Pixel Buds are a miss

Despite being Apple-centric in my ways, I am an Android user and a big fan of the Pixel line of smartphones. When I ordered my Pixel2 XL Pixel Buds were not yet available so I ended up pairing my AirPods with the Pixel2 XL so I could use one set of earbuds between my iPad Pro, MacBook Pro and Pixel2. The AirPods work great but don’t have the extra features that the Buds have and are spotty with Google Assistant, so in a moment of spontaneity I ordered Pixel Buds. They showed up yesterday.

Good packaging! Everything else was a disappointment but the packaging is nice. Google has upped their game with packaging across the board and one would probably have to credit Apple for that, but good is good and Google gets the packaging right.

The problems I experienced started with the 5 second experience. The getting started guide says you “open the charging case next to your phone with the Pixel Buds still inside and follow the on-screen steps to finish setup.” That did not happen, with repeated attempts, so I manually paired them and got going. My Pixel2 did respond to successfully pairing and showed me an on-screen help guide, or just press the right earbud and “help”.

Fitting the Buds in your ear is something altogether different than the AirPods, which is best described as put ’em in your ear and go. The Pixel Buds have a nicely textured finish that makes them more grip-able than the AirPods, which is welcome because I’m always fumbling the AirPods and dropping them. The problem is that there is a fabric cord loop on each Bud that is critically important for ensuring proper fit, else the Bud will just fall out of your ear. I was surprised to find myself not hating the fabric cord but positioning the fabric cord behind your neck is a bit of a challenge.

In all fairness, you do find a sweet spot with the loop that allows for secure positioning of the earbud in your ear, and with practice you can make this muscle memory easy. The entire fitment issue just seems more complicated than it should be… and then the fabric cord gets in the way but I still think I would prefer the cord over the AirPod stem.

The case itself is impressive, featuring the nice fabric material that seems to be gracing Google products across the board. It just feels nice in your hand. The fabric does have an unintended consequence of catching up on your pocket and the size is definitely bigger than the AirPod case. It also appears that Google designers did not spend a lot of time thinking about opening the case itself, which does not feature the notch that the AirPod case has, which makes it easy to flick open with just one hand.

The upper half of the clamshell has a shade more lip to it, and the lower half features a lip on the front edge. Opening it is a matter of gripping the sides and using the front lip to separate the clamshell halves. I love the feel of the Pixel Buds case and dislike operation of it.

The act of positioning the Buds in the case for charging is something that, well, you just have to get used to. One of the most frustrating aspects of the experience is you have a 50/50 shot of getting the left Bud in the left charging socket the first time and it is all but impossible to do on feel alone. This could have been made a lot easier if Google’s designers color coded the small slip collar that is on each Bud, and on brand with the famously colorful Google logo. Blue for left, red for right. Easy… Google needs to send me a royalty check now.

I’ve been focusing heavily on the usability of the physical dimension and that is just one part of the offering. The functional aspect of the Pixel Buds is impressive with good sound quality and nice, very nice, integration with the Google Assistant.

The sound quality is better than the AirPods, considerably higher quality whether you are listening to music or on a call. What is impressive is how Google achieves this quality without having a seal between the earbud and your ear, which is a dealbreaker for me because I spend most of my time on voice calls. Battery life appears to be solid but I don’t have enough experience over time to validate that with a long term battery test.

It’s a shame that Google missed on this product because of design reasons. Removing the 3.5mm jack from the Pixel line creates challenges for users. The ironic part of this is that I seem to have accumulated 4 pairs of Apple earbuds with a Lightning connector but use AirPods on my Apple devices. The AirPods are workable on my Pixel but I would very much like to have the full functionality of the Google Assistant.