Thoughts on Pixel Buds

A picture of my Pixel Bud earphones, in their carrying case.

Because apparently I’ve gone entirely over to the Google side of the force and will be getting “Pixel 4 Lyfe” tattooed somewhere on my body, I’ve acquired a pair of Pixel Buds, the Google-manufactured wireless earbuds that are designed to work specifically with the Google Pixel 2 line of phones (which I have), although I understand they will work like a regular pair bluetooth earbuds with other phones and Bluetooth-compatible devices. I’ve had these for a bit over a week now but have only really used them a lot in the last couple of days (my previous Pixel 2 met a bad end thanks to a tile floor, and I only paired these with the new Pixel 2 the other day). I have thoughts on them. Here they are.

1. The Pixel Buds were not rapturously reviewed in other places, and I think a major knock on them is that they’re very fiddly, i.e., they work in a very specific way and require you to conform to that way, rather than them conforming to you. And in fact, that’s pretty accurate, not the least because in order to charge the buds you have to put them in their carrying case, so if you lose the case, you’re pretty much boned. Also the touch-sensitive surfaces of the earbuds are super-twitchy, which can be really annoying until you develop muscle memory for how to insert and remove the buds from your ears and otherwise interact with them. They’re certainly the most high-maintenance pair of earbuds I’ve owned.

2. Is their high-maintenance nature worth it? If you’re getting them just to have a pair of wireless earbuds, probably not — there are cheaper and less (literally) touchy earbuds you can buy to pair to your phone and listen to music or make phone calls. But if you have a Pixel 2 (or Pixel 2 XL) phone, and you are excited by the idea of having Google Assistant right in your ear and doing things for you at the tap of an earbud (like play music, or look up something, or get walking directions, etc), then, sure, they’re nifty.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the Google Assistant up in my ear, incidentally. As with many things relating to Google Assistant and Pixel-line products, I’m not sure that the various shortcuts to access it (squeezing the edge of your phone, the Pixel Bud ear press, the Pixelbook dedicated button) make it any more useful in a general sense than just looking something up via a Google search bar, especially because the Google search bar has voice recognition. It’s ostensibly nifty but in a practical sense I’m still looking for GA to really differentiate itself. That said, with the Pixel Buds you can keep your Pixel 2 in your pocket and direct it via the buds, and I suppose that’s not chopped liver.

3. One thing that is very nice about the Pixel Buds — if you have a Pixel 2 — is that it initially pairs with the phone simply by opening the holding case clamshell. It’s the easiest damn Bluetooth pairing I’ve ever done. With that said, in order to pair the buds to the second Pixel 2 after I unintentionally dashed the first phone on bathroom tiles, I had to do a factory reset (pressing a small button inside the case for fifteen seconds) otherwise the new phone wouldn’t find or pair with them. Once I did that, it was again super-simple to pair, but this was kind of a long way around, and I kind of had to figure it out myself. Something to keep in mind.

4. Another thing other reviewers were not in love with was the how the Pixel Buds fit in your ear with the help of cord loops that you adjust and then tuck into your ear folds. But that’s actually working pretty well for me. I guess maybe I have the right sort of ears for it (there are other earbuds that simply do not work for me — the kind that you stuff into your ear canal never work; they always, always fall out). I’ve walked around with the Pixel Buds in and they’ve stayed secure. You do have to readjust them every few times you put them in but that’s not difficult. I haven’t tried heavy exercise with them, but short of that they do just fine.

5. How do they sound? They sound good. The tone is pretty decent and they can get loud if you want them too. They’re not noise-cancelling and they sit outside your ear canal so you can still hear the outside world, which depending on your druthers may not be a great thing (but they get loud enough that you can drown out the outside world, too). Music sounds clear and fine, and the phone meeting I was on this morning was nice and clear in there. They work for their basic intended function.

6. The thing about the Pixel Buds needing to be in their case to charge isn’t my favorite not in the least because I’m almost guaranteed to lose that case at some point. On the other hand it means that the buds are almost always fully charged, and the case itself charges with a USB-C cord, as do the other Pixel products. When you have the Pixel Buds paired with a Pixel 2, the Bluetooth notification also tells you how much battery is left on the earbuds.

7. The major function that the Pixel Buds have that I’ve not tried is translation integration, on the reasoning that I’ve not spoken to anyone in anything other than English since I got them. I’m about to take a vacation to Mexico, and maybe if I don’t too feel dorky about it, I might try it there. The idea of someone speaking in their language and a (basic) translation coming out of my earbuds is gonna be very Babel Fish.

