The best mechanical keyboards tend to come in one of a few standard layouts: full-size, keyless (TKL), and 65 or 60 percent. But now that the mechanical keyboard hobby is growing, companies are starting to experiment with different sizes.
Epomaker’s new TH96, for example, is a 96% keyboard – 96% keyboards omit some of the page navigation keys and closer group keys to give you something that’s more space efficient than, but retains most of the functionality (and keys) of a full-size keyboard. The TH96, which just launched on Kickstarter, is a gasket-mount mechanical keyboard with a media button, hot-swappable PCB, PBT keycaps, and other enthusiast-grade features.
The Epomaker TH96 is available in wired and wireless (Bluetooth, 2.4 GHz wireless) versions, but – unfortunately – the wired version supports QMK/VIA firmware/software, while the wireless version does not not, and instead relies on Epomaker’s own driver, which… doesn’t work.
We tested the wireless version, which will cost $149, while the wired version will cost $179. TH96 just launched on Kickstarter with limited early bird pricing of $119 (wireless) and $159 (wired) and limited early bird pricing of $129 (wireless) and $169 (wired), and once these are released, the wireless version will also sell for a special Kickstarter price of $139 – but I’m not sure it’s worth the price.
Specifications of the Epomaker TH96
|Switches||Epomaker Flamingo or Epomaker Budgerigar|
|Lighting||Adjustable up to 19 settings|
|Multimedia keys||Yes, with button|
|Connectivity||USB Type-C to Type-A|
|Cable||5 feet, braided|
|Additional Ports||N / A|
|Dimensions (LxWxH)||388 x 138 x 38mm|
Design of Epomaker TH96
The Epomaker TH96 is a 96% gasket-mounted mechanical keyboard, but unlike most boards in this form factor, it has a media button. Media buttons, or rotary knobs, have appeared on just about every recent version of the mechanical keyboard.
I normally like having a media button on my keyboard, but it feels a bit uncreative on the TH96. It’s also far too big – especially considering that the somewhat unusual 96% layout is essentially a squashed full-size keyboard (missing a few navigation keys) and can still use a little extra space.
The exterior of the board lacks overall creativity – it looks like a stretched version of the Epomaker TM680 at 65%. It’s not uglybut the large media button somehow spoils the aesthetic.
In terms of construction, the Epomaker TH96 is quite solid. The housing is made of thick plastic and the switch plate is made of steel. I’m a huge fan of the plastic casing – it offers a deeper sound profile and less ping. The steel plate, on the other hand, I didn’t like; it’s just too heavy for a joint board.
Speaking of joint supports, this board uses a much better joint support implementation than the Epomaker Lite (which was basically just a modified tray support). The TH96 uses poron foam, which is great because the poron compresses and depresses easily. That said, there was no compression due to the amount of Epomaker sound deadening materials shoved into this board.
The Epomaker TH96 is stuffed with a sound deadening “biscuit pad” between the PCB and the plate, and also has a thick silicone pad under the PCB. Oh, there’s also more sound deadening material under the spacebar cap – which is weird, but at least it’s easily removable. It’s worth mentioning that the PCB features south-facing RGB LEDs so you won’t experience clearance issues with Cherry profile keycaps.
This board has RGB, but, like most Epomaker boards we’ve tested, there’s no easy way to adjust it on a per-key basis thanks to dysfunctional software. However, if you decide to purchase the wired-only version of this board, you will have access to the QMK/VIA open-source firmware/software, which is excellent for customizing and re-mapping your keyboard. If you want to customize your keyboard, don’t get the wireless version – which is the review model I got – because the wireless version doesn’t support QMK/VIA even when plugged in via USB- vs.
On a more positive note, the Epomaker TH96’s switches are mean. The switches are called Epomaker Flamingo (not to be confused with Momoka Flamingo), feature a POM stem and polycarbonate housing, and have a spring weight of 35g. Personally, I found the springs too light for my liking, but the switches are incredibly smooth with the default factory lube. If you don’t like linear switches, you can also order the TH96 with Budgerigar tactile switches from Epomaker.
Epomaker boards have always impressed me with their stabilizers and lack of rattling after lubrication – most stabilizers require significant modification, but for best performance Epomaker stabilizers usually need the wires soaked in some dielectric grease. This was unfortunately not the case with the TH96. Despite their translucent yellow casings, this keyboard’s hits weren’t all that impressive – and they came in dry. I heard a lot of rattling even after lubricating them.
