Google's Pixel Buds Can't Compete With Apple's AirPods

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One of the surprise announcements from Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) subsidiary Google's big product event last month was Pixel Buds, a pair of wireless neck buds that is clearly a response to Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) AirPods. Apple launched AirPods with severe supply constraints in late 2016, but availability has improved throughout 2017. Both Pixel Buds and AirPods have the same price point of $159.

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Pixel Buds are now starting to get delivered, with the first batch of reviews hitting the internet this week. Spoiler alert: Pixel Buds are rather underwhelming.

Survey says

For starters, here's just a sampling of some of the recent reviews from the tech press:

  • "The Future Shouldn't Be This Awkward" (The Verge)
  • "Google's Pixel Buds Aren't Even Close to Being Good" (Gizmodo)
  • "Pixel Buds are powerful, but lack Apple's simplicity" (Axios)
  • "Real time translation, not much comfort" (USA Today)

There are other reviews worth checking out too, like Wired or Digital Trends, but there are several recurring themes. While Pixel Buds have some clever design features like the adjustable loop that hopes to fit in a wider range of ears, they're still a bit cumbersome in a few other ways. The carrying case is finicky, pairing them is needlessly difficult, and the touch controls are inconsistent. Perhaps most damning, one of the headline features -- real-time language translation -- doesn't work that great, according to The Verge. That's mostly due to weaknesses within the Google Translate app that facilitates the real-time language, so at least the performance should improve over time via software updates.

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The bright spots are audio quality and Google Assistant, which is easily one of the best virtual assistants on the market today and far better than Apple's Siri. It's a decent start for Google as the search giant continues to bet big on hardware, but Pixel Buds face an uphill battle in competing directly with AirPods.

The future is wireless, and Apple is leading the way

Google is expanding its hardware operations in a big way, and it's pretty clear that just about all of the major tech giants believe the future is wireless. The new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL ditched the headphone jack, for instance, a year after Apple controversially did with the iPhone 7.

Apple has already taken an early lead, with a dominating 85% revenue share in the U.S. market for wireless headphones through August, according to NPD. Apple considers AirPods and wireless headphones to be part of its broader wearables business, which brought in at least $6.7 billion in revenue in fiscal 2017.

Hardware is part of Google's "other revenues," which overall jumped 40% last quarter to $3.4 billion in sales. Google is known for its penchant for experimentation (like the bizarre and mildly creepy Clips camera that was unveiled at the same time), so it wouldn't be a huge deal if Pixel Buds failed. But wireless headphones are going to be an increasingly important product category, especially as a delivery mechanism for virtual assistants.

Pixel Buds might be off to a rough start, but Google shouldn't give up on challenging Apple.

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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.