I'm Lance Somoza, a professional IT Consultant with over 15 years of industry experience and an obsession for technology. This is my tech soapbox.

Sam Machkovech for Ars Technica wrote a great review on what sounds like a bad product — the new Pixel Buds, Google’s challenge to AirPods. As I started pulling out quotes to comment on, the common theme we as obvious — Pixel Buds sound like they are badly designed. I haven’t played with them myself, but I can see a trend emerging.

Design isn’t just about looks. It’s about the trade offs you have to make to accommodate underlying function. Here’s a quick parallel before we get into Sam’s review:

AirPods

No touch controls. You can set each pod to perform one function via double-tap. The choices are: Siri, Play/Pause, Next Track, or Previous Track. The input is recognized by a built in accelerometer, not a touch-sensitive pad. By the way, here’s my AirPods review if you haven’t read it.

Trade offs: while there is no way to have access to all functions at once directly from AirPods, the result is a nicer-looking earbud (in my opinion) that doesn’t get in the way. Most of the time, other people don’t even realize I’m wearing mine.

Pixel Buds

On the other hand, one Pixel Bud does have a touch sensitive surface for playback control via gestures.

Trade offs: while you do have access to all playback controls, you have these gaudy, circular pads sticking out of your ear that can be prone to accidental touches (see below). Its sheer obviousness is reminiscent of Google Glass.

Now, here’s a few quotes from Sam that illustrate this theme.

On earbud design:

[…] Instead of a stem extending from the primary earbud unit, Google attaches a larger plastic bubble. Thankfully, this increased size doesn’t add significant weight or bulk when wearing the things, but it also doesn’t seem to add particularly improved battery life or other hardware tweaks. (I also actually think the round design looks surprisingly cool in my ear canal. […]

And:

However, the Pixel Buds lack one of AirPods’ best features: sensing when they’re in your ears. Without this ability, the Pixel Buds’ touch-sensitive right earbud can easily get activated when you’re pulling it out or trying to firmly stick it in the charging case. […]

Sam likes the looks of the round disc, but it’s a hard pass for me. Here’s also what I meant about accidental touches.

On the case design:

But Google’s carrying case is definitively worse than Apple’s version. When you want to charge your Pixel Buds, you have to situate them perfectly into the case’s holes, and this requires fitting them in as if the holes were your ear canals, as opposed to the way the AirPods’ stems just fall into place. This isn’t necessarily difficult, but there is more of a required push-to-confirm feeling, and getting that wrong means you can miss the Buds’ crucial battery-charging connection via little golden connectors.

Sounds like a far cry from the AirPods case.

On audio quality:

With a lot of modern pop music, like the latest Kesha and Taylor Swift albums, these equalization effects add a noticeable “sparkle” to high-gloss production elements […] The issue comes from Google’s desire to emphasize the Buds’ speaker placement, which is split into three little openings—two for normal/higher frequencies, and one for bass resonance.[…]

[…] When the effect appeared to sound the way Google wanted, it was enough to make me say, “oh, these headphones are unique.” But I never felt like they made songs sound better and clearer, and they never drew out particular instruments in compelling ways.They did, at least, appear to find the right bass balance […]

[…] older songs sound decidedly flatter and muddier, and bass tones get lost in the mix. I even found this distinction played out in different decades of hip-hop production. […]

This sounds really bad. I hate when earbuds apply their own audio dressing to my music. I wouldn’t have AirPods if they pulled this crap.

On lack of function:

[…] I held a finger on my right Pixel Bud panel, said “set timer for 30 seconds,” and started pouring hot water. Thirty seconds later, the timer began beeping… but I couldn’t turn it off. Tapping my Pixel Bud did nothing.

Double-tapping will dismiss a timer (among other things) on AirPods.

On the language translation feature:

During a reveal event, Google demonstrated the Pixel Buds’ additional perk: hold a button down on your Buds and talk, and the translation will project from a Pixel 2 phone. Then the other person can speak in the other language, and the resulting translation will be piped directly into the Pixel Buds. Nifty!

Trouble is, that’s not exactly how it works. For one, in this use case, the non-Bud speaker has to be close enough to the phone to hold down an on-screen button and only when he/she speaks, at that. Additionally, when my Pixel 2 was in sleep mode or doing something else, and I held my finger on the right earpiece and said, “help me translate Spanish,” I’d run into Bud-phone sync issues. Either the Google Translate app wouldn’t boot as promised, or the app would boot but with the Pixel Buds not working. This happened a few times in public, often while describing this seemingly wondrous feature to a person at a coffee shop counter, to my utter embarrassment.

This is a really cool feature, but I’m sad to hear it doesn’t work as well as it could.

Here’s the truth: Google is still learning how to design their own hardware. Stemming from issues with Home Mini and Pixel 2 XL, this is just the latest development. Should we give them a pass? No. Do I think they are serious about making their own hardware? Yes. However, time will tell if they have the resolve to deliver without these issues. I hope they do.

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