Google devices are usually hit or miss. The company has a long history of launching its own hardware, but many of those products have gone nowhere, such as the Nexus Q streaming media device, Google Glass wearable, Nexus 7 tablet, and Pixel C convertible. Maybe they were too niche, maybe they were late to the game, maybe they just weren't really good.
Whatever the reason, it hasn't stopped Google from persevering, delivering some success with its Pixel devices. And its latest part of the Pixel puzzle is the Pixel Buds earphones, which also offer smart features such as the promise of real-time translation.
But these in-ears don't come cheap. So before you spend £159 on another Google device that runs the risk of being DOA, we spent a few weeks testing them out to see if they're truly worth it.
How do you control Pixel Buds?
Pixel Buds are two regular-sized earphones, linked together by a cloth-covered cord. They pair to your smartphone via Bluetooth and are compatible with most smartphones today - although are best used with Google Pixel phones for the full smart feature suite.
The right earphone has a touchpad, so you can tap it to play or pause music, swipe forward or backward to adjust volume, or double tap - if connected to an Android phone - to hear a read-out of the time and your most recent notifications.
There's no gesture for skipping songs, oddly, though you can activate Google Assistant with a tap-and-hold, at which point you can ask to go back to a track, as long as the music-streaming app you're using supports voice playback controls. The Apple Music for Android app, for instance, does not. In that case, if you want to change the song, you have to pull out your phone, then navigate to the app, and manually control playback. Lame.
We found the touchpad to be really sensitive, sometimes causing error presses, especially when trying to put the Buds back into their included case or leaving them hanging around our neck. It's unfortunate that these earphones can't tell when they're not in your ears. We would prefer them to only be active when in use. Plus, currently, they can't even be turned off unless in their case.
Are Pixel Buds easy to pair?
If you're an Android user, when you open the Buds' charging case, an alert should pop up on your phone, and, with the tap of a button, the Buds will pair.
It doesn't happen that easily, though. We've tried a dozen times, and whenever we open the charging case, we've had to press the small button on it to get the pairing alert to pop up. And you have to manually pair the Buds with all your devices, whether a Pixel phone or a Pixelbook.
In other words, our Pixelbook couldn't tell we already paired the Pixel Buds with our Pixel 2 XL. We would've really loved this sort of seamless pairing, as it's something you can already get through Apple AirPods (for iOS ecosystem only), thanks to the W1 chip.
Are Pixel Buds comfortable to wear?
There's an included cord to connect the Pixel Buds, which is designed to be fed through a hole to create a small loop above each earphone, designed to sit in the arches of your ears to keep them from falling out.
It's a neat concept that's not so neat in practice. First of all, there's a learning curve to placing the earphones in your ears and wrapping the cord around. After a few tries and reading and re-reading of the manual, you should get it.
But then, you'll find that the cord constantly falls out. And you have to adjust the loop every time this happens, which means you're fidgeting with the damn things every 10 minutes.
Not only that, but we found the Pixel Buds uncomfortable to wear for anything longer than 30 minutes, because the cord continually grates against your ears. It hurts. We can't imagine runners - or anyone who moves for any activity whatsoever - using these things.
How do Pixel Buds sound?
We find the Buds to sound virtually identical to most earphones you might get for free in a phone box. So no Bose-levels of sound quality here.
That makes the £159 price tag seem extra steep. But you're paying for the wireless aspect, plus the included charger and smart features, which we'll get into in a bit. You aren't paying for a stellar audio, though the sound is clear enough.
In a room with no-one else around and absolutely no background noise, you'll be happy with the music listening experience. But if you're outdoors, where it's loud and chaotic, you won't be pleased. The Pixel Buds have an open design that requires you to turn up the music often, and even then, you'll still hear things going on around you, which is a huge pain if you live in a dense, urban area with a lot of distractions all around.
For instance, we were at a train station with these things on, and with trains pulling in an out and passengers coming and going, we could still hear the person sitting next to us as well as the music blasting in their own ears. Not cool.
Can Pixel Buds really translate in real time?
Google isn't marketing Pixel Buds for their sound. The company is really pushing the smart features, like their ability to handle real-time language translation. With a tap, you can speak and have your words read out in another language - which sounds absolutely amazing in theory, but is rather "meh" in reality. The feature is merely an extension of the already-available Google Translate app on your phone. And, the feature only works if you own a Pixel phone.
You see, you have to pair the Pixel Buds to your Pixel phone, and then you can tap the right earphone and say, "Help me speak [language]," which opens the Translate app on your phone. At that point, you can tap the right earphone and start speaking. Pixel Buds will send your phone a message, where your translation will be typed out and read aloud in whatever language you chose. And that's it. We had imagined a more magical experience.
Also, the translations are semi accurate based on our use. Buds can translate basic sentences, but if you want to hold a brisk, complex conversation, these smart earphones simply can't.
Of the 40 supported languages, we only tried a handful. Still, we suspect using the app on any device is probably quicker, easier and less awkward, which is a real buzz-kill since translation is the Buds' key feature.
What can you do with Assistant on Pixel Buds?
The other smart feature Pixel Buds has, which we've already touched upon, is Google Assistant. It's easy to use and really fast. Just tap and talk. It's the feature we use the most, whether for transit times, to read the news, to check the weather, to cue music, and more. We're not sure we've ever used Assistant this much before.
But you need an Android phone for this to be possible. So if you plan to use Pixel Buds with an iPhone, keep in mind you can't trigger Google Assistant.
Are notifications on Pixel Buds annoying?
Far from it. When wearing Pixel Buds, you'll hear an alert when important notifications are received. When we got a message in Facebook Messenger, we'd hear a "bloop" and then Google Assistant announcing the name of the sender. We could then double-tap on the right earphone to force Assistant to read the entire message, and long-press to transcribe our reply. It's fantastic.
How does the charging cradle work?
The charging cradle doubles as a carrying case, and like the cord that you have to loop into the Pixel Buds, it's a bit of a struggle to use. Each earphone needs to rest perfectly in the case or else it won't close and charge. You also have to wrap the cord around in a such a complicated way that Google's included a diagram that illustrates what to do. It takes practice, and you will fail nearly every time. What fun!
On a more positive note, the case is small, portable and cloaked in a nice fabric finish and it gives you an extra day of battery life. (The case uses USB-C to charge, which, in turn, charges the Pixel Buds.)
How long do Pixel Buds last?
You'll get about four hours of audio if you don't activate Google Assistant a lot.
On one hand, Pixel Buds offer a decent Google Assistant experience. On the other hand, they're frustratingly designed, don't sound great, and don't deliver on the potential of their real-time translation headline feature.
Google has made headway with its Pixel product line. But, sadly, the Pixel Buds are a dud within the line-up. One to miss.
The AirPods are £70 cheaper and simple to pair with an iPhone. However, they're not the most snug-fitting earphones around, but they do stay in your ears. The Jabra take it when it comes to audio quality though.
Read the full article: Apple Airpods review