Like many great products, the Elgato Stream Deck was not precisely a new idea.
When the very first debuted six years ago this month, we immediately compared it to Art Lebedev’s legendary Optimus Maximus keyboard, which promised an array of swirling OLED screens under your fingertips a full decade earlier. Razer also pioneered LCD keys for their time by mounting them on a keyboard and the company’s very first Blade laptop.
But today we celebrate the simple genius of Elgato – the company that eventually turned it into a viable product by making them relatively cheap, comfortable and most importantly: peripheral.
Art Lebedev and Razer both believed that we wanted a new keyboard that changes, replacing our primary computer input mechanism with one that intelligently adapts to our needs.
Even today, the idea feels grand: “Why should Photoshop and Earthquake offering you the same boring keyboard? you can almost hear Art Lebedev’s concept images asking.
Razer, perhaps inspired by that Earthquake keyboard layout, asked a follow-up question in 2011: “If your keys can change, maybe you don’t need that many to play PC games on the go?” The result was the Razer Switchbladea prototype 7-inch handheld gaming PC co-developed with Intel.
Razer didn’t sell those, though. The last “Razer Switchblade” turned out to be much less exciting at the time: ten LCD keys and a touchscreen trackpad embedded in a normal keyboard. You can almost see a Stream Deck if you look closely – but still integrated, not yet peripheral.
Therefore, the idea did not stick. Razer thought users would buy a pricey keyboard ($250) or laptop ($2000+), give up familiarity with the input devices they already owned, and rely on game developers to support the new Switchblade UI. It also didn’t help that the keys felt unforgiving – stiff, flat and brittle.
The Elgato Stream Deck asked for none of those compromises.
Photo by Dan Seifert/The Verge
Right off the bat, the Stream Deck presented itself as a purpose-built tool right up to its name, giving you handy buttons to control Twitch, OBS, and Twitter right out of the gate. (It does a lot more these days.) You post it alongside your favorite keyboard, rather than replacing it, and between that and the $80 starting price of the six-key Stream Deck Mini, I was quickly sold.
And the keys, those keys… soft, snug, inviting, each jeweled press like peeling off a piece of bubble wrap. I’m not saying it’s anything like the satisfying creak of a mechanical switch – it’s a whole different joy.
Speaking of which… I have a little announcement to make, a treat to any Stream Deck owners who might be reading this story:
The Verge has its own official Bubble-popping Stream Deck plugin!
Before he left for a 2,600-mile hike—seriously, he walks the Pacific Crest Trail—my dear colleague Mitchell Clark coded the bubble-popping app of my daydreams, complete with sound effects. (He even submitted it to Elgato on his first day on the trail.) It works with as many buttons as you want; Tom even tested a full page of bubbles on his 32-button Stream Deck XL.
It’s live on the Elgato app storeit is our free gift to you and you can download it now.
I have an interview with the head of Elgato coming up soon and I plan to ask how they managed to make these keys feel really good. We already know that there is no small screen under each key:
The buttons are everything lenses that sit on top of a single LCD screen. The more you know!