Thoughts on Pixel Buds
Posted on February 14, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 13 Comments
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.
Do you speak Spanish? Otherwise the translations could cause a few interesting situations, similar to an episode of Lucy when she was supposed to learn French for their trip.
On another matter, since you recently got that new guitar I’d like to see some more progress on callus development on those fingertips (I’m pretty sure you’re right-handed, and that’s your left in the image). Quit fiddling with your earbuds and get to jammin’, man!
The utility of the translation function will depend on whether or not your hovercraft really is full of eels.
pax / Ctein
I have had them now for two weeks love them,i have an lgg5 and pairing was no problem. Tried other earbuds liberty + zolo from kickstarter gut kept falling out got refund and got the pixel buds wont trade them they work great!
How do their microphone(s) work for phone conversations? I’ve used several mono bluetooth earbuds from multiple manufacturers in the $30-75 dollar range, and often get complaints from the person on the other end, although I can usually hear them fine.
The real question is, how close are they going to be to being a BrainPal(tm).
What are the data-usage and roaming fees consequences of using them as translators outside the country? I don’t really keep up with these things, but some years ago there were horror stories of American and Canadian smartphones sucking up extortionately priced data in Mexico …
My phone plan allows for a certain amount of bandwidth in Mexico/Canada without extra charges.
I might have to give them a try. An issue I have is that I don’t like buds in general. About the only times I use them is when I’m exercising or working on a home project, in other words when I’m doing something physically active. And I’ve never found a bud that stays put. And if they move out of place even a small amount the sound goes right down hill. And after any length of time they become uncomfortable.
One type of headphone I recently found that I like pretty well is the AfterShokz Trekz Titanium. It is a bone conduction bluetooth headphone. It doesn’t go in or on your ear but rather sits on your cheek bones just in front of you ears. They are much more comfortable than any bud style headphone I’ve tried and they stay put quite well even when jumping rope, running, lifting and anything I’ve done with them so far.
The sound is good though not quite as good as higher end buds (at least when they are stuffed into your ear properly). Though the bass on the Titanium may be better. I’m fine with good rather than the highest quality sound because, let’s face it, not even the best buds are particularly good sound quality compared to a fine pair of stereo loudspeakers, which is what I listen to music on otherwise. One thing I do like, though as the OP said some may not, is that because these ‘phones don’t go in or even on your ear you can hear outside noises reasonably well, at least if you keep the volume at a moderate level. This is good for situational awareness, which I am a bit anal about.
So, looking at pictures and going by the OP’s description I’m not quite sure how the Pixel buds fit. Are they the kind that have to be stuffed into your ear or do they just sit over your ear like a small conventional headphone?
Two thoughts here:
1) I know you work out of the house, but for a commuter, the ability to control an assistant by voice is wonderful, especially in the winter when I’m wearing gloves, etc.. I’ve had entire “meetings” with Siri between my office building and my train station, in which I ask Siri to remind me of several things when I get home, tell my wife I just left the office, fire up some music, and then interrupt the music to read my wife’s reply back to me – all without taking my phone out of my pocket. All I’m waiting for now is for someone to make a Bluetooth-enabled Star Trek communicator pin, so I can tap my chest and talk to my computer like they did in the show. (NOTE: I’m not really waiting for that, but it comes to mind every time I interact with my phone that way).
2) Translation testing: I suggest you sit down in front of Spanish-language television (or fire up some YouTube videos in a foreign language) to test that function before you find yourself lost in Mexico & frantically Googling for the way to say “Where’s the bathroom?” in Spanish. ;-)
I don’t know how well the Pixel Buds work, but Google Translate is generally pretty good for Spanish->English translation. I just spent two weeks in Argentina. My Spanish is poor, but good enough that I can generally use terrible broken Spanish to get my point across (“Tiene usted la machina para secar el pelo?”); my problem is understanding what Spanish speakers say (especially with that weird Argentinan accent.) Google Translate was able to come to the rescue on several occasions. And it’s also becoming somewhat standard for service people to pull out their phones and turn on Translate when there’s a language barrier issue. I’d be interested to hear an account of how well the Pixel Buds work for that.
I do have another question about the buds though: can you wear them while eating something crunchy? And I’d be interested if you do try them while jogging to hear your impressions of that experience as well.
Brian Greenberg – Thinkgeek has those Bluetooth communicator pins, as well as Bluetooth original-series communicators. They can only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses, though.