One of my missions during the protracted work-from-home transition of the past few years has been to find small ways to make the boring parts of the experience slightly better and less boring. Like many others, I’ve found a comfortable, ergonomic chair, set up a dedicated standing desk that’s only used for work, and explored improving the quality of my video calls by turning a mirrorless camera on webcam.
But one of the most annoying things was using Zoom itself – namely, fumbling for the mute/unmute buttons and leaving the call. In two years I haven’t been able to memorize keyboard shortcuts for them, and since I’ve been on Zoom calls my hands are usually off my keyboard anyway. I’m always the last to leave the call because I can’t get this button to hit in a reasonable amount of time. I’m not handy enough to create elaborate pull chain systems to hang up the callThat is.
Reader, I found the solution, and it’s an $80 Elgato Stream Deck Mini (or less if you shop as little as possible). The Stream Deck product line consists of customizable keypads with small LED displays for buttons that you can program to perform a multitude of activities. Elgato markets them primarily to Twitch streamers and now offers a range of small (six buttons), medium (15 buttons) and large (32 buttons) models.
Since I’m definitely not a Twitch streamer, the six-button Mini is perfect for my needs. Thanks to a whole slew of official and community-created plugins, I now have dedicated controls to mute audio, video, and leave the call always in front of me – no annoying keyboard shortcuts to remember or fumble with my mouse to try to find the on-screen buttons. I even have a button to bring the Zoom window to the front, perfect for when I clicked it to scroll through Twitter, then my boss asks me a question on a group call, and I need to quickly get back to the Zoom call. (Nilay, don’t read this.)
My main use case for the Stream Deck is for these zoom controls, so they’re all on the first four buttons. But the Stream Deck also supports pages, so on a second page I added folders for some smart lights in my office, system media controls, and toggles for the space heater in my office. On a third page I have dedicated buttons to launch specific Lightroom catalogs so I don’t have to search for them on my external drive, as well as a folder for Google Meet commands that I sometimes need use when I have briefings with Google. I have customized icons on many buttons so that I can easily recognize what they are for at a glance.
Programming the Stream Deck is done through its desktop application, and it’s a very simple drag-and-drop system, no coding required. I was up and running with the Zoom plugin and my favorite commands in less than ten minutes.
The Stream Deck Mini may be small, but as long as you don’t need a single button to access more than six things, you can use endless pages to control all sorts of things. You can even run shortcuts directly from Stream Deck if you’re using macOS 12.3 Monterey. (I’m sure there are similar automation options for Windows that I haven’t bothered to explore.)
Using a Stream Deck Mini doesn’t make video calls any more bearable – they are what they are – but it does remove a small annoyance that I experienced several times a day. You can accomplish something similar with a programmable macro pad, but the Mini is easier to set up, has those LED screens for easy visibility, and is cheap enough not to break the bank to buy one.
Photograph by Dan Seifert/The Verge