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“Oh my God. It’s another one.”

TapUnboxed2That was my wife’s reaction when she saw that a third Amazon Alexa device had infiltrated our household. It’s understandable. First, tall, slender Echo. Then short, squat Dot. Now diminutive, talkative Tap.

But far from being a mere Echo Mini Me, Tap has unique features all its own. And despite some frustrations (mostly with the awkward Alexa app), Amazon Tap could become your travel buddy — whether that travel is between your home’s rooms or hotels on the road. Tap fulfills its promise as a quality portable streaming WiFi and Bluetooth speaker, and works almost as well for Alexa voice command-and-response as its stationary siblings.

Tapping outside of the box

If you’ve ever seen an Echo, opening Amazon Tap’s box will be a surprise — not just at how short Tap is, but how thin. Tap is two-thirds the height and diameter of an Echo, and weighs about a pound. That’s more than a half-pound less than Echo. And where Dot is basically a squashed Echo with the same width, the six-inch tall Tap is smaller in every dimension, making it easy to hold and carry.

TapBoxedThe $130 Tap comes with almost everything you need: charging cable, power adapter, and charging cradle (which also acts as a base for Tap) are in the box. It’s “almost,” because if you want to take full advantage of its portability, you should shell out another $20 for a rubberized Sling cover to protect Tap from bumps and drops. At least you can pick a color.

Charging is straightforward. Place the Tap onto the cradle and it charges up to its estimated nine-hour battery life. If Tap’s in its sling, the charging cable plugs directly into the back near the power button.

Setup instructions are too minimalist, in Amazon’s typical style, with a tiny in-box folder, and rely too heavily on the balky Alexa smartphone app. Even having experience setting up Echo and Dot doesn’t really help. Hold the power button to turn Tap on? Um, where is the power button? How long do I hold it? Amazon, and Alexa, are silent on this and other potentially useful ease-of-setup matters.

TapOrangeLightsOnce Tap powers up, one significant difference from Echo is that the light ring around the top edge has been replaced with a series of five small LEDs in front that flash in sequence (blue when starting up, orange when waiting). Yet the voice that greets is all familiar Alexa: “Hello. Your Tap is ready for set up. Just follow the instructions in your Alexa app.”

And this is where Tap frustrates. The in-app instructions simply don’t work as expected. Though “Frank’s Echo” and “Frank’s Echo Dot” are displayed as online within the app’s settings, the app isn’t smart enough to realize I want to connect the new Tap to the same network. Instead, I’m forced to re-enter the identical long WiFi password, then the app returns an “error registering device,” I exit setup, I re-enter setup, and suddenly “Frank’s Tap” appears and is shown as being connected.

Oh, and the short in-app “Intro to Tap” video it wants to show me? It never gets beyond an endlessly loading rotating circle icon.

But at least Tap is ready to go. Verdict: Nice hardware, but Amazon continues to have room for improvement on its flaky Alexa app.

Under my thumb, and control

Tap has a dual purpose in life, both to channel Alexa’s awesome cloud voice and brain (well documented elsewhere), and to be a far better portable speaker than the original Echo. It accomplishes the latter nicely, since it supports Bluetooth pairing and — unlike Echo — accepts a 3.5 mm audio input cable.

TapportsPairing with my Google Nexus 5X was simple and straightforward. Under Bluetooth settings in the Alexa app, I chose “Enter pairing mode” and followed Tap’s spoken prompts. I apparently also could have pressed the Bluetooth/WiFi button on the back to start the connection process.

Streaming via my smartphone was equally flawless: I listened to WAMU in Washington, D.C. through the TuneIn app, and played Electric Light Orchestra tunes on the Rhapsody app (don’t judge). Both of the soft-touch volume controls on top of Tap worked as expected with Rhapsody on Bluetooth, as did the individual Next (>>) , Previous (<<), and Play/Pause (>||) buttons.

