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Pixel Buds review: Lost in translation

by Brandon Russell | November 25, 2017

When the Pixel Buds were introduced last month, they showed a lot of promise. Not only could they seamlessly connect with an Android device, but the headphones put Google’s powerful Assistant technology right in your ear.

But the real highlight was the Buds’ ability to perform real time language translation. Google’s now famous demonstration, in which the company said the Pixel Buds were like having a personal translator by your side, looked like something out the future.

Unfortunately, the Pixel Buds aren’t quite the futuristic gadget we hoped. Google’s advanced machine learning is remarkably impressive. But using the Pixel Buds isn’t nearly as seamless as you’d think, making the headphones a frustrating experience more often than not.

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Lots of missed potential

At $159, the Pixel Buds are essentially Google’s answer to Apple’s AirPods, though they aren’t truly wireless in the way Apple’s headphones are. They feature a durable braided cord connecting the two buds, along with a case that also acts as a charger.

They’re about as plain and straightforward as wireless headphones can be, with a relatively anonymous design that make the Pixel Buds look like every other pair of wireless headphones on the market. The difference is how easy they can pair with a device like the Pixel 2. Just open the case, hold it near an Android device, and that’s it.

It works in theory. But I ran into a few instances when they wouldn’t connect. And they’ve been downright unreliable when connecting them to my MacBook Air, which I’m not even sure they’re supposed to do. One day they’d connect just fine, the next they wouldn’t even show up in my Bluetooth preferences.

Back to the case, it’s made of a hard plastic wrapped in fabric. While it looks nice, it feels very flimsy, like a styrofoam to-go container; with a little effort, you can probably rip off the top half of the shell. It’s not the most solidly constructed case I’ve ever seen.

On that note, putting the headphones back in the case requires a great deal of finesse. Google saw it fit to include instructions on the inside of the case because of how complicated it can be. Once you get it, though, you get it.

As for the headphones, they feature a myriad of touch controls, including a tap and double tap. The touch controls are fairly intuitive, but on more than one occasion I accidentally paused the music when all I wanted to do was adjust the earbuds. The touch controls, while convenient, are frustratingly sensitive.

Because they’re so sensitive, taking them off without performing some form of control was nearly impossible. A few times I would pause a song, take the earbuds off, and place them on the table. When I picked them back up music was already playing because my finger just barely grazed the right earbud.

Oddly, there is no touch gesture to skip tracks, which means you either do that on your phone or by summoning Google Assistant, which seems like an unnecessary extra step. As of now, swiping forward and back on the right earbud is dedicated to adjusting the volume.

Enjoyed in bursts

I can adapt to overly sensitive headphones. But if they aren’t comfortable, what’s the point? The Pixel Buds are somewhere in the middle.

They’re not painfully uncomfortable, but they aren’t earbuds I can wear for long stretches. Usually, after an hour or so I would have to take a break. The problem is that they don’t fit in my ears all that well, despite featuring an adjustable cord.

They just kind of sit there without feeling particularly snug (but not so much as to fall out). This means the Pixel Buds aren’t very good at cancelling out ambient noise. Even in a relatively quiet office, I found nearby conversations to be a distraction. Granted, Google’s headphones weren’t designed to cancel noise, but it’s something to note.

Even still, the Pixel Buds produce clear sound quality. I’ve never used Apple’s AirPods, so I’m not sure how Google’s headphones compare. But, to my untrained ears, they sound pretty good for what they are which, to be fair, is to provide users with a more convenient connection to Google Assistant.

And battery life has been solid so far. During a normal 9 to 5 workday, I was able to eke out about 5 hours, with constant pausing throughout the day. That’s with Assistant, music, phone calls, etc. To charge them, simply place them back in their case.

Real-time translation (sort of)

Google’s Pixel Buds demonstration played into every geek’s fantasy, which is to witness real-time language translation. While Google Translate can more or less do that, the Pixel Buds promised something better: Real-time translation without an app or fussy internet connection.

Turns out, we’re not quite there yet. According to Google, the real-time translation feature works through Google Assistant, which opens up the Translate app on your phone.

To translate a phrase, tap and hold on the right earbud while you’re speaking. You’ll see text of the translated language on your phone, which will then read it aloud. It’s basically a more convoluted way to get to Google Translate on your phone.

To even get this to work you need a Pixel, Pixel XL, Pixel 2, or Pixel 2 XL. So you need a host of different factors to work in harmony for the feature to work seamlessly. Again, you can just as easily open the Translate app on your phone.

That doesn’t make Google’s idea any less cool. It’s just not executing quite as slickly as the search giant’s demo suggested. With a few more years of work, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google figure out how to execute legit real-time translation in version 3 or 4 of the Pixel Buds.

Only for diehard Google fans

They’re not the most comfortable headphones, and their full potential can’t be tapped unless you own a Pixel device. So who is going to buy the Pixel Buds? Diehard Google fans who rely on the company’s Assistant platform.

That’s what the Pixel Buds excel at doing: Providing users with a direct line to Assistant, which works reliably and quickly when called upon. For me, though, those situations are few and far between. So all I’m left with is a pair of wireless headphones that kind of fit. (They might fit your ears perfectly.)

Outside of that, the Pixel Buds are a series of exciting ideas that aren’t quite executed. For $159, you might want to look elsewhere.


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Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...


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