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Video game streaming continues to boom, with more and more players trying their luck broadcasting game footage. Not everyone can make it big, but there are plenty of viewers out there to compete for, and tools to help you succeed. The Elgato Stream Deck ($149.99) could be a serious streamer’s best friend, offering a customizable set of shortcut buttons for your most frequent commands while broadcasting. It allows you to set multiple hotkeys across a variety of programs for streaming and video capture services, as well as other tasks like clipping game footage and setting macros. The Stream Deck is not essential for everyone, especially given its price, but for consistent streamers with an audience, it’s a valuable accessory.

What is the Stream Deck?

Up front, you may be unsure what this product is for, so I’ll start with an explanation. The Stream Deck is built for people who stream themselves playing video games via online streaming services (think Twitch, Mixer, and YouTube). The deck contains three rows of five physical buttons on its face, each button with a tiny, customizable LCD screen within it.

The Stream Deck not essential for streaming per se, but it makes doing things while you are streaming seamless. To do so, you assign frequently used commands to a series of physical buttons. What appears on each button “screen” is entirely up to you and what software you use most often. As such, this is really a product for more consistent or serious (or at least, aspirationally serious) streamers. It’s a helpful accessory to have if you stream for an audience and use commands for chat, animations, sound effects, and saving gameplay clips. But not something we’d deem fundamental to those starting out or just streaming to a few friends.

With the concept out of the way, let’s back up and dive into the details. The device is very simple in its design, but the inclusion of a plastic stand makes for a clever little setup. It features 15 upward-facing LCD buttons (plenty more on those in a moment) and is made entirely of black plastic. The deck itself is tiny, measuring just 0.8 by 4.6 by 3.3 inches and 0.4 pound. Despite that light weight, it has enough heft that it doesn’t feel like a cheap hollow box. You won’t be moving or lifting it much, of course, but this all means the Stream Deck has a very small footprint and can fit into a small square of open space on your desk.

Elgato Stream Deck 5

The included stand makes a barely discernible difference to the size, but does make it much easier to use. On the front, there is a vertical groove to place the deck into so that it faces out toward you. On the rear, there’s a kickstand and rows of notches for the kickstand to slot into, allowing you to adjust the angle. There are technically two sizes of kickstand built in, with a smaller pair of legs cut into the larger kickstand, giving you a greater degree of angle options. This is a clever way of adding variety without making the stand bigger. The kickstand legs slot into notches at the back, letting you lock your preferred angle in place.

When in the stand, the Stream Deck is easy enough to use flat, but you can’t really see the icons on each button at that angle. The stand is physically more stable when flat or mostly reclined than it is standing upright, but even when close to vertical, rubber grips on the front groove and the bottom of the stand keep it from moving around when you’re poking at the buttons.

Ready to Stream: Setup and Ease of Use

To get started, you simply plug the Stream Deck into your PC via the attached USB cable, and it’s powered on. Next, you’ll have to download the free Stream Deck software from Elgato’s site if you want to make use of the device, but it’s a pretty lightweight, simple program. It should detect whichever Stream Deck product you have connected, and the center of the screen displays empty squares that match the layout of the physical buttons on the deck.

From there, customization is very simple. The right-side bar is home to a list of services and software you may use for streaming, pre-loaded with the most popular ones. There are collapsible menus for Twitch, Mixer, OBS, Xsplit, YouTube, and even Twitter ready to go in this right-hand rail after you install Stream Deck. Each of these menus contains a list of actions you can perform in that program.

Elgato Stream Deck 6

Using Twitch as the main example, the options include playing an ad, putting the chat in slow or subscribers-only mode, creating a clip from your recent gameplay, and more. If you drag and drop one of these actions into one of the blank center squares, it will instantly be reflected on the physical buttons on your Stream Deck. For example, if I want to put my Twitch chat in subscribers-only mode, I’ll drag that text onto one of the blank spaces, and it will appear on the corresponding Stream Deck button LCD.

This inherently feels pretty cool and high-tech, but of course it’s the functionality that’s appealing. If I’m streaming on Twitch and see my chat is getting a bit out of control, I can flip it to subs only with a single button press, rather than navigating through several clicks (likely on a second screen or even another PC). If you’re in the middle of a game, it keeps you focused on the action more, and this ease of use applies to virtually every action. It’s much quicker to hit a dedicated clip footage button than to use the Twitch interface, for example.