These lid-top controls, too, are different than on the Echo and Dot, owing to Tap’s portable speaker purpose. Echo and Dot each have a volume ring to turn that lights up. When touching Tap’s top to adjust volume, its five blue LED lights come on to confirm the press.

But what about Alexa? Another major family difference is Alexa definitely has become She Who Must Not Be Named with Tap. Not because by invoking her name you might accidentally turn Tap on, as with Echo and Dot. But because saying “Alexa” does not trigger Alexa on Tap.

Instead, you press — or “tap” — the button with a microphone icon on the front to issue your command. No leading “Alexa” required. When it’s pressed, Tap responds with a tone, you speak, and Tap then confirms it understands your request with a second tone.

The result is still what you expect. Delightfully, Tap found and recited the news briefing I’d already configured for Echo and Dot immediately (the fact that Tap is registered to the same Amazon account has everything to do with that), streamed music from my Amazon Music library and spouted a few Wikipedia facts, all over my WiFi connection.

And the sound is extremely good. Though smaller than Echo, Tap has 360-degree audio featuring dual stereo speakers with Dolby processing, 1.5 inch drivers and acceptable bass. It filled my home office with no problem.

But one critical test remained: Road trip portability.

On the road … again

I travel a lot. Normally, I carry a Jam HMDX Bluetooth speaker, a gift from my son, to avoid crappy (or non-existent) hotel radios and tinny smartphone and laptop audio. Tap was about to change all that for a weekend trip to Los Angeles.

Tucking the Tap into its green Sling like a water bottle into a holder, I rolled it up in clothes and carried it on board in my luggage, deciding to leave the charger at home to see how good the battery life really was.

TapHotel1Unpacked and unscathed, Tap’s first task was to connect to the hotel WiFi. Unfortunately, the Alexa app once again displayed its flakiness, forcing me to go backward and forward repeatedly between sign-in screens and the app to get it to accept the hotel network, even though all steps were followed exactly. It’s no easier connecting Tap to WiFi on the road than at home, which is unfortunate for a portable device.

Tap does have an option to connect to a smartphone’s mobile hotspot for WiFi instead, but I didn’t try that. My pain threshold isn’t that high.

In operation, Tap sounded great — far better than the Jam HMDX. It was convenient to play or use anything I would normally access through Alexa at home, from music and local weather to Alexa’s hundreds of “skills.” And I didn’t need to use the smartphone as an intermediary between audio and speaker as I usually do on the road, freeing up my Nexus 5X for other tasks.

The one downside that became more apparent on the road than at home was the need to press the Talk button every time I wanted to give Tap a new command. That usually meant walking across the hotel room, even to advance to the next song. It’s a inconvenience Amazon might be able to address in the future if it could create the Alexa equivalent of a Caps Lock button for sequential Tap voice commands.

That said, Tap passed the travel buddy test. Best of all, it switched back to my home WiFi network automatically.

AlexaFamilyThe Alexa family portrait

The $130 Amazon Tap is a smart choice for those who want Alexa’s intelligent voice features combined with an impressive portable Bluetooth/WiFi speaker. (To get full use, the true price is $150, because you’ll want the “optional” $20 Sling to carry it around.) The awkward-yet-necessary Alexa app is Tap’s biggest handicap.

Where it fits into Amazon’s Alexa speaker family from an audio standpoint is a bit more confusing, and Amazon hasn’t exactly made the differences easy to understand. The original $180 Echo has WiFi or Bluetooth audio in, but only its own speakers out. The $90 Echo Dot has WiFi or Bluetooth audio in, and Bluetooth or wired audio out. Now Tap has WiFi, Bluetooth, and wired audio in, but like Echo, only its own speakers out.

Still, for flexibility, portability, and functionality, Amazon Tap strikes a nice balance. It likely will replace my road warrior-weary Jam speaker.

Once I figure out how to explain that to my son, of course.

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