You can learn a lot from examining the ways in which different companies solve the same problem. After stripping the one-eighth-inch audio jack out of their phones, Apple and Google both needed to create a set of Bluetooth headphones, but each company took a very different approach to the solution.
Apple crafted their AirPods to closely resemble their iconic corded earbuds, which required careful design to fit everything into such a small form factor. Google took a more novel approach to their Pixel Buds, by connecting the two sides with a cloth-covered cord that doubles as adjustable ear fins. We teamed up with our friends at Mindtribe to get a better understanding of how these two different approaches to electrical and mechanical design compare, you can find Mindtribe’s write-up on the electronics here.
Here are the features of interest we’re drilling into for this head-to-head teardown:
1. Human Factors - how ergonomics and usability are considered in each design
2. Assembly - how the headphones are put together
3. Packing - how each design makes the most out of the available space
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This teardown shows the pros and cons of the different routes Google and Apple took to solve the same problem. The AirPods and Pixel Buds are each meant to be worn in a specific manner, and the design choices made for each product cue the wearer to use the product in a certain way. Since the AirPods mirror the familiar design of Apple’s wired earbuds, it was fairly obvious how they were meant to be worn, but Google’s Pixel Buds included a few helpful design elements and a few confusing ones.
It just goes to show that even when you guide users to engage with your product in the intended way, it still has to be comfortable to use, in order for them to accept it (and not try to cut it in half).
On the inside, each pair of headphones represents each end of the continuum between ease of assembly and packing efficiency. The Pixel Buds have multiple features to aid assembly, and even have some unused space inside them. This makes them look big compared to the AirPods, even with the space saved by their asymmetric design.
The AirPods, in turn, owe their slim footprint, in part, to a much more complex assembly process. By removing connectors and twisting flex cables instead, almost all the internal space is filled, but getting everything to fit and stay that way must take a lot more precision and time.
The real takeaway, though, is that neither approach is better than the other. In order to make an electronic accessory that is like a piece of jewelry, Apple had to prioritize form factor and aesthetics. Google, on the other hand, made something more focused on function and features than on a slick shape. The end result of both is a capable product.
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