Ever had the urge to replace the switches in your keyboard only to chicken out at the last minute. Trust me, you’re not alone. Desoldering and replacing switches in a traditional mechanical keyboard requires knowledge, tools, patience and soldering skills that not everyone possesses. While it would be beneficial to learn the soldering/desoldering process for future projects, there’s a quick and much easier solution that anybody can use to change switches without any type of specialized equipment: Hot swap sockets.
Today I am reviewing the GK64, a fully aluminum mechanical keyboard that makes use of hot swappable sockets for practically effortless switch replacement. Continue reading to see just how simple…
Disclosure: My review sample of the GK64 was provided by Banggood.com. This is not a sponsored post. I was not given monetary compensation to write this review, though I do participate in affiliate programs which pay percentage based commissions if you follow my affiliate link and make a purchase. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this product review are my own.
What’s in the Box
The GK64’s packaging is very plain. A basic black box with simple logo embossed on the top and a couple of SKU stickers placed on the back. Other than the sparse info provided on those stickers there’s no product details or specifications of any kind listed on the box. Also note my package arrived in terrible condition (see photo below).
It suffered some obvious abuse from the courier during transport. The box was crushed and heavily torn. Luckily the keyboard functions perfectly fine, though one corner of the aluminum case does have a small ding. I have no way of knowing for certain if that was caused by mishandling during shipping or a manufacturing defect, but judging by the state of the box I would say shipping.
One accessory the GK64 includes is a padded pouch for storage or transport. The keyboard was shipped inside the pouch, which I believe kept it from being further damaged. The box itself is fairly thin and provides minimal protection.
Unboxing the GK64 we find the aforementioned soft carry pouch (large enough to fit a TKL keyboard), a plastic ring keycap puller, metal switch remover tool, one page of instructions (with English side) and a braided USB-C cable.
The felt carry pouch is a very nice “free” addition that probably protected my GK64 review sample from more serious shipping damage. I’m not convinced it would have survived the trip without it. The rest of the accessories are pretty much the bare minimum you would expect to come with a hot swappable mechanical keyboard.
GK64 Layout, Features and Aesthetics
The GK64 is a 60% form factor mechanical keyboard in non-standard ANSI layout with true RGB backlighting, dye-sublimated PBT keycaps (DSA profile) and hot swap sockets for switch modularity. This particular 60% form factor provides a much smaller footprint than typical full size keyboards by removing the top function row, some navigation keys and the number pad.
It’s a non-standard 60% layout that fits in dedicated arrow keys not typically found on 60% mechanical keyboards. This type of layout obviously requires some compromises to key size and placement. Most notable are the short right shift (1u), modifier keys to the right of the spacebar (removed or reduced to 1u) and slightly shorter 2u left shift. Not only will this make finding replacement keycaps more difficult, but it also shifts the stagger of the keys on one row to the left by 0.25u. For my needs having dedicated arrow keys is eminently useful so those compromises are worth the result.
The physical dimensions of the GK64 measure in at approximately 11.5 inches by 4.125 inches. As expected from a full aluminum keyboard it weighs a hefty 910g (just barely over 2 pounds). To put that number in perspective the GK64 is a little heavier than the Durgod TKL keyboard I previously reviewed, despite being quiet a bit smaller in length and width. It’s well over 300 grams heavier than the Anne Pro, a similarly sized 60% mechanical keyboard.
The Gk64 has a small natural incline built into the case. There are no flip-out feet. The default typing angle can’t be adjusted. The front bezel of the case sits 0.5 inches high and the back bezel is 1 inch high. It’s a fairly acute angle. Personally I like flip-out feet for the additional adjustment and wish the keyboard could be raised a little higher, but this will depend on personal preference. You could always mod on some taller feet if you like this keyboard but absolutely require a steeper typing angle.
Besides four flat rubber feet the bottom of the GK64 is completely bare. No flip-out feet, cable gutters, USB connection (USB-C port is located on the back side) or DIP switches of any kind. Not even any branding. It’s a clean aesthetic that really shows off the CNC milled aluminum case.
Speaking of the feet, they are fairly large and textured to provide traction on a desk or other flat surface. The feet combined with its heavy weight hold the GK64 in place very well. It doesn’t easily slide around on a smooth surface.
