After more than a year of flying under the radar by tech standards, Amazon's Alexa voice-controlled assistant platform is looking to become more mainstream, and one of its first moves to that end is to become more portable – with the new Amazon Tap. We've spent a few weeks with the battery-powered version of the original Alexa device, the Echo.
The Tap is a little more than half the size of the tabletop Echo, which needs to be plugged into a wall at all times to operate. While the Tap offers one of the features we most desired in the Echo, by untethering it from the outlet, it introduces a new limitation to make it possible. As its name suggests, you need to "tap" a physical button on the front of the Tap if you want it to start listening for your commands, whereas the Echo is always listening and can be operated hands-free from across a room or with a remote with built-in microphone.
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While this limitation is a little bit of a heart-breaker because multitasking with voice commands while your hands are busy is one of the true joys of using the Echo, the portability of the Tap means it winds up getting more use and in more environments, making it a net gain in utility overall.
The Tap became a popular tool around my office and house, with kids and adults alike grabbing hold of it to stream podcasts, music, audiobooks or answer random questions, give the weather forecast and play trivia, just for starters. The ability to move it from room to room made it more useful than the stationary Echo, even with the larger device's superior speaker and microphone.
Surprisingly, the Tap is a little less practical outside the home or other places with dedicated Wi-Fi. That's because it requires a constant connection to the Internet, and doing so with a mobile hotspot on a smartphone typically means sacrificing quite a bit of battery life on the phone.
In a world where many of us are smartphone power users constantly trying to squeeze another hour out of every charge, we found it often doesn't make sense to give up that extra juice just to keep the Tap connected, especially when most phones already have voice assistants similar to Alexa that are only a tap away.
Amazon seems to be conscious of this competition, though, and has been aggressive about adding big names to its Alexa platform – like Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn as well as interfacing with all kinds of smart home devices like Nest and SmartThings. It's also released an Alexa Skills Kit and API to allow developers to create an ever expanding list of skills that allow for limited voice access to texting, email, requesting an Uber or ordering fresh flowers. We've even seen an Echo used to pull a Tesla Model S out of the garage.
Amazon throwing open the doors to Alexa for developers has made it one of the most useful voice-activated platforms around, and it's just getting started, so a Tap is the kind of purchase that could become more valuable as time goes on. This has been the case with the Echo, which we've been using since it was in beta. Even since it became available for anyone to purchase through Amazon, its overall utility has grown by leaps and bounds.
Once your mobile hotspot dies or you disconnect the Tap from WiFi, it becomes little more than a middling Bluetooth speaker. Don't expect Alexa to even respond to your tap if it doesn't have an internet connection.
As bluetooth speakers go, the Tap isn't bad, but there are certainly better offerings at the $129 price point. You could get something of a similar size from Bose with better sound for a similar price, but of course that would just be a "dumb" speaker with no Alexa.
When streaming music, the Tap delivers crisp enough 360-degree sound from two 1.5-inch drivers and dual passive radiators for a little more bass. It comes with a nifty charging cradle and Amazon says it plays nine hours of music per charge; we found this to be a conservative estimate, which was a pleasant surprise.
At 6.2" x 2.6" x 2.6" (159 mm x 66 mm x 66 mm), you can't quite pocket the Tap, but it does slip into a bag or a backpack easily enough and you can also order an optional sling that slides over the speaker to protect its edges from drops and gives it an extra carrying loop. Weighing just over one pound (470 grams) also makes it easy to tote.
The Tap doesn't come with a remote like the Echo, but it does have a few extra buttons on top that allow you to easily control volume and advancing forward or back.
Overall, the Tap isn't the perfect voice-assisted device. We probably haven't seen that just yet. What it does is offer a choice for people who might enjoy access to a powerful voice assistant like Alexa from a variety of locations in the home, office or elsewhere. If hands-free interaction with such a platform is more valuable for you than portability, then the Echo or smaller Echo Dot is going to make more sense.
There is also another kind of customer who might want to consider the Tap. If you're in the market for a mid-range Bluetooth speaker, we recommend considering the Tap. You're likely to get comparable sound quality for a comparable price, and with the added bonus of access to a rapidly growing and powerful voice platform.
For more on the basic functionality, you can revisit our Echo review from last year.
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