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Google’s new headphones, the Pixel Buds, are only okay at being headphones, but their headlining feature is the ability to translate other languages using the Google Translate app on your phone. In the video above, I decided to try this out and see if it worked as advertised. I found that it can handle basic conversations, but it’s still a little awkward.
Google Translate has had the ability to translate spoken conversations for a while, but the Pixel Buds are designed to make it even easier. You, as the owner of the headphones, can press a touchpad on the side of your headphone to speak and your phone will pick up what you say and translate it for the listener. They then tap and hold a button on your phone to respond. Without the headphones, you would have to pass your phone back and forth with someone who doesn’t speak your language.
You might be wondering why you want to spend $160 on a pair of headphones just to make using a translation app slightly more convenient… well, you wouldn’t. If you’re going to buy a pair of Pixel Buds, you should buy them on their own merits (and we’ll come back to that in a bit). However, Google’s advertising this as a headlining feature of the headphones, so it’s worth taking a look at.
It’s hard to review the Pixel Buds translation feature without reviewing Google Translate itself, so I looked at both. To test it, I had a conversation with two friends who speak other languages: Ben, who speaks Spanish, and Sami, who speaks Korean. Spanish is a relatively easy target language from English, but I expected Korean to offer some challenges.
Despite those expectations, Google managed basic phrases impressively well. There were a couple hiccups, for example, when I said “Hello” to Sami, Google used the phrase 여보세요 (“yeoboseyo”), which she explained is how Koreans say hello on the phone. However, in most cases, the translations were accurate enough to get the point across, even if you’d get a bit of a weird look from the listener.
In one of the most impressive feats of AI, as Ben gave me directions to the bathroom in Spanish, he briefly paused and interjected, “you know” in English. Google was able to detect that this, similar to “uhh” or “like” was a filler word and skipped it entirely.
Let’s be real, no matter how you’re using Google Translate to communicate with someone in another language, it’s gonna be a little bit weird. You have to hand your phone to a stranger that you can’t communicate with and expect them to use an app that most people don’t use in their daily lives. Passing the phone back and forth in between each sentence only makes the conversation harder.
On this front, the Pixel Buds are genuinely useful. In all the test conversations I had, I was able to hand my phone over and simply let them tap the button to speak. When I needed to respond, I put my finger on the touch pad in my ear and spoke. On top of being convenient, it made me feel like a secret agent. Cool.
However, this also isn’t the kind of thing that should require this one specific pair of $160 headphones. Other, much cheaper headphones have remote control buttons and even embedded microphones that could be used for this same purpose. The Pixel Buds aren’t the only headphones with touchpad controls or that are optimized for Google Assistant. The concept is exactly as cool as it sounds, but it’s not enough to justify these headphones on their own.
Using the Translation feature made me want to want the Pixel Buds. I wish I liked them more. However, the flaws with the device itself made it hard to justify. For starters, the adjustable loop that’s ostensibly supposed to keep the ear buds in my ear were not up to the task. The headphones fell out constantly and there’s no rubber or foam tips to help keep them in place.
Charging the Pixel Buds is also a little more complicated than other headphones. You have to keep the carrying case, which also serves as the charging case. While it’s not terribly difficult to wrap the headphones in the case, it is more complicated than, say, the AirPods charging case where you can simply drop each pod in.
The touchpads are also impossible to avoid accidentally triggering when you pull them out of your ears. I could carefully place the headphones back in the charging case without accidentally playing music if I carefully focused, meditated properly, and if the stars aligned. However, most of the time I tried to put the headphones in, music was already playing before they were settled in my ears.
The Pixel Buds, as headphones, aren’t for everyone and probably not even for most people. However, if you decide that they’re for you, then you’ll get, as a bonus, one of the coolest glimpses into the future. Why shouldn’t your headphones translate every language you can hear? Maybe in the future you won’t even need to hand your phone over at all. The translations aren’t perfect, but they’re enough to fill in the gaps when you travel and forgot to pick up a phrasebook until it was too late.
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