The Epomaker TH96 has MDA profile “heat-sublimated” PBT keycaps, and I really liked them. I had never heard of the MDA profile before this review, but the keys look like the XDA profile: flat, but slightly concave. Unfortunately, the colors used by Epomaker for this set are atrocious. I don’t mind the white and gray, but adding mustard yellow into the mix made this keyboard look – let’s just say, that’s definitely not the aesthetic for me. On top of that, the arrow keys are gray with grey-blue alphas, which is so random and out of place.
Underneath the TH96 you’ll find its 2.4GHz wireless dongle (if it’s wireless), as well as flip-up feet.
Typing experience on the Epomaker TH96
Many mechanical keyboard enthusiasts scoff at full-size keyboards because – unless you’re typing data, who needs a numeric keypad? Well, I happen to love numeric keypads – they’re handy for any type of numeric input, and using the number row is inconvenient for typing more than a few numbers.
The Epomaker TH96 is 96 per cent keyboard, so it makes some sacrifices to squeeze a number pad into a smaller-than-full-size form factor. The zero on the numeric keypad is just one unit (1u), which takes some getting used to. I brought the keyboard to work one day, and I happen to do a lot of data entry – and often found myself missing the zero key and hitting the right arrow key instead. I finally got used to the 1u zero key, but it took a little while.
As I mentioned earlier, the switches on this board are awesome. Although I prefer heavier springs, I’m happy to report that the lighter springs in the Flamingo Switches didn’t cause many typos.
The switches are top notch, but the stabilizers aren’t – again, I generally like stabilizers from Epomaker, so I was definitely surprised. Despite the neat translucent yellow casings on the stabilizers, the ticking made me wish Epomaker had just used their normal black and white shots. There’s a lot you can do to adjust your stabilizers, but it’s nice when you don’t have to.
Typing on the TH96 was pretty good overall, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. The amount of dampening material inside the board prevented any bouncing when I bottomed out and the stabilizers looked better than they were. However, I felt the opposite about the keys – although I didn’t like the way they looked, I liked typing on them. And you already know how I feel about switches, but it bears repeating: these switches are great. They are smooth in stock and require no lubrication, which is nice because lubricating the switches is a pain. The only change I would make is swapping springs, as I like slightly heavier actuation.
Gaming experience on the Epomaker TH96
Most PC gamers swear by Cherry MX Red or Cherry MX Brown switches. Both switches have a light spring weight of 45g, but the red switches are linear and the brown switches are tactile. If you like Cherry MX Red switches, the Flamingo switches on the TH96 are similar, but 10g lighter and much smoother.
My brother talked about how fun Doom Eternal is – I’ve never been a huge fan, but the game has lots of quick weapon swaps and grapples, so I thought it would be good to test out the switches . I actually enjoyed the game a lot more thanks to the light weight of the Flamingo switches (before that, I had only played Doom Eternal once or twice with a keyboard that had tactile switches). Doom Eternal also features a gnarly soundtrack, and the TH96’s oversized media button allowed me to make quick volume adjustments.
Software for Epomaker TH96
The TH96 is available in wired and wireless versions, and my review unit was the wireless version. The wireless version only supports Epomaker’s software/driver, which I couldn’t get to work – no matter what I tried. Every time I started the software it gave me a message saying “Searching for device”… indefinitely – at no time was it able to recognize the keyboard. This was really disappointing – I just don’t understand why Epomaker can’t figure out its software issues at this point.
The wired version of the TH96 supports QMK/VIA, open source firmware/software which works great. But the wireless version doesn’t, even when plugged in. Why bother going wireless if you can’t remap anything?
The Epomaker TH96 is a neat mechanical keyboard in one of the rarest form factors, but it’s not particularly noteworthy otherwise. I appreciate Epomaker’s effort to implement a south facing RGB PCB that supports QMK/VIA, but this needs to be present in the wireless version as well. The switches are phenomenal and could be the perfect linear switch for someone who wants ultra-light actuation force.
Ultimately, Epomaker desperately needs to work on its software – the wired version of the TH96 supports QMK/VIA, which makes the wireless version feel like minced liver. The wired version is worth checking out if you like smooth linear switches and the layout appeals to you, but you’ll find better wireless options on our list of the best gaming keyboards.