On the Road with Alexa and the Amazon Tap

Amazon recognized that people love the Amazon Echo so much that they may take it with them when they leave home, which is why they created Amazon Tap. The portable, battery-powered speaker has all the “smarts” of Alexa, but is not voice activated. Instead of having microphones that always listen for the “Alexa” wake word, Tap has a microphone button that you "tap" whenever you want to ask a question or give a command.

As a frequent traveler, I was excited at the prospect of having all the knowledge and entertainment abilities of Alexa in a compact speaker that I could take on the road.

The Tap weighs less than a pound and is about a third smaller than the Echo in height and girth. The Echo is 9.27 inches tall and 3.27 inches in diameter. The Tap is 6.2 inches tall and 2.6 inches in diameter. It’s also about a third less expensive at $130 compared to the Echo’s $180. To make it easier to bring the Tap with you, Amazon offers the Tap Sling ($20), a silicon protector/carrier that can be clipped onto a backpack or belt loop.

A rechargeable battery makes the Tap portable. To recharge, it can be plugged in directly using a micro-USB cable (included) or it can be set on a charging dock (also included). It was annoying to have to remove the Sling to charge the Tap on the dock, so I usually opted for direct power. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Amazon's 9-hour battery rating is accurate. I played music for several hours and it wasn’t until the second day that Alexa informed me that the battery needed to be charged: “Just so you know, the battery is currently low.” Of course, battery life is ridiculously long if you use Tap mostly as a personal assistant and don't play much music.

Having to tap the microphone button is less convenient than simply saying "Alexa" but it's not that big a deal. I demonstrated Tap for friends and they were amazed not only at Alexa's ability to answer questions in plain English but at how quickly she responded whether she was sharing sports scores, weather, or news. One friend marveled that it was almost as though Alexa had interrupted her before she finished her question.

Of course, Alexa must be connected to the Internet to get its information, which meant I had to reset the Wi-Fi in the Alexa app on my phone whenever I arrived at a new location, otherwise restaurant recommendations and other information was based on my home address. This involved going into the settings in the Alexa app on my iPhone to change “device location” to wherever I happened to be.

When connected to the Internet, the Tap can play music directly from Spotify, Pandora, and iHeart along with playlists and songs from Amazon Prime—you don't need to have a phone to choose songs or control playback.

I had hoped to be able to "tap" into Alexa’s knowledge base while in the car but when I activated my iPhone’s hotspot to get on the Internet, the connection did not appear in the Wi-Fi set up screen of the Alexa app. Some users have reported having success creating a hotspot but many shared my experience.

In the car, the Tap was relegated to Bluetooth speaker. It paired easily with my iPhone but didn’t play as loud or sound as good as the Echo, which is a bit of a problem in a noisy car environment. The sound it delivered was pleasant enough when it was quiet, though.

The Tap has a full set of playback controls if you don’t want to have to press the microphone button and issue a voice command to change tracks or adjust the volume. Having those buttons is a practical addition.

If all you want is a Bluetooth speaker, better sounding options are available. But the whole point of the Tap is that it is much more than just another Bluetooth speaker. Tap is a speaker and a clever personal assistant that you can take with you wherever you go. And I’ll take Alexa over Siri any day. I’ve yet to swear at Alexa for not understanding me and giving me hokey, irrelevant information over and over.

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