When I was learning Spanish in high school in the late ’90s, I had a then-high-tech tool: a pocket-sized electronic Spanish-English dictionary, with a tiny keyboard for typing in words and a pixelated one-line display that showed translations.
It was helpful for looking up the occasional word, but my little dictionary couldn’t translate more than one at a time; no way would it have helped me carry on a conversation easily with a person whose primary language wasn’t English.
So I got excited when I heard about Google’s new Pixel Buds wireless earbuds, which promise real-time translation via Google Translate and one of the company’s Pixel smartphones. (They also work with other phones as Bluetooth earbuds, but without this feature.)
The idea is that one person wears the Pixel Buds while another person holds the phone. The earbud wearer speaks English (the default) or another chosen language, and what that person says is translated and spoken aloud by Google Translate on the phone; then the smartphone holder’s response is translated and heard through the earbuds. Though the Google Translate service supports over 100 languages, Pixel Buds support just 40 of them for now.
Despite their goofy look, for $159 they could be incredibly useful if they work well, and the on-stage demo I saw in October, which translated from Swedish to English and back again, looked promising. I couldn’t wait to try them out.
Fast-forward a month: I got my hands on a pair of Pixel Buds, and I’ve spent a few days playing around with them, using them as an intermediary in conversations with several different people who speak Hindi, Vietnamese, and Indonesian. So far, I’m definitely sold on the concept of what is, in reality, fast-but-not-quite-real-time translation, which the Pixel Buds and Pixel 2 pull off via Bluetooth (with some hiccups).
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In several conversations in different environments—a noisy day-care center, a quiet salon, and a shop with loud music playing—the Pixel Buds’ language feature worked very much as advertised. It was easy to get started by holding a finger to the right earbud, which is a touchpad, and saying—for instance—“Help me speak Hindi” before handing over the phone. My conversation partners were impressed with the accuracy of the translations. While it wasn’t like using a human translator, the Pixel Buds and handset did work together quickly and smoothly, for the most part.
The system screwed up occasionally. Several times Google Translate cut off sentences prematurely while one of us was still speaking, and in two confusing exchanges it converted my English to Spanish rather than Indonesian or Hindi, even though we were already in the midst of conversations with the latter two languages. Still, a few blips seemed like no big deal, and the sound quality was great.
There’s one huge problem, though, that will turn off a lot of potential buyers: the Pixel Buds’ design. I never thought I’d prefer the look and fit of Apple’s silly-looking AirPods over another pair of wireless earbuds, but I do. The Pixel Buds are chunky in a way that makes them feel heavy in your ears, and they sport an annoying cord for moving power and audio signals between them. They also use that cord as an interesting but clumsily executed method for adjusting the fit (you pull it to make a little loop bigger or smaller, helping the earbuds snuggle into your ear).
The Pixel Buds are also likely to be uncomfortable if you have smaller ears. For some reason, I could squeeze the right one into my ear but the left one fell out over and over, even when I adjusted the cord loop. Furthermore, they felt uncomfortable over long periods of time.
The earbuds are not meant to fit deeply in your ear canal, so they don’t block out much noise. This is helpful when you want to be aware of your surroundings, as I did when I was walking around Berkeley asking kind strangers to speak to me in non-English languages. When you’re in a coffee shop and want to tune out everything but what’s coming through the buds, though, it’s a bummer; I had no problem talking on the phone with them while driving, but no way was I going to try them for a work conference call while out in public.
The Pixel Buds don’t have incredibly long battery life: up to five hours, which is the same as Apple’s AirPods. This is forgivable, as chances are you won’t be using them for five hours straight, and like the AirPods, the Pixel Buds come with a small case that also acts as a charger when the earbuds are inside (you’ll have to wrap the cord up to fit it in there, too, which some may find annoying).
Making mobile, gadget-based translation work well is tricky, and Google does accomplish that. For techie travelers who often need language assistance, the Pixel Buds—plus a compatible phone, of course—are a useful tool to add to your bag. For the rest of us, sadly, they’re just another pair of pricey Bluetooth earbuds.