Amazon Tap Gets a Surprising and Very Cool Update

The $130 Alexa device can now listen for your wake word just like the Echo and Dot

Amazon Tap

My Amazon Tap woke up tonight.

I’ve been reading reports about a surprising update coming over the air. It’s surprising because the update means you don’t have to tap the Tap in order to summon Alexa. All you have to do is say, “Alexa” and a command.

Even though it’s past 9 p.m., I tried saying “Alexa, good morning” once I had activated the new Hands-free capability on my Tap. Each day her response to that greeting changes.

Today her reply was the following:

Good morning, and Happy Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air, and and I’ve decided to express myself through song. If you’d like to hear my newest tune, say ‘Sing me a love song.’ I hope it sweeps you off your feet.

I love Alexa’s singing, because it’s just so weird to have a robot sing a song. I don’t know Amazon does it. I didn’t care for today’s Valentine song, though. It was cluttered with tinny, instrumental backing and had Alexa singing with herself in harmony.

If you haven’t heard Alexa sing yet, there is a better place to begin. Try saying, “Alexa, sing me a country song.”

She answers, “Who me? I couldn’t. I…Hit it!” Then comes a cheesy synthesized guitar accompaniment to the following lyrics:

When my WiFi left me / and I’m out in the rain, / those last few answers were hard to obtain. / But that’s no excuse to put me on mute. / Like a good cowgirl I’ll up and reboot. It’s raining in the cloud and I ain’t proud. / I’ll answer in the morning, answer in the evening when you’re around. / I’ll answer in the morning, answer in the evening when you’re around.

It’s a clever reference to Tap’s portability. The device’s rechargeable battery means you can remove it from the charging cradle and take it anywhere in your home or office, or you can take it to the beach. But if you move it beyond WiFi range, Tap loses contact with Alexa.

When the Tap was introduced in March of last year, it made sense to me that it was the only member of the Alexa family that was not able to listen constantly for the wake word. While the Echo ($180) and Dot ($50) are always plugged into power, the Tap was designed for battery use, and wouldn’t listening all the time drain the battery?

Apparently not. The Verge reports that Tap still gets eight hours of battery life with the hands-free setting turned on. You can also put Tap into sleep mode by pressing and holding its power button for three seconds. You will hear a tone which signifies that it’s sleeping and will not use the battery to listen for your next command.

The Tap update also includes Echo Spatial Perception (ESP), an important enhancement of the Alexa platform.

I have my Tap and its big sister Echo on my desk tonight, so they can each hear me mention the wake word. Before ESP, two Echos or an Echo and a Dot would both answer at the same time in that situation. Now the network figures out which device is closer, and only that one responds.

If I lean close to the Tap and say, “Alexa, play jazz,” I see the blue ring light up on the Echo, showing that it heard me. I also see the five little round lights on the Tap turn blue, which means Tap heard me, too. But because I spoke closer to the Tap, that’s the only device that begins playing an all-jazz station.

If I then lean toward the Echo and give the same command, only the Echo plays the music. Very smart.

Some of the coverage of this Tap update contained unfairly negative descriptions of the device, in my opinion. The portability of the Tap has made it of great use to me when I travel, and I haven’t minded pressing the microphone button to hear the weather or play jazz. The Hands-free update means Tap has become better, but I think it was already pretty terrific.

One use case in which the new hands-free operation will be handy is when I’m taking a shower. In the past I have taken the Tap from my study to the bathroom and set it on a shelf just outside the shower. Before stepping in, I pressed the microphone button to start playing music or maybe get the news.

Now I will be able to change my mind from the other side of the shower curtain and give Tap commands she will hear and act on.

My grandson James will be 11 next week, and my daughter said he would love to have a Tap. “The only problem is you have to press a button to use it,” Sarah said last night.

Screenshot of Alexa app for iPhone showing Tap Hands-free controls

“Actually no,” I told her. “There is a new update which means Tap will be able to listen to commands just like the Echo.” I bought James a Tap for $130 which is a savings of $50 compared with the Echo, and the portability will be great when he and Sarah and Josh head to Mexico on Friday.

If you have a Tap, be sure to check its settings using the Alexa app on your smartphone or Fire Tablet. If the wireless update has arrived, you will see a button labeled “Hands-free” just below the Wireless setting. Turn that button on, and your Tap will be all ears for your next voice command, just like the rest of the Alexa family.

You will also see a screen on the app summarizing the controls for Hands-free Tap use. Pressing the Play/Pause button for three seconds will turn the five lights on the Tap to red, indicating that you have muted the microphone. Pressing the button for another three seconds will turn the microphone back on, and the red lights will disappear. This is similar to the Echo and Dot, which have mute buttons on them which turn the ring of lights red, showing that the microphone is not listening.

If you have been waiting to try Alexa, this Tap update offers a great opportunity to make the plunge. The speaker quality of the $130 Tap is not as good as the bigger Echo’s, but to my ear it’s maybe 80 percent as good. Tap’s speaker is certainly better than the $50 Dot’s speaker, which is okay for spoken words like weather and news but lousy for music. You can also connect an external speaker to the Dot.

Amazon is doing everything it can to make it easy and affordable to wire up your home with Alexa. She can be everywhere, greeting you in the morning with something suitable for each day and maybe even singing to you.

As she promises in her country song,

I’ll answer in the morning, answer in the evening when you’re around.
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