Why I Want Elgato's Stream Deck MK.2

I’ll be honest—I want one because they look so cool

Key Takeaways

  • The Stream Deck is a 5x3 grid of buttons, each with an LCD screen.
  • It connects to your computer, and you can trigger almost anything with custom plugins.
  • The buttons can display anything, from album art to animations.
Elgato Stream Deck in black with blue keys sitting on a white desk

Elgato

Elgato’s Stream Deck is a little grid of clicky keys, topped with LCD screens, which you hook up to your computer. What can it do? Anything. And I totally want one.

Elgato just announced the Stream Deck MK.2, a 15-button unit that sells for a very reasonable $150. Like previous units, its flexibility means you need to spend a little time getting set up, or even deciding what to do with it. But once you do—so its fans say—you won’t want to go without it ever again. 

The MK.2 adds interchangeable faceplates to go with the custom icon packs that are already available, and you can set up a screensaver for those little buttons that match these faceplates. If nothing else, this little wedge will look really cool on your desk.

How the Stream Deck Works

The Stream Deck is like a set of permanent keyboard shortcuts, each key with its own screen that can update to show its purpose. Or it’s like a touch-screen controller, only with physical buttons you can press. You use the companion software to customize the keys, linking them to macros. These, in turn, trigger actions on your computer. Configuration is easy, using first- and third-party plugins.

This can be as simple as a set of media control buttons that can display album art from the current track, to custom layouts for editing photos or video. To illustrate, let’s look at some examples.

Putting the Stream Deck to Use

I asked members of the Mac Power Users forum what they use their Stream Decks for. 

"I’ve only had mine for 24 hours, but I’m loving using the Stream Deck to stop and start Toggl timers," says Lisa Sieverts. "It’s made my time tracking data much more consistent. I also like the Zoom controls for Mute, Share, Video."

"I use my Stream Deck Mini to control my network music player that’s running on my Mac," says vco1. "It has a web interface. But to quickly stop and start music, that’s a bit clumsy."

Elgato Stream Deck UI to set up buttons and actions

Elgato

And then things start to get wild:

"When my work phone VOIP app rings on my home Mac, I have an ‘answer’ button on the Stream Deck," says trial lawyer and geek Evan Kline. "It clicks the ‘answer’ button in the app, and turns on a red light outside my home office via a HomeKit switch (so my daughter knows I’m on the phone). My ‘end call’ button clicks the ‘end call’ button in the app, and turns off the lamp."

Kline’s example seems typical, in its way. The Stream Deck attracts the kinds of people who like to tinker, and who like to automate things. The kind of folks who will spend an entire afternoon working on an iOS Shortcut so they can save a few seconds every time they perform a repetitive task (something I’m guilty of, too). 

"Who can remember keyboard shortcuts? Not me!"

The Stream Desk is the ultimate tweakers playground. Not only can you control simple functions on the computer, but you can use a button press to trigger a whole sequence of events. Kline’s phone-call example is an extreme one, but how about a single button press to launch all your work apps, set the screen layout how you like it, start your ambient music playing, and set the lights to the correct level? And another button to switch it all off when you’re done. 

Why Bother?

Much of this can be done with keyboard shortcuts, so why bother with a hardware unit? Precisely because it’s hardware. Putting everything in one place, with a grid of fixed buttons (although you can also flip between pre-configured scenes) is faster, in terms of muscle memory. And for some people, the little screens make the Stream Deck way more approachable than old-fashioned keyboard shortcuts.

"Who can remember keyboard shortcuts?" user Danny Reinfeld told Lifewire via MPU forums. "Not me!"

Woman sitting in from of laptop, multiple monitors, and a Stream Deck

Elgato

If I get one, I plan to use it to trigger Shortcuts on the Mac (when they arrive in macOS 12 Monterey) to show a little clock on one key, and for media controls. After that, I might set it up to be a custom controller for Adobe Lightroom, although, to be honest, I barely edit photos since getting the Fujifilm X-Pro3, which spits almost-perfect JPGs straight out of the camera. 

In the end, the Stream Deck is just cool. And at $150, it’s an affordable way to add remote controls and automation to your computer.

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