Editors' Note, February 9th, 2017: Today, Amazon announced an always-listening feature for the Tap. Existing units will receive the free over-the-air upgrade over the course of the coming weeks. Given that this update fixes one of our main criticisms of the Tap, we'll be retesting it once we have a chance to try the new feature and updating the review accordingly.
Taken on its own, the $130 Amazon Tap is an impressive device with a ton of functionality. Press the button on the front of it, and you can issue voice commands to Alexa, Amazon's digital assistant. Your options range from playing music from your phone or streaming it over Wi-Fi; asking Alexa to add something to your calendar or your to-do list; checking the weather or the news; issuing commands to control your smart home or playing a game. It's fun, it's useful and, thanks to a few Easter eggs and games, it's just silly enough to be charming.
But Alexa isn't unique to the Tap. In fact, the Tap is one of two new members in a trio of so called Echo devices. Both of the others -- the original $180speaker and the $90 -- plug into the wall and feature an always-listening microphone. Simply say the word "Alexa" to those latter two devices and you'll have access to that same breadth of options. The more expensive Echo is a speaker with room-filling sound. The Dot's basically the same as the Echo, just with a quieter speaker and a line-out plug on the back allowing you hook it into your home's sound setup.
The Tap is the mobile member of the family. It's the only one of the three that's battery powered, which is why it's not always listening. Again, you need to hit a button to interact with it, so it can save battery when you're not using it. But I did miss the convenience of an always-listening device. The Tap would have been nearly perfect if that feature activated whenever it was sitting on its charging stand, but it doesn't.
The Amazon Tap wears many hats, but as a Bluetooth speaker, its sound quality isn't as good as either the or the Bose SoundLink Color. The Tap multi-tasks better than either of those, but both the original Echo and the Echo Dot play the personal assistant role better. As a feature rich Bluetooth speaker, the Tap is easy to recommend. I'd also recommend it to anyone who wants access to Alexa and puts extra value on portability. But if you want either the best possible sound quality out of a compact Bluetooth speaker or the most helpful version of Alexa, you'll need to look elsewhere.
You can purchase the Tap now on Amazon for $130. Like all Alexa products, it's not yet available beyond the US, but Amazon tells us that expanding internationally is "super important," adding, "We expect over time to go everywhere Amazon is." That price converts to roughly £90 and AU$170 for our readers in the UK and Australia.
Portable Alexa on Tap
From the pictures, I was expecting the Amazon Tap to be roughly the size of its predecessor -- it's not; it's much smaller. It's compact and lightweight at just over a pound and the mesh exterior makes it easy to grip, so you can cart it with you as you move from your kitchen to your patio.
Setup is easy. You'll download the Amazon Alexa app on iOS or Android and use it to connect the Tap to your home's Wi-Fi network. That's it. Then, just press the button on the front and starting talking to Alexa. Turn the Tap, and you'll find the Bluetooth pairing button on the back as well as a power button, an audio input port and a Micro-USB port. You can plug the Tap in here, or plug in the included cradle and set the Tap on that.
Pay an extra $20 for a carrying case -- called the Amazon Tap Sling -- and you can hook it to your backpack and head out to the park to make use of that Bluetooth speaker functionality on the go. Amazon has said that portability is one of the most commonly asked for features with the Echo. The Echo Tap delivers, and with respectable battery life claims: 9 hours of streaming time, and about three weeks of stand-by on a single charge.
Our battery tests confirmed the run time claims. At 50% volume, the Tap streamed a local radio station for an average of 10 hours and 8 minutes over the course of two tests. But other Bluetooth speakers, like the UE Boom 2, claim up to 15 hours of streaming time, so the Tap falls a bit short competitively. Still, 9 to 10 hours of playback feels sufficient for using it around the house.
The many hats of the Amazon Tap
In addition to playing music from your phone, the Tap can play music directly from Amazon Prime Music or other popular streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora as long as you're connected to Wi-Fi.
Besides music, you can enable a host of Skills through the Alexa app, which are basically apps specific to Alexa that you can control with your voice. These range from useful features such as ordering a ride on Uber or tracking your fitness goals to downright silly stuff such as offering up a random pickup line or a cat fact. Via the app, you can also sync the Tap to an ever-growing number of smart home devices and services, and use it as a central control point.
Thanks to Alexa, and like the Amazon Echo before it, the Amazon Tap can fill a number of useful roles. But particularly as a smart home assistant, I found the touch-to-talk functionality took away some of the convenience and personality of its predecessor.
The smart home hat
Alexa is a great smart-home assistant. It works directly with popular smart-home platforms such as SmartThings, Wink and Insteon. It works with smart thermostats such as Nest and Ecobee3. Alexa even has a channel on IFTTT -- the online rule-making platform that ties together a large number of smart home devices -- letting you create custom commands.
The smart home platform built into the Echo devices is robust, mostly easy to use, and responsive. It unifies diverse products so well that we've recently made it a central part of the CNET Smart Home. As a smart home assistant, Alexa is well ahead of Siri. The HomeKit software built into recent versions of iOS allows voice controls with the iPhone's well-known voice assistant, but HomeKit works with your phone, so it's a pain for multiple users to interact with your smart home that way.
Since the Amazon Echo acts as an always listening control point, everyone in your family has equal access once it's set up. Here's where I thought the experience with the Tap fell short of its predecessor.
You might not think having to push a button to talk with Alexa is such a tragedy, but hands-free interaction is kind of the point of the original Echo. It has such a great, wide array microphone, you can talk to it even if you're in the next room. With the battery-powered Tap and its push-to-talk requirement, using Alexa becomes less personal.