Buttoned Up

(Originally posted 2019-06-18.)

In Automation On Tap I talked about NFC tags and QR codes as ways of initiating automation.

This post is about a different initiator of automation.

I recently acquired the cheapest (and least functional) Elgato Stream Deck. This is a programmable array of buttons. My version has 6 buttons but you can buy one with 15 and one with 32 buttons.

A Previous Attempt Didn’t Push My Buttons

A while back I bought an external numeric keypad for my MacBook Pro. When I was editing our podcast with Audacity on the Mac I used this keypad to edit. It’s just numeric, with a few subsidiary keys.

What makes this programmable is that the Mac sees external keypad keys as distinct from their main-keyboard counterparts. So the “1” key on the external keypad has a different hardware code from the “1” key on the main keyboard. Keyboard Maestro macros can be triggered when keys are pressed. So I wrote macros to control Audacity, triggered by pressing keys on the external keypad.

But there was a problem: How do you know what each button does? It’s quite a pretty keypad – as you can see:

So I really didn’t want to stick labels on the key tops. I also tried to make my own template but there was an obvious difficulty: It’s hard to design one that tells you what the middle buttons in a cluster do.

There’s another problem: Suppose I set up automation for multiple apps – which Keyboard Maestro lets you do. Then I need a template for each app – as each will probably have its own key pad requirements. These templates are fragile and in any case this is a fiddly solution.

So this was good – up to a point. It certainly made podcast editing easier. But that was all.

And then I moved podcast editing to Ferrite on iOS, discussed here. And this keypad is now in a drawer. 😦

The One That I Want

Cue the Elgato Stream Deck Mini. First I should say there are other programmable keypads but this is the one that people talk about. I’d say with good reason.

As you can see, it’s corded and plugs into a USB A port.[1] Power to it is supplied by this cable.

It’s easy to set up, literally just plugging it in. To make it useful, though, you need their app – which is available for Mac or Windows. It’s a free app so no problem.

With their app you drag icons onto a grid that represents the Stream Deck’s buttons. Here’s what mine generally looks like when powered up and the Mac unlocked.

The key thing[2] to notice is the icons on the key tops. This is already a big advance on paper templates and ruined shiny key pads. I didn’t have to do anything to get these icons to show up[3]. What you can see is:

  • 4 applications – Sublime Text, Drafts, Airmail and Firefox.
  • A folder called “More”. More 🙂 on this in a moment.
  • Omnifocus Today

The applications are straightforward, but the Omnifocus Today one is more complex. Pushing the button simulates a hot key – in this case Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Cmd+T. I’ve set up a Keyboard Maestro script triggered by this – extremely difficult to type – hot key combination. This script brings Omnifocus (my task manager) to the front and – via a couple of key presses – switches to my Today perspective.

So it’s not just launching applications. It can kick off more complex automation.

And someone built a bridge to IFTTT’s Maker Channel – which could open up quite a lot of automation possibilities. But right now I only have a test one – which emails me when I press the button.

One thing I haven’t tried yet is setting up buttons to open URLs in a browser. I don’t think I’ve got the real estate for that, with only six buttons.

Unreal Estate

In reality I probably should’ve plumped for the 15 button one[4], rather than the 6, but this has been an interesting exercise in dealing with limited button “real estate”.

So, if I press the “More” button I get this:

Because the button tops are “soft” they can change dynamically – as this demonstrates. This is much better than sticking labels on physical keys.

Two features of note:

  • The back button – top left
  • The “Still More” button bottom right

Being able to create the latter means I can nest folders within folders. This greatly increases my ability to define buttons.

The Right Profile

There’s one final trick that’s worth sharing.

Everything I’ve shown you so far has been from the Default Profile. You can set up different profiles for different apps.

I happen to have a few Keyboard Maestro macros for Excel – to make it a little less tedious to use. So I created a profile for Excel.

So when Excel is in the foreground the Stream Deck looks like this:

I’m still setting it up – and you can see two undefined (blank) buttons. – but you get the general idea. The two Excel-specific buttons – using an image I got off the web[5] – kick off some really quite complex AppleScript:

  • Size Graph – which resizes the current Excel graph to a standard-for-me 20cm high and 30cm wide. This is fiddly so having a single button press to do it is rather nice.
  • Save Graph – which fiddles with menus to get to the ability to save a graph as a .PNG file with a single button press.

(In retrospect I should probably have changed the text to black – which is easy to do.)

So in real estate terms, application-specific profiles are really handy.

One pro tip: Close the Stream Deck editor if you want application-specific profiles to work. I spent ages wondering why they didn’t – until I closed the editor.


This programmable key pad with dynamically-changing keytops is a really nice way to kick off automation from a single key press (or a few if you use cascading menus).

I would go for the most expensive one you can afford – but I’ve shown you ways you can get round the 6-button constraint in the Stream Deck Mini.

Application-specific profiles are a really nice touch.

The whole thing is rather fun for an inveterate tinkerer like me. 🙂

In short, I think I’ll be throwing this in my backpack and taking it with me wherever my MacBook Pro goes.

And one day I’ll upgrade to a model with more buttons.

  1. As they say not to use a USB hub I don’t know if it would plug into USB C via an adapter.  ↩

  2. Pun intended.  ↩

  3. Except the OmniFocus one – where I had to find an icon – but even that was easy.  ↩

  4. At much greater cost, of course. Still more so with the 32-button variant.  ↩

  5. You can create your own icons using a nice editor they have, which contains quite a wide variety of icons. But Excel wasn’t one of them – so I found an image and used that. The preferred dimensions are a 72-pixel square.  ↩

Published by Martin Packer

I'm a mainframe performance guy and have been for the past 35 years. But I play with lots of other technologies as well.

2 thoughts on “Buttoned Up

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