Skyloong’s GK980 is a solid and affordable 96% keyboard that offers all the crucial 104-key features in a condensed form factor. It won’t wow you with ultra-high-end build quality, but it comes with good switches and is a great option at around the $100 mark, especially if you want a knob (or two).
|+ Smooth Skyloong Glacier Red linear switches (on review unit)|
+ Pre-lubed stabilizers
+ High-quality keycaps
+ Dual knobs
+ Good value
|- Mediocre software
- Slightly stiff and harsh typing experience
- Hollow sound
- Awkward USB-C port and connectivity switch positions
Skyloong has made quite a name for itself with its budget-friendly keyboards, covering all form factors from compact 60% keyboards up to full-size options. We’ve reviewed a few of their offerings in the past and always found them to be solid products worth their asking prices. This time, we have the 96% Skyloong GK980 in for review.
Does it continue the trend of reliable, budget-friendly mechanical keyboards perfect for newcomers and more casual hobbyists? Does it have any surprises in store for those already familiar with Skyloong’s other offerings? Let’s find out.
Disclaimer: Skyloong sent me this keyboard free of charge in exchange for my honest opinions. They had no say in the content of this review beyond asking for a link to their webstore.
Packaging and Accessories
Skyloong keyboards don’t come in flashy packaging, and that’s much the same for the GK980. It comes in a simple cardboard box with a plastic key protector that adds a small (but welcome) extra bit of safety for the keycaps.
You don’t get too many extras with the GK980, which isn’t too big of an issue given the price. I received a few extra keycaps and switches, a 2.4 GHz dongle, and Skyloong’s signature split Spacebar plate. The latter allows you to replace the single long Spacebar with three smaller keys, similar to the JIS layout.
It’s worth noting that the Dark Tale version doesn’t come with extra split Spacebar keycaps. So if you want to run a split Spacebar layout out of the box, you’ll have to get one of the other versions (or supply your own split Spacebar keycaps).
Retail customers should also receive a second knob in the box. Mine came with the second knob pre-installed, but Skyloong tells me that retail units will only come with one knob by default.
Let’s start with the basics and cover the GK980’s layout and construction.
Design and Build
Skyloong sells several versions of the GK980, although all share the same basic layout with ABS cases, steel switch plates, and two knobs (one pre-installed, the other optional). Some come with ABS keycaps, some with dye-sub PBT, and some—like my version—with RGB-friendly PBT + ABS pudding keycaps. But they’re all fundamentally the same, case colors and keycaps aside.
Like Skyloong’s other GK keyboards—including the GK75 Optical I reviewed previously—the GK980 uses Skyloong’s “O-Ring Mount Gasket” construction method. This “gasket,” in Skyloong’s words, “[fits] snugly around the keys of your mechanical keyboard and create[s] a barrier to avoid hard contact between the keys and the base of the keyboard.”
Now, don’t get confused by the usage of “gasket” here; this isn’t a traditional gasket-mount keyboard. It feels like a traditional top-mount keyboard, with the extra material mostly serving to reduce noise and cushion your key presses. If you want a “pillowy” board, this isn’t it.
That’s neither good nor bad, and I only mention this so you can set your expectations accordingly. It’s a slightly misleading name, and I wish Skyloong would avoid using the word “gasket” to avoid confusion with traditional gasket-mount designs.
Another minor misgiving I have is the position of the USB-C port. It’s in a small recess underneath the keyboard, making it slightly awkward to (dis)connect the cable quickly. It doesn’t affect the usability of the GK980, though, so this will likely only be an issue for those who regularly switch keyboards (like myself).
The connectivity (USB/Bluetooth/2.4 GHz) and Windows/Mac are on the bottom of the keyboard. I would have preferred a more accessible location, but it’s another minor issue not worth unduly criticizing the GK980 for.
Beyond those minor complaints, the GK980 is a solid keyboard. It looks and feels good, about on par with what you’d expect for between $80 to $100; nothing that’ll blow your mind, but perfectly fine for the price.
The GK980 has a conventional 98-key, 96% layout, albeit with one or two knobs instead of some function row keys. Skyloong has opted not to squeeze all the keys together, with gaps between the primary key cluster, arrow keys, and Numpad. I prefer this layout over gapless 96% layouts like on the Keychron K4, mainly because it looks better to my eyes.
The default single-knob layout has a knob to the right of the function row in the “F13” or “Delete” position common to many 96% keyboards. By default, this adjusts your system volume. You’ll also get a second knob in the box, with five possible positions: Escape, plus the four keys above the Numpad.
