By Chand Bellur
May 9, 2020 at 1:56 p.m. PT
- AirPods launched in December of 2016 and quickly dominated the wireless earbud market.
- Attractive features, such as easy access to Siri and a compact form factor, contributed to AirPods’ success.
- Google’s new Pixel Buds, similar to AirPods, offer some new, compelling features leveraging Google’s powerful data-centric ecosystem.
AirPods Clones Rush to Market
When AirPods launched back in late 2016, the iconic wireless earbuds were impossible to find. Demand for the new earphones was far beyond what Apple and its partners could manufacture. Even customers who disliked Apple products opted for AirPods. Their minuscule form factor, elegant design, and simple operation redefined personal wireless audio.
Soon after AirPods were released, competitors rushed to market with similar products. They all relentlessly copied Apple, with similar “dental floss” charging cases and earbuds that looked just like AirPods. Knock-offs ranged from low-end, low-quality, almost counterfeit products offered by no-name manufacturers, to high-quality wireless earbud products from Amazon and Google.
Apple doesn’t always create new, innovative products. Both Apple TV+ and Apple Music came long after video and music subscription services emerged. Apple Music, in particular, is a slavish copy of Spotify, down to the circular icons and “…” buttons. That said, creating tiny, state-of-the-art earbuds is a truly remarkable accomplishment. Once achieved, competitors could disassemble and reverse-engineer AirPods, with a growing market of components to assist them.
AirPod clones range from horrible ripoffs to products that may be better than Apple’s original wireless earbuds. While some of the no-name products have proven to be clumsy ripoffs, not worthy of their tiny price tag, others challenge Apple’s AirPod hegemony. Google’s Pixel Buds fit into the latter category. The Mountain View tech giant borrowed a lot from Apple; however, in some ways, Pixel Buds are superior.
Google’s Pixel Buds Rival AirPods
Let’s get one thing straight. Pixel Buds borrow heavily from AirPods. The small, in-ear design and dental floss cases are ubiquitous these days; however, Apple designers created this from thin air. Although there were wireless earbuds, nothing at the time was even close to AirPods.
We can go on about who copied who and to what extent. It’s pointless. Apple copies from others, as does Google. Most consumers don’t care. They want the one that works best, looks cool, and costs less.
As the owner of a pair of Powerbeats Pro wireless earphones, I get no style points for donning the bulkier, yet sturdier, audio devices. Even though Apple pretty much created all Beats products, they’re about as stylish as mom jeans. Unless you have those q-tips dangling out of your ears, you’re not cool.
Google products are not for hipsters. They’re for people who dislike hipsters. Although their marketing tries desperately to position these earbuds for millennials or younger generations, they’ll most likely find their way into the ears of middle-aged middle managers. They’re more for the Kenny G crowd than Billie Eilish bandwagoners. These are for the khaki clique, not the Coachella folks. Yes, people still wear khakis!
It’s not that Google Pixel Buds don’t look cool. It’s more that Apple has a monopoly on cool. Hipsters flock to Apple products, and there’s not much deviation from what people consider to be cool. Q-tips dangling from ears are cool. Circles inside of ears are not. It’s arbitrary, but if you’re looking to fit in with a younger, less rational crowd, AirPods (and a beard) are mandatory.
Google Pixel Buds aren’t a complete ripoff of AirPods. They seem to fit into the ear canal better than the competition, except for Powerbeats Pro earphones. Researching the issue, some contend that Pixel Buds fall out of some users’ ears. It would appear that any wireless earbud that doesn’t attach to the ears with a clip is prone to dislodging. If you’re highly active, Powerbeats Pro earphones are peerless in their ability to stay affixed to ears.
Most of the other physical product features are eerily similar to AirPods. Google differentiates Pixel Buds with software. Some of the software features of Pixel Buds rival those of AirPods. It’s only a matter of time, however, until Apple incorporates those same features into AirPods.
Google Pixel Buds’ Software Advantage
Software is what sets Google’s Pixel Buds apart from the competition. The Mountain View search giant excels at dealing with large sets of data. They’ve leveraged big data to offer features rivaling Apple’s AirPods.
Translation is the most apparent differentiator from AirPods. With Pixel Buds, users can translate spoken text in several languages. This is indispensable when traveling and something that Apple won’t be able to copy easily.
The Apple ecosystem offers dozens of translation apps. These apps, however, aren’t core to the iOS experience. They’re third-party apps that face third-party limitations.
It’s possible to engage in translation using AirPods. Most iOS translation apps will work over any earphones, wireless or not. Integration is the advantage here. Translation, deeply ingrained in the Google ecosystem, can be invoked smoothly, without launching a third-party app. It’s a small difference; however, Google provides hassle-free access to language translation.
Translation requires an Android device; however, it’s necessary for conversations. When the conversation begins, the Android smartphone serves as a speaker for foreign-language audio. The system intercepts spoken language, translating it and speaking it into the user’s Pixel Buds. This tightly-integrated experience won’t work on the iPhone, and Google doesn’t offer an app to achieve compatibility. The strategy seems to use Pixel Buds as an enticement to join or stay in the Android ecosystem.
Pixel Buds are also updatable. Google has already updated functionality, adding more features to its tiny, wireless earphones. With promises of more features to come, it’s clear the Mountain View tech titan isn’t resting on its laurels.
Google’s newest Pixel Buds, priced at $179, are more similar to AirPods Pro. They even offer the same audio transparency safety feature as Apple’s deluxe wireless earphones. Like most non-Apple products, the Google version is much less expensive. With AirPods Pro starting at $249, Google Pixel Buds are a much more rational option.
Apple has yet to peak on innovation. Rumors abound that the Cupertino company is on the verge of releasing a few new wireless audio options. In addition to new AirPods, they will likely release full-sized, studio-quality wireless headphones. Whatever new products emerge, it’s essential to keep an open mind. Unless your goal is to impress hipsters, it’s always best to investigate products outside of the Apple ecosystem.