For connectivity the GK64 makes use of superior USB-C. This isn’t surprising as USB-C is a more future-proof method of connectivity that the majority of newer mechanical keyboards are transitioning to include. The USB-C port is located on the back of the case (left side). The port is slightly recessed into the aluminum and there is no method of cable retention.
The GK64 includes one standard USB-C to USB Type A connector for use with PC’s and legacy devices. The cable is nicely braided in black and has gold plated connectors. The cable length is 5 feet.
In my opinion 6 feet or longer is preferable, but it should be long enough for use at most desk setups. I also would have liked to seen another shorter USB-C to USB-C cable included for mobile devices, considering the GK64 is small enough to be portable.
One of the biggest selling points for the GK64 is the modular switch feature provided by hot swappable switch sockets on the PCB. The ones in my review sample were made by Kailh and should be compatible with the majority of MX switches. This level of modularity is nice to have for the sake of convenience and maintenance. The keyboard can be disassembled quickly down to individual parts with minimal tools for cleaning, modification or switch upgrades.
For any gamers considering the GK64 as your next keyboard you’ll be happy to know it supports full N-key rollover, programmability and true 16.8 million color RGB backlighting by way of SMD-LEDs. The software also features a comprehensive macro recording section with many customizable options.
As for aesthetics the GK64 is a stunner. The gray anodized aluminum case is not only high quality, but gorgeous. It features angular CNC cutouts around all the edges and bottom for a slimming look, tiny bezels and smoothly rounded corners. The design looks masculine. Maybe even edgy.
The 2-tone (with red accents), uniform DSA keycaps further add to the GK64’s allure. Their short height in addition to the case’s lower profile design leaves much of the switches exposed to accentuate the RGB backlighting (assuming you make use of switches with transparent housings).
Best of all there is absolutely no branding. Zilch. Certainly has the look of a custom built mechanical keyboard. Not the type of design you’ll find mass produced on an assembly line from the popular mainstream brands.
Backlighting Modes, Software & Programmability
First off, don’t download the drivers listed on Banggood’s website. I tried that first and the software would just say “No Device”. The one they’ve listed as of now is an older version that couldn’t even detect my GK64. You need the newest released version (V220.127.116.11 is what I am using for this review), which I was able to find here. Using the latest drivers it was finally possible for the keyboard to be detected and I was able to use the software as intended. In the top menu you will be presented with three main tabs:
Configurations is used for programming. There are four layers, three of which are programmable using the software. The Standard layer (Fn + Q) as it’s labeled in the software isn’t programmable, but you can assign preconfigured backlight profiles to it. Once configured the three programmable layers are accessible by pressing Fn + W, E or R.
The LE Files tab is used to create, edit or delete RGB backlighting profiles. It has 54 preinstalled with many reactive modes, even one that reacts to sounds through a built in mic under the spacebar. Yes, there is actually a microphone installed on this keyboard. Some of the more paranoid individuals out there may want to take note of that. Also note that when you assign custom backlight profiles in software (max of 5) they are bound to the “Logics light” key on the Fn layer. The backlighting associated with the “Code lights” Fn layer key can’t be altered.
Macros is for recording automated input sequences with delay adjustment. Once recorded you can program the macro to a key using the Configurations tab.
Below I have included a scan of the GK64 instruction sheet that document the Fn layer, backligh options and various other features(click to enlarge).
To be brutally honest, the software is unrefined and mediocre (at best). With a little patience it can get the job done, but I did find it extremely difficult to use, cumbersome and mostly undocumented with a poorly designed UI. You basically have to go through trial and error to figure out what half the buttons and options even do.
I’ve read many complaints related to the software/firmware from owners and reviewers alike. Even some instances where the software doesn’t work or the keyboard is unable to switch between the default hardware layers/backlight profiles already built into it once the software was installed. I fortunately had no problems like that after I located and installed the newest version. It works ok (once you learn to use it), but could definitely benefit from some tweaks for better usability.
My GK64 came stock with Gateron Blue MX-type clicky switches with transparent housings for backlight dissipation (necessary for SMD-LEDs). Obviously you could change to almost any compatible switch you want with this board, but the Gaterons are a good (and cheap) starting point.