My GK980 came with the second knob pre-installed in place of Escape. It’s a decent position for a knob, but it made hitting the Escape key much harder. The knob takes much more force to press than a standard key, so I can’t comfortably hit it with my ring finger.
I eventually remapped Escape and Tilde (~) around in Skyloong’s software, which resolved the issue for me. Tilde is far less common, so I don’t mind that it’s a bit harder to access.
If you want to install more knobs, you can get standalone knobs from Skyloong.
The “Dark Tale” GK980 keycaps are an interesting set with comic book-style graphics and a combination of (triple-shot?) PBT tops and transparent ABS sides. They’re not my cup of tea aesthetically, but they feel OK to type on and feel like a high-quality set.
These keycaps are in Skyloong’s GK7 profile, which is slightly shorter than Cherry and OEM profiles. The keycap tops are also flatter, giving them a subtly different typing feel and look. It certainly benefits the art, which looks better on these tops than it would on the cylindrical tops of Cherry-profile keycaps.
The legends and art are all very crisp and hold up even under close scrutiny. While I’m not a fan of the aesthetic itself, there’s nothing to dislike on an objective level here. RGB fans will also love these, as the transparent sides let a lot of light through.
Switches and Typing Feel
Now let’s get to the meat of any keyboard: how it feels to use and type on. Let’s start with the switches and stabilizers before discussing the general typing experience later in this section.
Switches and Stabilizers
Skyloong let me choose the switches in my GK980, so I opted for its in-house Glacier Reds. These lightweight linears have an actuation force of 48 – 52 gf, pre-travel between 1.5 – 2.0 mm, and a total travel distance of 2.0 mm. So, on paper, they’re slightly heavier than Cherry MX Reds while retaining similar travel distances.
In practice, though, the Glacier Reds feel lighter to type on than stock MX Reds, likely due to their smoothness. While these factory-lubed switches aren’t quite as smooth as some of the best linear switches, the Glacier Reds are definitely smoother than many budget linears I’ve tried.
Will they dethrone your favorite enthusiast-grade linear switches? Not likely. But these Glacier Reds are a cut above the average budget Red-style linear switches (including basic Gateron Reds) we get in most $100 keyboards.
The GK980 comes with unbranded, pre-lubed stabilizers. The stabilized keys actuate smoothly without overly intrusive rattle and feel consistent overall. However, the Enter key on my unit does have a very slight tick not present on the other keys.
It’s not hugely distracting, especially as I can’t imagine why anyone would be lightly pressing the Enter key during normal typing. But I thought it was worth mentioning.
Overall Typing Experience
The Skyloong GK980 with Skyloong Glacier Reds is a good keyboard to type on, especially if you like linear switches. However, it’s not perfect. The GK980 feels a bit stiff to me, with a slightly harsh bottom-out that won’t be to everyone’s liking. It’s not bad enough to be a deal-breaker, but I can see some users finding it slightly unpleasant.
Another issue is the slightly hollow sound, possibly due to the ABS case. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t have the pleasing muted clack of an aluminum keyboard. The Spacebar also thunks quite loudly, which I have no issues with but which some of you may find a bit overbearing.
Here’s a typing demo of the GK980, recorded with an Audio-Technica AT2020 placed about a foot above the keyboard:
The knobs are a nice touch, although I didn’t have much use for the left knob in its default zoom in/out mapping. But that’s not a huge issue, as it’s straightforward to remap (more on this later).
Another minor issue is the wobble on the knobs, making them feel cheap. But it is an affordable board, so that shouldn’t surprise you. Besides, they work fine and feel good to turn, with nice tactile feedback.
Overall, I enjoyed typing on the Skyloong GK980. It’s not perfect, but the issues are mostly minor and easy to overlook considering the price. I have to praise the Skyloong Glacier Red switches again here: they’re great, smooth linears and are the star of the show here.
The Skyloong GK980 uses the same software as the Skyloong GK61 and GK75, which means it has all the same weaknesses and issues I’ve covered previously. Don’t get me wrong; it’s usable and works fine for the basics, but it’s not the best user experience out there.
Thankfully, basic remapping is straightforward and shouldn’t pose any issues. Just click on the key you want to remap in the top keyboard display and then select the command you want to assign on the bottom keyboard.
You can remap the knob(s) just like any other keys; the only difference is that you have three assignments, which leads to a slightly cluttered display in the software. But it works the same way otherwise; just select the function (clockwise rotation, counterclockwise rotation, or press) and assign the command you want.
