD5050 LED has been pre-installed for backlighting, provided your keycaps are RGB compatible, of course. There are a couple of older, now EOL, SM16159S hardware RGB LED drivers for the pre-programmed lighting effects and to drive all the LEDs. The GK68XS PCB also has a Cypress CYW20730 Bluetooth 5.1 transceiver for wireless connectivity. As is the norm these days, the PCB has multiple layers.
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