Gateron Blues produce an audible click sound combined with a tactile bump that can be felt at the point of key actuation. The force required for actuation is measured at approximately 55g and they have a total travel distance of 4mm (2.2mm pre-travel). Gateron switches have a rated lifespan of 50 million clicks.
This is one of the better value clicky switches on the market. They’re cheaper than genuine Cherry MX Blues and keyboard enthusiasts generally consider Gateron clicky switches as superior to Cherry’s own clicky products. In comparison Gateron switches feel much smoother, more tactile and have a better sound.
When it comes time to remove a switch for replacement you’ll need the metal switch removal tool included with the GK64, so keep it stored in a safe place where it won’t be lost. If you’ve ever used a plastic ring keycap puller you should have no problem removing switches with this tool. It’s the same basic concept.
First place the prongs of the tool under the side of the upper switch housing containing the two plastic retention tabs. Put light pressure on the prongs until the tabs release and then gently begin pulling upwards with increasing force (it doesn’t take much if done correctly) until the switch pops out of the socket. Be careful when applying pressure to the small switch retention tabs. They are thin and likely pretty fragile.
After removing the first couple of switches you’ll realize how simple it is and quickly get into a rhythm. With a little practice I was able to remove the switches just as quickly as a keycap. To install a switch first check for any bent contact pins. If you notice a pin isn’t perfectly straight bend it until it is. Next you simply line up the two switch contacts in the correct orientation over the holes of the PCB socket. Now press until it fully snaps into place. It’s practically idiot-proof.
I had a bag of leftover Cherry MX Nature White linear switches lying around with the perfect opportunity to try out the hot swap feature. I filled the board with Nature Whites after thoroughly testing out the Gateron Blues. It only took about 10 minutes to remove the stock switches and replace with all different ones. Just don’t go too overboard with how often you replace switches. The hot swap sockets are only rated for 100 insertion cycles.
Both plate or PCB mount MX switch types should be compatible with these modular sockets, but PCB mount switches have two plastic legs extending from the housing. I’ve read of some instances where the Kailh socket can interfere with the right mounting hole. If so, the corresponding switch leg may need to be slightly filed down or clipped before it can be 100% seated flush with the backplate for a stable connection.
My review sample of the GK64 came with PBT keycaps in DSA profile with black dye-sublimated legends. This keyset has a beautiful gray and off-white color scheme with red accents provided by the Esc and arrow keys that is visually striking, at least in my opinion. DSA keycaps are spherical and non-sculpted, meaning they have a uniform height and shape, unlike OEM or Cherry profile keycaps.
Keycaps made of PBT are hard-wearing, won’t yellow with age/UV exposure and don’t shine from prolonged use like ABS is prone to do. The legends are dye-sublimated resulting in a high-contrast character that is easily read. The dye-sublimation process uses a dye/ink substance and heat to permanently stain characters into the keycap. PBT is able to absorb the dye into the material resulting in a legend that likely won’t fade, even with decades of heavy use. The legends aren’t going anywhere, unless you literally sand down the PBT material past where the dye penetrates.
The keycaps are moderately thick, though they don’t quite approach a consistent 1.5mm. There’s also a lot of variance in thickness with this keyset (1.25mm to 1.5mm depending on which side is measured), but they average out to about 1.4mm thick. That’s properly thick and provides a pleasant, thocky bottoming out sound when I replaced the clicky switches with Cherry linears. On that note, clicky switches may not be the best switch type to pair with thick PBT keycaps as they tend to dampen the click a tad.
The GK64’s keycaps have no homing bumps. Instead the F and J keys have a deeper scoop than other keys. This allows them to be more readily identified just by feel for correct home row placement without having to look at the keyboard. The legends have a nice, normal font and the characters are centered directly in the middle of the keycap. The keycaps are perfectly textured with a somewhat rough matte finish. They’re not too abrasive, with just the right amount of texture to not feel slick.
Overall these are some of the best stock keycaps I have tested to date. They’re about on par with the PBT keycaps found on the Vortex CORE, which are also DSA profile.
