The Amazon Tap is growing up, and hitting its stride as the portable Alexa device we'd hoped it could become.
After we gave it a lukewarm review last year, the $130 Amazon Tap -- the battery-powered, portable member of the Alexa family -- had sunk to the level of an afterthought in the CNET Smart Home. Unlike Amazon's other devices with the digital assistant built-in -- the $180 and the $50 -- the Tap wasn't always listening. You had to literally tap the Tap to give it a command.
Though hitting a button to talk to a device might not seem like a huge inconvenience, it made the Tap less useful for controlling the smart home. And it completely obviated the main reason why people buy an Alexa device to begin with: you speak into the air, and it just hears you.
But now that problem is history. Thanks to a free over-the-air upgrade, the Amazon Tap now supports a "hands-free" mode. With the mode activated (you can toggle it in the app), the Tap responds to the wake word "Alexa" just like the Echo and the Dot. With that update in place, the Tap is everything we'd hoped a portable Alexa could be.
The Tap is still not perfect. In fact, as a Bluetooth speaker, similarly priced rivals such as the UE Boom 2, Bose SoundLink Color 2 and JBL Flip 3 (soon to be replaced by the Flip 4) best it as far as sound quality goes. And engaging the always-on listening mode cuts down battery life just a tad. Thanks to Alexa, though, the Tap is miles ahead of those devices in terms of multitasking. In addition to playing music, Amazon's assistant will set reminders, search the internet, play games, tell a joke, control your smart home or perform any number of an ever-growing list of functions.
Now that the Tap supports an always-listening mode, I'm happy to recommend it to anyone who wants Alexa's capabilities in a compact form that you can bring with you as you roam.
Editors' note, February 28, 2017: Earlier this month, Amazon announced a free over-the-air upgrade to the Tap allowing you to enable an always-listening mode. This feature fixed one of our main criticisms of the device. Now that we've tested this new functionality, the review (originally published April 2, 2016) has been updated accordingly, and a new video added.
Portable Alexa on Tap
Obviously, nothing about the physical device has changed since the over-the-air update. The Tap is much smaller than the Echo. It's 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. The button works fine whether or not you enable the always-listening microphone.
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.
No more tapping
What it didn't deliver before was the same level of convenience and personality of the other Alexa devices. Now, you can head into the settings on the Alexa app, and toggle the switch for "Hands-free" mode. Flip it on, and the Alexa app will give you a quick, one page tutorial walking you through how to control the Tap with your voice.
Like with the other Echo devices, you simply need to say the wake word, "Alexa" followed by your command. The other Echo devices let you switch the wake word to "Echo," "Amazon" or "Computer," but I don't mind that those options are missing.
You can mute and unmute the microphone by holding the play/pause button for three seconds. You can also put the Tap to sleep by hitting the power button. Holding the play/pause button is more tedious than punching the dedicated mute button on the Echo, but I'm willing to give the Tap a pass here, as it wasn't initially designed for this always-listening functionality.
Impressively, especially since it wasn't designed as an always-listening device, the microphone on the Tap fared well in our tests. Just like the full sized Echo, it heard me clearly at a normal speaking voice as long as I had a clear line of sight. I even walked to the adjoining room and the Tap responded to my commands. When I closed the door, I had to speak up, but that's normal even for the Echo.
The Tap also supports the Echo's ESP feature. If you have multiple Echo devices, only the closest one will respond to you, and the Tap plays nicely with your home's other Echo devices.
The only downside to this new feature is its effect on the Tap's battery life. Without the hands-free mode activated, the Tap streamed a local radio station for an average of 10 hours and 8 minutes over the course of two tests. We played the station at 50 percent volume. With the microphone always on, the battery ran for an average of 8 hours and 40 minutes. That's about 15 percent less, but consistent with Amazon's estimates and a fine tradeoff for the extra usefulness.
Other Bluetooth speakers, like the UE Boom 2, claim up to 15 hours of streaming time, so the Tap falls a bit short competitively, even with the always-listening mode off. Still, 9 to 10 hours of playback feels sufficient for using it around the house, and 8 hours should get you through a long day of working in your garage. Remember, you can leave it on the charging stand when you're at home, or turn off the hands-free feature if you need a little extra juice.