Elgato Stream Deck 4

I did some test streams and, while I didn’t have a real audience to control, the functionality worked as it should. Hitting a button to save a clip of what you just did, send a programmed message to the chat, and start and stop broadcasting are all seamless. Having these commands on a physical board makes you feel like you’re at a control center, which is neat.

All of this extends beyond Twitch, of course, but it demonstrates how these actions would work in other use cases. Mixer has a similar menu to Twitch, while OBS has options to start and stop streaming, and you can imagine the options for the rest. There are a host of options for game footage capture specifically, including Elgato’s Game Capture software. I don’t have a capture card on my home test PC, so I was unable to try this out, but if you have a card such as Elgato’s own Game Capture HD60 S, the important takeaway is that it’s quite easy to understand and almost as simple to use.

Beyond Streaming

It may surprise you, but I am not, in fact, a full-time professional streamer. I tested the main streaming features to see how seamless it is to use, and how well integrated the Stream Deck can be in your setup. Seeing as how this isn’t my main use case, though, I also tried to fit the Stream Deck into my usual activities, both gaming and otherwise. I’m happy to say I found it genuinely useful for other tasks, though I wouldn’t suggest buying the Stream Deck without planning on streaming.

The most useful integrations for me were a macro recorder and Nvidia Shadowplay, the latter being the graphics company’s streaming and game-recording software. Unlike the other programs I mentioned, Shadowplay isn’t installed into the Stream Deck software by default. In the bottom right corner, there’s a More Actions button, which brings up a menu for adding plugins. These are made by Elgato, other manufacturers (Elgato’s mother company, Corsair, has a plugin for controlling system lighting, for example), and individual developers.

Elgato Stream Deck 7

Both the macro recorder and Shadowplay were uploaded by a developer named BarRaider, and became essential to my Stream Deck experience. When I play games, I almost always have Shadowplay running in the background. I often use it as a frame rate counter, but its Instant Replay feature is usually how I save a clip of something good, bad, or ridiculous that just happened while playing. I have a keyboard shortcut to save clips, but occasionally my shortcut key ends up being a key I use for a different command in that game, and frankly assigning that function to a physical Stream Deck button is more satisfying. This is especially true when the clip function is lined up next to screenshot, manual record, and toggle frame rate buttons on the Stream Deck. It feels like a real control center, and once set up I don’t have to use or remember keybinds.

The macro recorder, named Super Macro, has the widest variety of uses. You can enter text to write out commands and customize fairly specific strings of actions, familiar to anyone who has used macros. It’s a bit different from macros on, say, a keyboard, because you write in the commands as text rather than with a recording. It still only took me a few minutes to learn the basics, and there’s a link to a guide in the plugin.

Some of the simpler inputs I programmed were in-jokes among friends in group chats, like setting up a button for a custom Slack or Discord emoji. You can change the image that appears on the Stream Deck button LCD by choosing a file, which can lead to an amusing-looking board. A custom emoji a friend made of my face, for instance, ended up as a button on my deck while I was learning how the macros worked. There are more legitimate uses for macros, though I’ll stand by the vitality of my face.

Elgato Stream Deck 3

Between all of these options, it’s possible 15 buttons is not enough for the hardcore crowd. I was stretching to fill my board out, but given that I don’t really need OBS or other capture-related inputs, I had plenty of space for the most-used commands. If you do need more space, Elgato sells a Stream Deck XL with a whopping 32 buttons, for $249.99.

A Serious Streamer’s Best Friend

All told, we really like the Elgato Stream Deck. It is expensive, which is a big factor in the disclaimer laid out up front. If you’re not a semi-serious or consistent streamer, it’s hard to really justify. If it were less expensive, it could be a useful enough tool and a good gag accessory. At $150, you’re probably going to want to get real use out of it.

We don’t think the price is too high for those who need it, just warning potential buyers that it has a targeted audience. If you’re just starting up your streaming efforts, you can hold off on the Stream Deck. It’s not essential, and you don’t want to over-invest before you see if you stick with it or can develop an audience. If you do stream consistently, have a chat to manage, and use some or most of the streaming-related software I mentioned, the Stream Deck is a good, useful, and cool tool. The additional features I enjoyed may not make it an essential purchase, but they do accentuate the fundamental use case.

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