The Stream Deck is a powerful controller for your computer — here’s how we use it

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I first bought a Stream Deck for one purpose: to control the lights in my home office. There’s only one switch inside, and that switch controls the light…and all the outlets in the room. Lights off, everything stopped. So that switch now has a piece of tape on it, and I bought a smart bulb and a Stream Deck so I can still control the lamp in the corner.

The Stream Deck is not a smart home control device, at least not as its creators at Elgato originally intended. (It’s also not a Steam Deck, Valve’s gaming console.) They built and marketed the $150 device to streamers (hence the name) who constantly have to change scenes and locations. camera inputs, moderate a quick chat, and grab clips. to use for later, all without losing sight of the game in progress. The Stream Deck’s 15 buttons – or the six on the Stream Deck Mini or the whopping 32 on the Stream Deck XL – turned a bunch of menus and touch targets into big mashable buttons. You build up a kind of muscle memory with the Stream Deck, and many streamers can now stream their entire stream without even looking down. Plus, each button also has a small screen behind it, so if you look there’s even more to see.

I’m no streamer, though, and most people we spoke to for this episode of The Vergecast. Instead, we all found the Stream Deck because, it turns out, a bunch of programmable buttons is a pretty powerful idea. Den Delimarsky, a programmer who reverse-engineered his Stream Deck so he could create even more powerful software, called the Stream Deck “essentially just a keyboard with custom buttons, right?” You can make it do whatever you want just by having the buttons.

Suppose you like to play super complicated games, the kind that require complex element management or memorizing the location and combinations for a hundred different buttons. You can map some or all of this work to a few Stream Deck buttons like Robert Van Der Pas did to get hundreds of knobs and buttons working with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. Thanks to its FlightDeck plugin, players can control over 30 entire aircraft directly from their Stream Deck. (Pro tip: Go big in this case.) The edgeAlice Newcome-Beill uses hers in the same way while playing Fate to quickly switch between characters and loadouts without digging through the game’s many menus.

Microsoft Flight Simulator fans have turned the Stream Deck into a super powerful tool.
Photo: Flight Deck

If you’d rather spend your time tending to your super-sweet Notion setup, you can do what a YouTuber named Simon, who runs a channel called Better Creating, does: set up a bunch of Stream Deck buttons to make Notion pages easier to navigate. to consult. build and manage. Rather than typing slash commands and remembering names, just hit “To Do List” and “Table” and “Divider” and “Emoji”, and you’ve created a beautiful page. And because each Notion page is just a URL, and you can use the Stream Deck software to get a button to open any web page, you can turn your Stream Deck into an index of all your stuff. the most importants.

The Stream Deck is so powerful not because it’s particularly great hardware – it’s just a slightly clunky piece of black plastic with an overly large logo on top. We’ve got a long wishlist for that, too: it doesn’t shut down properly when your computer goes to sleep, none of the sizes seem to have the exact right number of buttons, and we’d like to ditch that pesky USB cable. It’s also a bit pricey, for what it is.

But, he understands something fundamental about how technology works now. As each app and service becomes more powerful, it hides all that power behind more hamburger menus and complicated menu structures. Even as technology becomes more natural and stable, it is, in many cases, increasingly difficult to use. The Stream Deck and similar devices let you take all that complexity and bury it behind a button. You tell the device what you’d like to do, then it does it – no matter how complex or where it is, it just happens. This is what a user interface should look like.

You also don’t need a Stream Deck to do Stream Deck stuff. There are a bunch of other options, many of which are much cheaper:

  • You can buy a Stream Deck competitor, like the Razer Stream Controller or the LoupeDeck Live it’s based on. Both are more expensive but offer even more types of physical controls.
  • You can set up an app like Touch Portal, which can turn an old phone or tablet into a screen full of macro buttons. It’s not as tactile as the Stream Deck but does the job pretty well.
  • You can use the Stream Deck’s smartphone software, but… don’t. It’s expensive and it doesn’t work very well.
  • You can buy a dedicated number pad and use key-mapping software to turn each button into its own shortcut. You won’t get the visual aid of the Stream Deck’s screen, but it’s a pretty good and much cheaper alternative.

Whichever route you take, it can be a bit difficult at first to figure out what to do with this list of blank buttons. My recommendation is to start small and not try to fill the screen all at once – pick a thing or two you want to automate, and you’ll start noticing all the other things you do that require 40 mouse clicks when you prefer it to be just the press of a button.

A Stream Deck Zoom controller is a great addition to your desk.
Photo by Dan Seifert/The Verge

Here are some of the best tips we heard during the episode of Edge staff members and others:

  • Use it to control your video chat software. Whether you’re on Teams, Zoom, Meet, or something else, it’s handy to have buttons to mute your microphone, end a call, or even skip to your next meeting. Many popular apps also have dedicated Stream Deck plugins, so setup is simple.
  • Get a Spotify play button. You know how when you press the play button on a Mac, Apple Music still opens? You can circumvent this by having a dedicated “Play Spotify” button. Better yet, have a few buttons for your favorite playlists and you can start listening without ever touching the app.
  • Text replacement shortcuts. If you often send the same email or copy and paste the same information a hundred times a day, add it to a Stream Deck button. Hit him once, and he hits the rest.
  • Use it to resize and move windows. Rather than dragging the corners of all your apps to rearrange them, program your most-used layouts into a button, then tap it to snap everything into place.
  • Configure simple smart home controls. Saying “Alexa, turn off the lights” gets boring after a while, just like opening your phone and an app every time. Add your one-button routines and devices, and suddenly you have the most powerful light switch ever.
  • Automate basic editing. If you use Photoshop or Premiere all day, there are probably a few tools buried that you use a lot or processes that you run over and over again. These can be turned into a one-key macro, so you can open the file, hit the button, and have all your routine tasks handled by now.

The Stream Deck’s software could still use some work, both in terms of what it can do and how easy it is to program itself. For really sophisticated uses, you can still feel like you’re programming a computer. That’s why some people turn to software like Bitfocus’s Companion, which opens up the Stream Deck to include more features. But the Stream Deck ecosystem continues to grow, with new plugins appearing all the time, and the device seems to get more useful over time.

Nothing it offers is strictly a new feature, the kind of thing you couldn’t do before. And yes, if you know all the keyboard shortcuts or can fly on your laptop’s touchpad, you might feel like all of these features are already covered. You understood the technology. But most people can’t or won’t take the time to understand the technology. They just want to tell the computer what to do and make it happen. And there’s no better way to do that than a big, smushy button.

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