Google Pixel Buds review: The future, but far from the present

Price when reviewed

At times, using Google’s Pixel Buds feels like gazing into the future. When you press your ear and ask how to say something in Russian, and Google Assistant chirps back a phrase, it’s hard not to be impressed. Not that I’m in any position to tell if this is an accurate translation – for all I know, it might just be saying “Google Plus is better than Facebook” – but the magic is there, and the magic feels real.

The trouble with things feeling like the future, though, is that by definition, they’re demonstrably not cut out for the present. Google’s Pixel Buds shouldn’t be in your present. Not yet. Not in their current form. There’s potential here, but as things stand, this feels more Google Wave than Google Docs.

Here’s why.

Google Pixel Buds: Design[gallery:1]

Like the Apple AirPods, the Pixel Buds are wireless earphones that you can carry around in a pocket-sized charging case. That’s broadly where the similarities end, however, and not altogether for the better. The Pixel Buds are held together by a fabric wire, which certainly feels a lot safer but has the added impact of making them harder to store away. Putting them neatly in the charging case requires making a loop so elaborate that Google keeps a diagram in the box to keep you from forgetting how to do it. Get it slightly wrong, or fail to line up the buds perfectly with the slots for them, and they won’t charge.

The design of the earbuds is inoffensive enough, although they are a little on the chunky side. While AirPod users look like they have toothbrush heads dangling from their ears, Pixel Bud users look like they’ve jammed in a pair of off-brand Galaxy Minstrels and, to be honest, I can’t imagine the Minstrels proving any less comfortable over long periods. They’re built from hard plastic and sit on the outside of your ears rather than being shoved right in and this leads to soreness after an hour or so of use. Your mileage may vary: I can’t imagine ever feeling 100% comfortable with them in; but reviews editor Jon thought they felt fine.

To keep them in place that fabric wire can be pushed up and down, creating a loop that fits into the outer part of your ear, holding it in place. This kind of works, once you find the right fit, and it is indeed impressive how they’re held in place. However, the song-and-dance you go through putting them back into their charging case often loosens the loop, meaning that putting them back in is never as straightforward as it should be.

To be clear: putting on earphones should be thoroughly painless. With the Pixel Buds, it’s such a faff that half the time I almost retreated the comfort zone of my over ear headphones.

Google Pixel Buds: Performance[gallery:2]

So far, so negative, but there are definite positives from Google’s first foray into ear-wear. For starters, the sound quality is surprisingly decent for earbuds, providing reasonably rich audio, with decent instrument separation. It may be a little warm and fluffy for some people’s tastes, but there’s nothing fundamentally broken here.

Secondly, despite sitting on the ear, rather than in the canal, the Pixel Buds do a reasonable job of being audible over the outside world. If your fit is right, you can hear the audio in most contexts – only the very loudest, bumpiest sections of the Northern Line at 8:30am on a busy commute presented real difficulties.

But the real magic happens thanks to Google Assistant. And, just to be clear, this isn’t built into the earphones; instead, the Pixel Buds work as a go-between for your ears and smartphone (on Android at least – this doesn’t work at all on iOS, so 100% save your money). When you realise this, £159 feels a bit steep – your phone is doing all the work, after all, and theoretically, there’s nothing stopping any headphone manufacturer baking the functionality into their buds, if Google lets them. Which they (understandably) probably won’t.

But back to Assistant. Hold your finger on the right earbud, speak, and Google Assistant will listen. Release, and Google Assistant will promptly come back with an answer – be it telling you the weather, putting on some music for you or answering any question you might have. It’s like Google Home lives in your ear. That feels futuristic in a very good way.

The most interesting aspect of the Pixel Buds is unnecessarily limited to the excellent Pixel 2 and disappointing Pixel 2 XL handset: the earphones act like the Babel Fish from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, translating foreign languages for you in real time. It works, although it’s considerably less elegant than sticking a fish in your ear – which isn’t a sentence I envisaged writing when I set off for work this morning.[gallery:3]

Rather than simply asking your Pixel Buds to translate, though, you actually have to open the Google Translate app on your phone and then have whoever you’re speaking to talk directly into it. That’s kind of neat, but a touch impractical. After all, if you need to translate something you’re likely talking to a stranger abroad and do you really want to hold out your shiny new Pixel 2 to them while you stand there fiddling with your earbuds?

Speaking of earbud fiddling, a word on the controls. As well as holding your finger over the right earbud to chat to Google, you can do other stuff here. Specifically, a tap will pause or play your audio and swiping left or right will raise or lower the volume. A long tap will read out your notifications and your messages from text or WhatsApp. This is exceptionally helpful: the dictation is a lovely touch and does save you having to reach for your phone a lot of the time.

But in familiar fashion, the controls come with a really annoying downside. As they only switch off when they’re docked safely in the charging case, guess how often you end up carrying on your audio by accidentally pressing play on route?

If you said “all the damned time,” well, congratulations: you win a prize. Google, however, does not. This stupid design flaw combined with the finickety charging case means I’ve lost my place on a number of podcasts. Ok Google, that makes me cross.

One final positive point: battery life is very good. On medium volume, with light Google Assistant usage, we were able to get six hours battery life on a single charge. In the charging case, they were back up to 50% within half an hour, and full 15 minutes later. The case should be good for five charges before it, in turn, needs charging, so you’re looking at around 24 hours of playback in total from a fully charged case. Not bad at all.

Google Pixel Buds: Verdict[gallery:4]

You know that episode of The Simpsons where Homer is buying the cursed Krusty doll? Each positive point is cancelled out by a negative significantly worse than the good points.

By taking the humour out of The Simpsons, what I’m really saying is that the Google Pixel Buds are like a cursed Krusty the Clown doll.

“The sound quality is excellent”

“Ooh, that’s good.”

“But the buds hurt your ears, and the charging case is a law unto itself.”

“That’s bad.”

“Google Assistant is a joy to use and feels like the future.”

“That’s good.”

“But the touch controls to use it will cause you to constantly play and pause by mistake.”

“That’s bad.”

Pixel Buds may well become brilliant in 2018 when the next version arrives, but in 2017 you’re buying a slightly disappointing product with the occasional wow factor. A wow factor that’s provided by Google’s cloud servers via the phone, anyway. And for £159, that’s just not good enough.

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