Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Pixel Buds

The Google Pixel Buds are utterly frustrating.

They sound better than any in-ear headphones, wired or wireless, I have ever used.  Their rich and satisfying sound makes their competitors (Apple’s AirPods, JLabs’ Epic2 et al.) sound downright  tinny by comparison.  The microphone works shockingly well; I’ve had telephone conversations using the Pixel Buds, and the people at the other end have never even realized I was on Bluetooth.  And the Pixel Buds are comfortable enough to use all day.

But what sets the Pixel Buds apart is their “Googleyness.” The Google Assistant is just a tap away, similar to Siri on the AirPods, but much more capable.  Using that amazing microphone, through the Assistant you can instantly access your calendar, your music, navigation, the weather; all of Google, really.  It will read you your messages (SMS, email, WhatsApp, etc.) if you so desire.  And, when used with a Pixel phone, the Google Assistant is capable of instant translation, which works exactly as demonstrated at last year’s Google I/O conference.  Truly mind boggling.

So, why is this extraordinary product frustrating?  Because it does all of the foregoing, extremely difficult things, exceedingly well, yet totally falls down on some of the basic stuff.

The right earbud is the headset’s control center.  You tap it once to play/pause the audio (or video), or to answer or end a phone call.  Tap and hold brings up the Google Assistant.  Double tap to listen to your notifications.  A forward swipe increases the volume, and a backward swipe decreases it.  And it all works perfectly, as long as the earbuds are in your ears.  The right earbud’s surface is so sensitive that taking the earbuds off and hanging them around your neck will almost certainly result in inadvertent gestures just by virtue of the right earbud dangling around and slightly touching your chest.  So your podcast will begin playing, and of course you won’t know it because the earbuds are not in your ears.  In fact, just removing the earbuds from your ears without setting off the control requires significant dexterity.

The Pixel Buds come with a storage case that doubles as a charger (à la AirPods).  However, unlike the AirPods, to properly place the Pixel Buds inside their finicky case is challenging in itself, and to do so without activating the control is almost impossible.  This is so much the case that I often find myself throwing up my hands and turning Bluetooth off on my phone while I fastidiously put the Pixel Buds back in their case.

The Pixel Buds are like a restaurant that serves delicious, exotic cuisine, but requires you to traverse a field of sharp-edged rocks in your bare feet to get there, and to get back out.  

You love the food, but is it worth the pain?