To remap the function layer, click on the Fn key. This exposes the Fn layer bindings in the top display, letting you freely remap them. Note that the function layer doesn’t respect remapped bottom layer keys (such as left Control in place of Caps Lock).
You’ll want to remap the keys again in the function layer if you want to use them there. This isn’t as big of an issue on the GK980 as you have access to almost all necessary keys without needing to press Fn, but it’s something to watch out for if you move a bunch of keys around.
You also have to be aware of all the preset functions on the keyboard, which limit what you can map to the function layer. For example, Fn + left Control changes the backlight and wireless sleep times, so you can’t remap it. The manual lists all these preset commands if you want to check them out before remapping your keys.
You can also assign macros here. Simply choose a macro from the bottom-right section of the main Configuration screen, choose a key, then press “Set.”
Recording the macros themselves is quite easy. Switch to the dedicated “Macro” tab, where you’ll be greeted by a list of categories on the left and a grid view of all the available macros in said category. You can add a new category with the small “+” button at the top of the list and create a new macro with the “+” button in the top-right of the macro grid display.
You can add macros to existing categories or create a new category for your custom macros. Either way, once you’ve created a new macro in the desired category, simply press the “play” button in the lower half of the screen to record your macro.
You get three delay modes: “recording delay,” which records the delay between your inputs faithfully; a “minimum delay” setting that sets a constant delay of 5 ms; and a custom delay setting that lets you set a universal delay between all your key presses.
The lighting setup is as awkward as it’s always been, requiring you to create .LE files with the editor before applying them to your keyboard. I’m not a huge RGB fan, nor do I like the interface, so I’ve never really bothered with this aspect of Skyloong keyboards. Check out Skyloong’s short video guide if you’re interested in customizing the lighting on your GK980.
Note that you’ll have to return to the main Configuration window to apply the .LE files. Click on the “Standard” layer, and a small floating window will pop up to choose the lighting modes you want on your GK980.
It’s a bit awkward, and we wish Skyloong could have implemented a layer-agnostic lighting solution that allowed you to select lighting no matter which layer you’re on. It’s not a huge issue, but it is another example of the many quirks you’ll have to deal with when buying budget keyboards using proprietary software.
If you’ve read my previous Skyloong reviews, you know how I feel about the software. It’s not great, and I wish Chinese manufacturers would just adopt QMK or Via and stop subjecting us to quirky, poorly-translated software with mediocre user experiences.
But, at the same time, I understand that some users may never even have to install the software, especially on a 98-key keyboard like the GK980. So while I don’t like the software, I don’t think it’s a big enough issue to stop me from recommending the keyboard.
Vs. The Competition
The 96% keyboard market has gotten a bit more crowded over the past few years, after languishing in relative obscurity (compared to TKL and 60% boards, at least). But while there are quite a few 96% boards out there now, the GK980’s most compelling competitor is likely the similarly-priced Keychron V5 QMK.
The Keychron has a similar layout, although you only get the option of one knob on the V5. So if you want two knobs, the Skyloong is the winner by default.
On the other hand, the Keychron V5 comes with QMK support. While it’s not quite as important as on a 60% keyboard, QMK support is still a big plus if you want to take advantage of all the extra keys and experiment with various layouts without dealing with clunky proprietary software.
I’ve not tried Keychron’s K Pro switches, so I can’t tell you how the Keychron K Pro Reds in the V5 QMK compare to the Skyloong Glacier Reds in the GK980. However, given that the Keychrons have a similar stem design, are factory-lubed, and come in at a similar 45 ± 10-gf weight, I imagine they’ll feel about the same. But don’t quote me on that.
Ultimately, I think the Skyloong GK980 and Keychron V5 QMK are quite closely matched. Either one would be a great option for those seeking a 96% keyboard with a knob at around the $100 price point. It’ll likely come down to aesthetics and switches, both of which are personal preference.
The Skyloong GK980 is a solid option for beginners and value-minded hobbyists, like most of the company’s other boards. It’s not the cheapest 96% keyboard out there, but its smooth linear switches, good-quality keycaps, pleasing “exploded” layout, and multiple knob options justify the slightly increased cost over sub-$80 rivals.
The “Dark Tale” version I received is a love-it-or-hate-it deal. I’m certainly not a fan of the visual aesthetic, but the caps themselves are well-made. So despite not liking the look, I can’t say anything objectively negative about them. But don’t worry if you’re not a fan of the fairytale aesthetic either, as Skyloong offers quite a few versions of the GK980 on its webstore.