Amazon’s $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods is getting all the media attention right now, but the company made another grocery-related investment last week that’s just as interesting: it’s basically giving the new Dash Wand with Alexa away for free. Prime members who spend $20 on the Dash Wand get a $20 Amazon gift card and 90 days of free AmazonFresh grocery delivery, which normally costs $15 per month. All of Amazon’s marketing around the Dash Wand focuses on ordering groceries; the default shopping cart when you use it is AmazonFresh, not Amazon proper.
That’s a hell of a way to kickstart the idea of Amazon delivering groceries — and eventually Amazon delivering groceries from Whole Foods. And it’s another way to sneak Alexa into your home as your default voice assistant, with a set of new shopping capabilities Siri and Google Assistant simply don’t have yet.
The Dash Wand is basically a slightly smaller and simpler redesign of the original and oft-forgotten Amazon Dash voice-enabled barcode scanner: a 5.6-inch flat cylinder that’s half rubbery-black and half gloss white. New additions include a hook on the top for hanging, along with magnets on the back for sticking to your fridge. Where the older unit had two buttons, the Wand has a single button surrounded by an LED ring for activating Alexa and a speaker for feedback. But really, the only major difference between the Dash and the Dash Wand is that the Wand uses Alexa for voice recognition, while the Dash had its own proprietary voice recognition system.
Setting the Dash Wand up is simple — it runs on two AAA batteries, which come packed in the box, and then it’s just a matter of opening the Amazon app on your phone, holding down the button until the light turns orange, and adding the Wand to your Wi-Fi.
After that, it’s actually a little boring in the best way: you point it at bar codes, and if it recognizes an item, it bloops pleasantly, the light turns off, and the item is in your AmazonFresh or Amazon cart, ready for you to hit purchase. If you scan the same item a bunch of times, it’s smart enough to only add it once — something Amazon no doubt figured out from its Dash Buttons quick-ordering system. And if the Dash Wand doesn’t recognize something, Alexa says “I couldn’t find that. Please tell me what you scanned” in a calm tone that nevertheless sounds like a robot making a plaintive request for the information that one day allows AI to enslave humanity.
You can also add things to your cart by holding down the button and speaking, without any of the formalities that usually accompany an Alexa request — you’ve already pressed the button and the device is designed to shop, so you can just bark “grapes” at a robot and see red seedless grapes appear in your shopping cart. (Amazon defaults to red, but you can say green, of course.)
This all works well for groceries, provided you trust Amazon to get your preferences right, but it’s extremely hit-or-miss for everything else. I will share with you that I walked around my apartment shouting the names of objects into the Amazon Ska Microphone and it understood that I wanted to order new Lutron Maestro dimmer switches but not a single book or movie I tried. And it’s important to note that, just like with Echo devices, Amazon automatically selects the vendors for the items you’ve added, which means you’re at the mercy of the all-powerful buy button algorithm.
But the magic is only halfway: once you’ve added everything to your cart, you still have to open the Amazon app on your phone and check out. This is where you see if your items will be delivered by Amazon or AmazonFresh, which only matters insofar as AmazonFresh grocery deliveries have to be scheduled to avoid spoiling. Oddly, the dimmer switch was in stock and ready to be delivered by AmazonFresh, which suggests that perhaps spending $13 billion on people who know what belongs in a grocery store is a wise investment.
The Dash Wand can also do a bunch of Alexa things, like figure out basic math and unit conversions, tell dumb jokes, control smart home devices, and provide information that would otherwise cause you to make small talk and connect with your fellow humans before a sentient machine army destroys us all for pointedly demanding Mint Method Soap without a hint of courtesy.
What Alexa on the Dash Wand cannot do is play music, set timers or reminders, connect to your calendar, or basically anything else that makes Alexa a useful assistant in contexts outside of identifying objects and attempting to turn them into meals. And you have to press the button to use it, so it’s certainly less convenient than the Echo or Echo Dot. Amazon enabled always-on listening for the Tap portable speaker earlier this year and I immediately started using Alexa more, but I’m not sure that’s possible for a device that runs off two drugstore batteries. But it’s something worth thinking about.
So should you get this thing? If you’re a Prime member, there’s literally nothing to lose. It’s a fun toy and it certainly makes adding things to your Amazon cart easier. If you’re already using AmazonFresh, it’ll make that easier, too. If you’re not, you might give it a shot, although it’s only available in certain cities at the moment. As Amazon’s grocery ambitions come into sharper focus with Whole Foods, it’s possible the Dash Wand will become even more useful.
But really, the thing to know is that Amazon’s nonstop experimentation with Alexa form factors is far beyond what Apple and Google are doing. It’s astonishing that you can get access to a best-in-class intelligent assistant that lives on your fridge for free (if you have Prime, of course). The Dash Wand is an aggressive display of Amazon’s ambitions in your home: ubiquitous, inexpensive, and ready to shop.
Update: Clarified design differences between the first-generation Dash and the Dash Wand.