It’s hard to overstate how good Google’s Pixel line of smartphones is. For my money, they’re the best smartphones available.
The latest edition, the Pixel 2, is Google’s best phone yet.
It runs a clean, sleek, fast operating system. It has a great camera for capturing sharp, vibrant photos and video. It costs far less than the competition – literally hundreds of dollars less than the closest equivalent Apple iPhone. It looks great, but still prioritises function over needless visual upgrades.
There’s only one problem: The Pixel 2 doesn’t have a headphone jack. You can use any Bluetooth headphones you’d like, and there’s a dongle included.
Or you could drop $US160 on Google’s wireless headphones: Google Pixel Buds.
But should you? I’m not so sure that’s a smart choice. In fact, I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t buy them.
1. Price: At $US160, Google’s Pixel Buds don’t feel worth it.
There’s no price argument for buying Google’s Pixel Buds over Apple’s AirPods, but it’s also highly unlikely you’re comparing those two directly. Apple’s AirPods are intended for iPhone users, and become distinctly less useful when used with Android phones like the Pixel 2.
They’re the same price, but they serve different masters.
If you’ve got a Pixel (or another Android phone), you may be looking at the Jaybird Run earbuds. They’re $US20 more, at $US180, but they’re said to be very good headphones.
For $US160, I would be outright upset with a Pixel Buds purchase. It’s a high price to pay for any pair of headphones, and, as I’ll elaborate on below, these are just ok headphones. More often than not, they’re outright bad headphones.
2. Pixel Buds are finicky in daily use.
There’s nothing easy or convenient about taking out and using Pixel Buds.
They come in a large case that takes up far too much pocket space. The cable that connects the two earbuds gets tangled easily. The hoops are hard to adjust and don’t stay in place. The touch controls on the right earbud are outrageously sensitive. It’s hard to tell when the headphones are connected to the charging case.
I have nothing but complaints about the ergonomics of using Google’s Pixel Buds. It’s as if no one tested them in real life settings before launch in late 2017.
To drill down on just one of the many problems: I am constantly playing music/podcasts/whatever I was last listening to – by accident – while taking off the Pixel Buds, because it’s impossible not to touch the entire right side of the right earbud while taking them off.
It’s not a huge problem, but it’s one of many small, stupid problems that don’t occur with even the most basic of wired headphones.
3. Living with Pixel Buds is awkward, and resting them on your neck (as intended) doesn’t work.
Much of my time spent with Google’s Pixel Buds has been on foot in New York City. There is nothing easy about using Pixel Buds in the kind of scenario where you need to repeatedly remove one or both headphones.
Let’s say I stop into a corner store (bodega) to grab a drink while listening to music with Pixel Buds – an extremely common scenario here in NYC. Here’s how that situation might go:
-I open the door and enter the store, walk to the drinks refrigerator, and grab a drink. -With one hand now occupied by that drink, I have one free hand. -I tap the right earbud (the only one with touch controls) to pause the music. -Upon removing the right earbud so I can speak to the cashier, it begins pulling heavily on the left earbud with the force of gravity. -While bobbing in the air, the right earbud activates the music I was listening to, which is now playing in my left ear. -The cashier is staring at me in disbelief as my face turns pink. -I have yet to pull out my wallet.
This has happened several times. It can partially be attributed to the fact that I’m a Human Muppet™. But only partially!
Another option: Take off both earbuds and rest the cord around your neck. This is a delicate balancing game as each earbud dangles around the collarbone area until one side wins and the whole thing slides to the ground. No big deal, they’re just $US160 headphones falling to the concrete from six feet in the air.
You could leave them in, paused, but that seems awfully rude to me. So I don’t do that.
4. The charging case is large, inconvenient, and poorly designed.
In my right pocket, I carry my keys and wallet. In my left pocket, I carry my phone. My pockets are occupied, and I’m betting yours are too. I don’t have space for a thick, cloth-covered square in my pocket.
For those of you who carry bags everywhere, the concept of carrying a charging case just for headphones may be acceptable. But even when I’m carrying a messenger bag while commuting to BI’s Wall Street headquarters, I don’t like having to dig into my bag just to put away headphones.
That’s to say nothing of the charging case itself, which is bizarrely designed for the headphone’s cable to be wrapped around the outside. I got the hang of it eventually, but it’s really easy to not execute perfectly – the result is a case that refuses to close (the magnet that seals it isn’t very powerful).
And the two little areas where the headphones are supposed to magnetize into place? These:
They’re finicky as heck – far from the ease of Apple’s AirPod charging case.
5. There is one brilliant little design idea that works well on the Pixel Buds, but even that comes with a caveat.
You see the little hoop above? It’s hard to tell what it is without using the Pixel Buds, but it’s the smartest thing about them: It’s an adjustable bit of cable that creates subtle tension between the earbud and your ear.
When adjusted properly, which is relatively easy, they provide a surprisingly strong amount of support for keeping the Pixel Buds in. As someone who’s never been able to keep Apple’s earbuds in my ears – who relies on suction cup-style earbuds and other such solutions – I found this particular aspect of Pixel Buds to be an impressive, low-tech solution to a common problem.
That said, I found over time that the hoops were less and less likely to stay put. The little white notch you see above is intended to hold the hoop in place, but it lost strength the longer I used them. And those hoops losing tension means the Pixel Buds are less likely to stay in place.
Can we please just have the headphone jack back?
Most of Apple’s phones at this point don’t have a headphone jack, nor do the Pixel 2/Pixel 2 XL.
Instead, they offer Bluetooth and dongles – imperfect solutions that add cost, inconvenience, or both.
There are various reasons given for the removal of the headphone jack, but Apple and Google making their own pairs of expensive wireless headphones is the strongest reason of all. Frankly speaking, it sucks.
More importantly, Bluetooth functionality that enables wireless headphones isn’t dependent on removing the ability to use standard wired headphones. Simply put: You can have it both ways.
Wondering if the sound is any good on Google’s Pixel Buds? It’s perfectly fine, but that’s besides the point when literally everything else about the experience is subpar.
The only reason I’ve been using Google’s Pixel Buds is because the Pixel 2 doesn’t have a headphone jack. Across the board, the experience of using the Pixel 2 with Pixel Buds is dramatically worse than using a Pixel 1 with standard wired headphones. And that’s a real shame, because the Pixel 2 is an otherwise excellent phone.
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