Overall: I like the Pixel Buds, but much of that is because they are in fact so well-integrated with the Pixel 2 and because I’ll willing to work with their inherent fiddliness. If you are as deep into the Google Pixel ecosystem as I clearly am, they are worth a look. If you’re not, maybe wait for the next iteration, or at least better integration with non-Pixel phones.

The Big Idea: Karen Healey

Author Karen Healey has some very specific advice about the use of apostrophes, and prologues. What is it and how does it have an impact on The Empress of Timbra, the novel she co-wrote with Robyn Fleming? Healey is here to fill you in on the details — with all the apostrophes in the correct place.

KAREN HEALEY:

There are two pieces of high fantasy writing advice, often given, that I think are thoroughly sensible:

  1. Don’t use apostrophes in characters’ names.
  2. Don’t write a prologue.

Don’t use apostrophes in names, because it’s a cliche. You’ll annoy your readers. Don’t write a prologue, because your world-building should be incorporated into the main plot; there’s no point in getting the reader interested in events that happened a generation or a century or a thousand years before your main narrative. You only run the risk they’ll be more intrigued with your prologue than what you’ve decided is the real story.

But just because you’re aware of the guidelines doesn’t mean you won’t convince yourself it’s all right not to follow them, especially when you’ve read enough high fantasy to know stories that have got away with breaking one or both of these rules to spectacular effect.

About a decade ago, my co-writer Robyn Fleming and I wrote an epistolary fantasy novel in the style of the Letter Game, exchanging emails back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Like us, our protagonists were separated by an ocean, and like us, they were two young women who were close friends. But unlike us, they lived in a second-world high fantasy setting. They were discovering a vast conspiracy, getting embroiled in politics and romances, and saving two nations with a combination of smarts, luck, and magic.

They had apostrophes in their names.

We started the story as a game, but we realised pretty early on that we had something interesting, maybe even something worth developing into a real novel. So we showed it to some friends.

(For the record: Our apostrophes were meaningful. They were significant. They indicated status, linguistic drift, cultural detail, and history. They were the good kind of apostrophe!)

“Ditch the apostrophes,” our early readers said.

“But they are very important,” we told them, and each other. (The biggest joy–and biggest problem–of having a co-writer is that you can easily reinforce each other’s ideas.) “One might even argue that the apostrophes are essential to the very heart of the narrative! You wouldn’t ask us to cut out the heart of the narrative!”

We took the book to a WisCon writing workshop. Every single critique told us to ditch the apostrophes.

“Fine,” we said. “Fine. We guess the world isn’t ready for our apostrophes.” We cut the goddamn apostrophes. The narrative retained its heart. We learned a valuable lesson about murdering our darlings.

Nobody told us to cut the prologue, and the reason for that was because nobody, including us, actually knew it was a prologue until long after we’d finished the sequel to the first book. The sequel wasn’t told in alternating letters, but in alternating chapters. The protagonists are Elaku and Taver, aged eleven and fourteen, the children of one of the main characters in the first book. The story follows them as they meet for the first time, figure out how to grow up, and, just incidentally, get caught up in a political plot that could destroy their homeland.

We had two protagonists again, and political machinations, and hefty doses of smarts, luck, and magic. We had blacksmithing and dangerous herbivores, religion and treachery, pirates and battles at sea.

This time, we left out the apostrophes.

The Empress of Timbra was undeniably a better book than its predecessor. Our villains were more interesting. Our world-building was stronger. The events of the first novel had sparked a period of rapid social and religious change, and through Taver and Elaku, we were able to explore the implications of that from the perspective of characters who were growing up in a world marked by those changes. And then we wrote a direct sequel to that book, still with Taver and Elaku, and plotted a third and realised… the first book was a 90,000 word prologue.

And we had to cut it.

I don’t regret writing that book. The prologue novel gives a depth and vividness to The Empress of Timbra that makes it feel like part of a larger, older world–which it is. Writing it allowed us to explore some big ideas. But when we gently folded that prologue novel away into a virtual drawer, we were able to concentrate on the even bigger ideas that followed it.

The real story isn’t about the women in that prologue novel. It’s about Taver and Elaku, two bastard half-siblings drawn into dangerous conspiracy in a changing world, relying on their smarts, their magic, their luck, and each other to prevent disaster.

So this is our advice to high fantasy writers who might be starting where we started:

  1. Go ahead and write a prologue. But if it doesn’t help you tell the best version of your story, let it go.
  2. Seriously. Ditch the apostrophes.

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The Empress of Timbra: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt (at the Kobo site). Visit the co-author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.