One of the most important aspects of a mechanical keyboard that is often overlooked by manufacturers is the stabilized keys. The rest of the keyboard could be absolutely perfect, but if the stabilizers are of low quality or improperly installed it instantly ruins the typing feel and sound. No worries about that here. The GK64 has excellent stabilizers with proper installation and plenty of lubrication.
The GK64 uses plate-mounted Cherry style stabilizers to keep the larger keys balanced and as you can see in the photo above they are generously lubed. The stabs have zero rattle and don’t feel mushy despite being stock and unclipped. Very little difference between the stabilized keys and the unstabilized, which is how it should be. The stabs can be removed relatively easy because the entire board can be disassembled with just a screwdriver and switch removal tool. That being the case I recommend clipping and performing the band-aid mod, even if it doesn’t really need it.
Case & Internal Build Quality
Seeing as this is basically a custom keyboard, the parts and general build quality are top-notch. The case is made from CNC milled anodized aluminum. It’s a single solid chunk of aluminum alloy weighing 574g by itself with a thickness ranging between 2.2mm to 4mm. The anodized surface is clean and consistent, with the only noticeable blemish being that small ding from where it was damaged in shipping that I noted earlier in the review.
Disassembly isn’t complicated. First remove the keycaps. This will reveal 8 small phillips head screws securing the backplate and PCB to the case. Remove the screws.
Now you can pull out the backplate and PCB, which are also attached together with 6 more screws from the back. Remove those and your job is done (these screws are tight, so take caution not to strip them).
Here is a complete teardown of every individual part. Quick and painless.
The backplate is aluminum with a standard thickness of 1.5mm. It’s anodized with the same gray color of the case. A closer inspection of the PCB reveals the Kailh hot swap sockets. The sockets are cleanly soldered for a secure connection.
The PCB has a neatly organized layout. Every component and key position is labeled for easy identification. Surface mount LEDs are installed just above the Kailh hot swap sockets.
The microphone is installed under the spacebar. This is used for the sound/music reactive backlight mode. To the right of that is the PCB’s model number: 25-16-JK064-P01 Gk64 RGB(4028) U+B_K3V9
Conclusion on the GK64 60% Aluminum Keyboard
Hardware wise I have practically no complaints about the GK64 60% Aluminum Mechanical Keyboard. The dye-sublimated PBT keycaps, anodized aluminum case, hot swappable switch sockets, complete absence of branding and overall build quality are about what you would expect from a custom mechanical keyboard. Except this is a prebuilt that cost only $120. Hardware wise the value is off the charts.
Where it lags behind is the custom firmware/software implementation for programmability and enhanced customization. It’s inferior to properly optimized open source keyboard firmware such as QMK. About the best I can say regarding the software is it (mostly) functions correctly once you actually locate and install the newest releases. The programming feature is not easy to operate. Very confusing and the interface feels lacking, but once you learn all the ins and outs it performs adequately enough.
If you just want an extremely well built, custom quality 60% mechanical keyboard with RGB and hot swap sockets for the price of a typical prebuilt mech you can’t go wrong with the GK64. I give it a very high recommendation if you don’t mind taking the time to learn how to use the fiddly software.
- Hot swappable sockets are a simple and fast way for anyone to change switches without soldering.
- Heavy-duty aluminum case feels premium, has no flex and looks stylish.
- High quality PBT keycaps in DSA profile.
- Properly installed Cherry stabilizers provide a crisp, rattle free typing experience.
- High contrast dye-sublimated legends that won’t fade with wear.
- Full programmability with three customizable layers.
- Macro support with input delay adjustment and event inclusion.
- True RGB backlighting with 54 preset backlighting modes available in software.
- NKRO insures every key press will register 100% of the time no matter how many keys are pressed simultaneously.
- Stock Gateron Blue switches are solid performers at a great value.
- Detachable USB-C cable (braided with gold plated connectors).
- Clean, contemporary aesthetics all around.
- Includes a decent carry pouch (TKL sized) for storage and transport.
- Software/firmware needs a lot more tweaks and improvements to compete with other fully programmable alternatives.
- Typing angle can’t be adjusted.
- Documentation and packaging is subpar.