Professional quality equipment at a great price. That’s the reputation Elgato earned as the first YouTube videos, and then Twitch streaming took over from video games. Straddling the amateur and the pro – a difficult line to cross competently, I might add – Elgato’s capture cards have become a mainstay of streamers at all levels.
The Stream Deck, Elgato’s latest piece of hardware, is something completely different: a video mixer (or mixer), not a capture card. But aside from a few software glitches at the start, it’s about to become an equally important kit for some level of creatives.
Power at your fingertips
Video mixers are a pretty standard (and boring) part of multi-camera broadcasts. If you’ve ever watched a sporting event or other live show, there’s a good chance a mixer was used – it allows a producer to switch between multiple camera streams on the fly, rather than sticking a camera on a tripod and calling it a day. This is usually a large gray rectangle filled with colored dials, levers, and buttons.
Elgato took that concept – the ease of pressing a button and changing camera angles or whatever – and applied it to all aspects of the streaming experience. Basically, the things a streamer is doing in software right now? The Stream Deck allows you to do them in hardware.
Oh, and the whole thing is about the size of a bunch of index cards. The Stream Deck consists of 15 buttons, arranged in 3 rows of 5. They might be boring old buttons like any other video mixer, but no. Instead, each is a miniature OLED display.
With software related to Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), Twitch, Twitter and more, you can manage an entire stream without ever altering or distracting from a game. Want to start OBS? Program a button to launch OBS. Want to start broadcasting? Tap another and send a stream straight to Twitch. Dammit, get another button to tell your Twitter followers that a feed is starting. What if you need to close a game that’s playing and want to bring your webcam to full screen or do some other fancy scene change? Yes, you can program buttons for this as well.
It is easy. Setting up the Stream Deck can be a bit tricky, probably requiring 45 minutes or an hour to explore all the options and set it up just that way. Add more time if you want to customize the art – Elgato has a web portal where you can create custom 72 x 72 pixel icons for each button, if you (for example) want to make a collage of Nicolas Cage’s best faces or Something.
But in the end, you end up with an incredibly powerful, or at least incredibly stylish, Switch. I’ve long envied consoles for the ease with which they rendered the streaming process: push a button and you’re done. PCs are more powerful, but also more complicated, setting up various scenes and trying to manage them on the fly from the same machine you already use to stream.
However, the Stream Deck brings the PC closer to the simplicity of the console. Of course, you still need to configure your Stream Deck to Make it only takes one button, but Elgato’s software is pretty foolproof and easy enough to navigate.
And it can be even more powerful, if you really take time. In addition to the built-in hooks that Elgato includes to OBS, Twitter, etc., you can also program buttons to recognize certain global keyboard shortcuts. These are basically glorified macro touches, but that means those who use other streaming software aren’t necessarily bad luck. Shadowplay from Nvidia, for example? Alt-F8 is the global keyboard shortcut to start broadcasting. Set a Stream Deck button to Alt-F8, give it a nice Nvidia related icon, and you’re good to go.
It is not new technology. OLED-equipped buttons have been around for a decade now, but never really found their place. The Optimus keypad is the most notorious example, where each key has been replaced by a separate programmable LCD screen. There was even a smaller 3 x 5 inch version known as the Optimus Aux (although who knows how many were actually sold).
Razer then adapted the idea to the Switchblade, reducing the idea of a portable gaming device (which never hit the market). It was then further away adapted into ten programmable OLED keys on the Blade Pro from 2011 to 2016.
Unfortunately, the Optimus was ridiculously expensive, slow, and also not a great typing experience compared to a normal keyboard. What about Switchblade? Not that useful. Razer threw a wide net for apps, but ultimately the idea was hampered by its novelty factor. It primarily allows someone to use the Blade Pro’s trackpad / second screen combination to browse Twitter, watch a Twitch stream, or other inconsequential activity.
The Stream Deck is smarter. It narrows the focus. He has a reason to exist. This solves a problem. Streaming takes one step closer to accessibility.
With a few caveats.
First of these: the design of the Stream Deck. Namely, its cable. The standard configuration of the Stream Deck is flat on a desk. Elgato does include a stand in the box, however, allowing you to lift the Stream Deck up to face yourself – a setup that I much prefer, were it not that the cable came straight out of the top.
The Stream Deck’s USB cable is neither detachable nor particularly sturdy, and for some reason putting it in the holder leaves the cable hanging up in the air above, a delicate little thing that I’m convinced will break in an instant. It’s not yet, but the design is terrible and I can’t believe something this simple wasn’t captured before production. A cable protruding from the side would make a lot more sense, as would the optional cable routing on the back of the unit (as you see on well-planned keyboards).
And then there is the software. I explained how much I love Stream Deck software above, and I do. As far as usability goes, it’s pretty foolproof. You drag and drop everything, holding an item on an item creates a subfolder, and dragging any old JPEG gives you custom icons. Easy.
Except it crashes All the time. While recording the video above, we had the Stream Deck software crashing at least four or five times, and in home use it was just as common. Crashes are rarer when I haven’t recently reconfigured the device, but sometimes I just hit a button to launch a program or whatever and the Stream Deck software dies.
It doesn’t matter to me, I’m just an amateur. But for a professional? This level of instability is untenable, and it is the biggest obstacle to a full recommendation. The Stream Deck takes a lot of the work out of streaming, which is wonderful, but in order for that to happen it has to job, and work reliably. Maybe not 100% of the time, but at least 95%. I see over 75 or 80 percent in my own tests.
At the end of the line
The good news? Finicky software is fixable. This is the start of the Stream Deck, which just released a few months ago. I plan to keep an eye on it, mainly using it at home, and see if the situation improves over the next few months. It would easily add another half star or even a full star to our rating.
I want this fixed. The Stream Deck is great hardware, attractive, simple to use, and makes streaming (or even recording game videos) much less of a hassle. Whether it’s an amateur or a mid-level pro, I think this could be a valuable tool in anyone’s streaming kit.
But I need to know that I can count on it.