Alexa has finally broken free, thanks to the $129 Amazon Tap — the company's portable, Bluetooth version of the Amazon Echo. Like the Echo and the Echo Dot, you can use the Tap to tell Alexa to play music, control smart home devices, get the news and more, and with a new firmware upgrade, you no longer have to push a button first. Overall, the Tap is a good (but not great) speaker with an unusually smart assistant inside.
Editor's Note: This review was updated to reflect an upgrade to the Tap's firmware, which enables hands-free activation of Alexa.We have adjusted the rating accordingly.
The black, mesh exterior of the cylindrical Amazon Tap was a magnet for the cat hair floating around my apartment, but it looked slick when clean. The top of the bar is coated in a soft-touch, rubbery material that houses the volume and playback buttons. On the front lip are five LED lights that help indicate various states, such as setup mode (orange), listening for commands (blue) and adjusting volume (white).
On the front, toward the top, you'll find the all-important microphone button. Amazon's Alexa smart assistant is built into the Tap. A microphone button on the top of the Tap will activate Alexa, but a firmware upgrade now lets you simply say "Hey Alexa" if you want to wake it. That makes it much more convenient than when it originally launched.
If the Tap is off and you touch any of the buttons, it will turn on the device. This seems like a potential for a real loss of battery power, assuming this little guy is bouncing around in your bag. There's also a dedicated power button on the rear bottom, just above a 3.5mm audio port, micro-USB slot and the Bluetooth-on button. You can charge the Tap through microUSB or use the included charging cradle to connect the device to the metal rings on the underside.
The Amazon Tap is smaller than I expected. The speaker measures just 6.24 x 2.6 x 2.6 inches, which is positively Lilliputian compared to the Amazon Echo (9.25 x 3.27 x 3.27 inches), and is more compact than the rectangular Bose SoundLink Color (5.3 x 5 x 2.1 inches). At just 1.04 pounds, the Tap is also lighter than the Echo (1.68 pounds) and the SoundLink Color (1.16 pounds).
Because Bluetooth speakers like this one are likely to head to the pool or beach with you, I wish Amazon had made this device waterproof. The Tap comes with a one-year limited warranty.
Alexa is Amazon's smart assistant, which is also found inside of the Amazon Echo, the Echo Dot and the Fire TV, as well as a couple of third-party devices. The female voice lives in the cloud, and works with a companion app for Android and iOS devices. But with the Tap, you don't call Alexa by name; you simply tap the button and start talking.
Alexa can control your music, read books and news reports, check the weather, set alarms and control some of your smart home devices, such as the Nest thermostat. It can also give directions, track your calendar, help you order things on Amazon and answer questions based on what Wikipedia says. It's a bit daunting to make sure you're taking advantage of all the cool things Alexa can do.Here are 42 of our favorite Alexa Skills, to help you get started.
I did run into some hiccups with the Tap. Overall, Alexa did just about everything I asked perfectly. But when I asked it to play "I See Fire (opens in new tab)" by Ed Sheeran on Spotify," I got hit with a minute-long delay before being informed that the device had lost its connection. After re-connecting, I encountered a similar delay, but the Tap eventually played the song.
I asked Alexa to read my Flash Briefing, which brought up the most recent NPR news reports. Asking Alexa for the weather is superhelpful, especially when I'm running late in the mornings. I don't need to wait for the local news to get to that segment, or even pause to check my phone. However, I did have to pause to hit the microphone button on the Tap.
Alexa quickly pulled up and played my current Audible audiobook, "The Magician King" by Lev Grossman. The assistant also correctly told me who Mark Ronson is. There are tons more features and abilities (she can tell some pretty cringe-worthy jokes), and Amazon is adding new things every week.
Every interaction I had with the Tap was recorded in my Alexa app on my phone. This allowed me to give Amazon feedback on each interchange, and to have a record of what I'd been using Alexa for. The $129 Bose SoundLink Color has no such app or smarts inside.
Supported Devices and Services
You can connect Alexa to a variety of services and smart home devices. For music, the smart assistant natively supports Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn, as well as Amazon Prime Music and Audible or Kindle books. In the smart home realm, Alexa natively connects to the Nest, Insteon, Lutron, SmartThings, Wink, Lifx, TP-Link Kasa, Sensi and Ecobee.
I had no trouble connecting the Tap to the Nest and then changing the temperature through a voice command. If that's not enough functionality for you, you can also connect Alexa to the web service IFTTT (If This Then That). Through that service, you can trigger the Amazon Tap to execute an electronic response of some sort. For instance, you can connect Alexa to your Logitech Harmony universal remote and control that through your voice.
Though the Amazon Tap features Amazon's smart assistant in a portable device, it's a speaker first and foremost. Whether you're connected via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to your smartphone or tablet, this little cylinder was made to play music. I just wish it had perfect pitch and a better range.
The bass was completely missing from "FourFiveSeconds (opens in new tab)" by Rihanna, and some of Paul McCartney's guitar licks got lost. I wished for the wider soundstage the Bose SoundLink Color provides. The resonance and warmth really came through on the Bose and was lacking on the Tap.
On Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk (opens in new tab)," I also preferred the Bose for its crisp treble and driving bass.
The Tap ended up sounding more or less flat and two-dimensional. The $179 Amazon Echo sounded better than the Tap but still didn't compete with the one-trick-pony Bose.
When I was reading "The Magician King (opens in new tab)" from Audible, the Tap sounded fine, but the Bose's audio was transportive. On the latter speaker, I could feel the tremble of Mark Bramhall's voice as bad things were about to go down in the story.
Amazon promises that the Tap will last 9 hours on a charge. After two days of intermittent use, the battery dropped by 27 percent. The Bose SoundLink Color has 8 hours of rated endurance, but we saw 9 hours in our test. That's still pretty short compared to some other Bluetooth speakers, such as the Fugoo Style, which lasted 15 hours on a charge.
Setup and Accessories
Amazon makes the Tap pretty easy to set up. Once the app is downloaded to your phone and the power button is on, it will walk you through what you need to do. Simply go to Settings > Tap. Your phone will need to be connected to Wi-Fi. All told, it will take about 30 seconds to 1 minute to connect to a new Wi-Fi setup.
To trick out your Amazon Tap a little more, you can also add a $19.99 Sling (opens in new tab) (available in white, black, blue, green, pink and orange). It resembles a rubberized Thermos cover, with cutouts for all of the buttons and the 360-degree speakers. It also makes it easy to use a carabiner to clip the Tap to a bag.
The $129 Amazon Tap puts Alexa in a portable and attractive body that's $50 less than the wall-outlet-bound Amazon Echo. All those smarts come in pretty handy, but it's not the best-sounding speaker for the price. True audiophiles can spend $129 and get a dramatically richer experience from the Bose SoundLink Color. Alexa is still magical, and it's even better that you don't have to touch this lamp every time you want her to do your bidding.