Hands on with Amazon Tap: Get your Echo to go

The Amazon Tap is a versatile Bluetooth speaker with Alexa inside. The battery lets you take this "Amazon Echo" with you.

The Amazon Echo product line grew recently with the launch of the Amazon Tap and Echo Dot. This expands Alexa into a full platform with solutions to appeal to a range of prospective buyers. The more interesting of the two, the Amazon Tap crams a fully functioning Echo into a portable Bluetooth speaker.

The more I use the Tap the better I like it, although it's not as satisfying an experience as that of the Amazon Echo. The Echo is still the most-used gadget in my home so the Tap has some big shoes to fill.

The hardware

The Tap is much smaller than the Echo, and shares the same cylindrical form. The cylinder is covered with mesh except on the top and bottom. On the top are five buttons for volume control, jumping to the next/previous song in the stream, with the pause/resume button in the middle.

See related: How to use the Amazon Echo and why you should get one | Amazon Echo: It's the most used gadget in my home | Amazon Echo review: A perfect 10 | CNET Review: Alexa gets smart about thermostats with a new Nest-ready API

This makes sense as the Amazon Tap is a simple portable Bluetooth speaker at the basic level. It can be used to stream music from iOS and Android devices, similar to products from the competition. Listening to music playing through the Tap is OK although the speaker lacks bass. Audio distorts at high volume levels, which is loud for such a small speaker.

On the front of the Tap, about an inch from the top, is the big microphone button used to get the Tap's attention. It doesn't always listen like the Echo, no doubt to keep battery consumption down. It took a while for this heavy user of the Echo to get used to the Tap's inability to work the same. It's not a big effort to push the button first and speak to the Tap second, but it's not as fluid as using the Echo.

On the Tap opposite to the mic button is a small panel of controls and ports near the bottom. This panel has the power button which also is used for setting up the Tap the first time. Beneath this is a 3.5mm headphone jack, a microUSB port for charging, and another button for Bluetooth pairing devices.

Taking it on the road

Turning on the Amazon Tap for the first time triggers the setup process, which takes place using the same Alexa app used for the Echo. This app is available on iOS and Android, and clear instructions are given for the setup. It only took a couple of minutes to get the Tap connected to the Wi-Fi network and ready for use.

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What makes the Amazon Tap so useful is the ability to use it for all tasks that can be done on the Echo. This includes searching for information, getting answers for questions that regularly pop up, controlling smart appliances, and streaming music from popular online services, including Spotify, Pandora, and Android Prime.

Simply tap the mic button which lights the five LEDs blue when the Tap is actively listening for your command or question. These LEDs light orange to signal a setup task, say entering a new Wi-Fi hotspot. Once the blue lights appear state what you want. The Tap responds by voice, the same voice as "Alexa" in the Echo.

While the Amazon Echo quickly became an invisible friend in the room due to its always listening for someone to speak to it, that's not the case with the Tap. The simple act of having to hit the mic button creates an unseen barrier that isn't there on the Echo. It doesn't sound like much but having used the Tap for a while it's still there.

I have gravitated to using the Tap as a Bluetooth speaker most of the time. Audio sounds good enough for everyday use -- in fact a number of people have told me it sounds really good. Both streaming music from my the iPhone and letting the Tap stream music from Pandora are my main uses.

Having a portable Echo with me has already been useful. Just as I routinely need something from the Echo in my home, being able to do the same thing on the Tap is nice. As an example, during a conversation with friends in the coffee shop the topic of the Houston Astros came up. Without thinking about it I asked the Tap "when is the next Astros game" and we had the answer.

The longer I use the Amazon Tap the more I am using the Echo functions. This is a good benefit of using the Tap over a simple Bluetooth speaker. Instead of reaching for my iPhone and asking Siri questions as I used to do, I now reach for the mic on the Tap.

The Amazon Tap is $129.99 -- a reasonable price for everything it can do. It is cheaper than the Echo and as it can work anywhere, even at home, it might appeal to those curious about the Echo. Amazon sells a $20 sling for the Tap which is a simple case to protect it when used in places typical for using a speaker. It's easy to put on and take off which you'll be doing frequently.

While the Tap can be charged by plugging the microUSB cable into the back of the device, Amazon includes a charging cradle in the box with the device. The Tap can be charged by setting it into this cradle and picked up when you're ready to go. It can't charge in the sling which covers up the contacts on the bottom of the Tap so you'll be taking it off every day.

Amazon claims the battery will stream music for nine hours on a charge. This seems to be accurate so far, although I've never totally run the battery dry.

Who should buy one?

The Amazon Tap should appeal to two types of buyer. Those who own an Echo and like it will feel the same with the Tap. It gives you a second Echo device for the home and is portable for use anywhere there is Wi-Fi.

The Tap is also a good fit for those who don't own an Echo but who are curious about the device. It's cheaper than the Echo yet has the functionality of one so it's a good way to see if it works for them.

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