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 Alexa built-in -- the $180 Echo and the $50 Echo Dot -- the Tap wasn't always listening. You had to literally tap the Tap to give it a command.
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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.
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.
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 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 the main area where the Tap used to fall short of its predecessor. The Tap can now do everything the Amazon Echo can do, and you can take it with you as you move from room to room.
The speaker hat
When I first took the Amazon Tap on an expedition to a nearby park, I was disappointed to find out that the voice commands don't work at all when you're not connected to Wi-Fi. Without an Internet connection, it becomes just a simple Bluetooth speaker. You can't even issue basic media control commands via voice. Fortunately, the top of the Tap has buttons for those basic functions, which jut out slightly so you can feel them in the dark.
The Tap will work with a Wi-Fi hotspot. When I put this feature to the test, it connected to our hotspot fairly easily and there wasn't much of a delay between giving a command and receiving a response. If Alexa voice input is important to you when you're on the go, the Tap can make it happen.
As an audio device, the Tap delivers sound that's fairly typical of a compact portable wireless speaker, the majority of which stream audio over Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi (we mainly tested the Tap over Wi-Fi because it's supposed to offer better streaming performance than Bluetooth). By that we mean that the Tap sounds decent with less demanding tracks -- such as ballads and easy listening music -- but falls down significantly with more complicated tracks or bass heavy material.
That's because the Tap, not surprisingly, is all about the midrange, where voices live. It's clear and forward sounding, which allows Alexa to come across with a lot of presence. Her voice is clear and loud.
There's a little treble push that makes the speaker sound a tad bright, but the lack of bass is the bigger issue. It's not completely devoid of bass, but the Tap's sound is fairly thin.
We played tracks from Amazon Music and Spotify and thought the speaker did well with material like Dave Matthews Band's "You & Me," Sting's "August Winds" and Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity."
But it sounded pretty crunchy with Chairlift's "Show U Off" and "Ch-Ching" and The Smashing Pumpkins' "Being Beige." At about 60-70 percent volume, the speaker got overloaded whenever a lot of instruments were playing at the same time or any deep bass was introduced. The on-board digital processor (DSP) ratcheted back the bass and volume to keep things from distorting too badly, but it tended to be a losing battle, particularly with hip hop and techno tracks.
Again, this is typical of very compact wireless speakers, but even Bluetooth speakers such as JBL's older Charge 2+ sounded better, and that originally cost about the same as the Tap. The JBL has significantly better bass and sounds richer and smoother. It wasn't really a contest, even though the JBL was streaming over Bluetooth not Wi-Fi.
Of course, Amazon isn't marketing this speaker to audiophiles and critical listeners (we still have to review it with a critical ear, however). It's marketing it to people who want something to use to play background music and sound "good enough."
Still, aside from making the Tap sound very good, the audio doesn't distinguish itself from the multitude of moderately priced portable wireless speakers on the market.
You'll also need to be cautious if partying with the Tap nearby. Unlike all of the competing JBL, Bose and UE speakers described here, the Tap isn't water resistant.
The newly updated $130 Amazon Tap almost makes the excellent $180 Amazon Echo obsolete. You get all of the advantages of Alexa with both, but the Tap is cheaper, lighter and portable. Thanks to the "hands-free" update, the only reason to go with an original Echo over a Tap is for a slightly better native speaker. The $50 Echo Dot is the best choice if you have a speaker system of your own or you don't care about music.
Whereas the Tap was once the Echo device we were hesitant to recommend, it's now an equal member of the trio at the very least and the best Echo device if you value portability. For instance, if you often find yourself wanting to talk to Alexa in the far corners of your house, go with Tap. If you like the idea of a digital assistant and also want a bluetooth speaker you can take to the park, go with the Tap. It's a battery-powered Alexa device with none of the trade-off that used to imply.
If you're just interested in a compact speaker, you're still better served looking elsewhere. Even then, take a look at everything Alexa can do before ruling out the Tap. It has fine sound quality and is now, without a doubt, the most versatile bluetooth speaker on the market.