A few years ago, Amazon quietly announced a new gadget, the Dash Wand, but it's taken until now to give it a wider, official launch.

It’s basically giving the Dash Wand away for free. Prime members who spend $20 on the Dash Wand get a $20 Amazon credit and 90 days of free AmazonFresh grocery delivery, which costs $15 per month. But this Dash Wand is different from the original one. It looks different, and it comes with Alexa, so you can not only use it to order goods but also query Alexa and control your home.

That said, is it really something you need? Can anyone use it? Does the fun wear off after a while? And does it really have full Alexa? We've spent the last week playing with Dash Wand, and to be honest, we're pretty impressed at what this gadget can do, considering it essentially costs nothing to get ahold of, and the ability to easily scan and add stuff to our Amazon cart is absolutely thrilling.

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To state the obvious, Amazon wants consumers to buy everything through Amazon.com. Just think about how often you say to yourself, "Oh, I need to get paper towels" or "I gotta remember to buy a new fan for the bedroom" or whatever. Now, with the Dash Wand, you can just scan a barcode to add that item to your cart or press a button to ask Alexa to do it for you.

However, Amazon’s marketing around the Dash Wand seems to be entirely focused on groceries. In fact, the default shopping cart when you use Dash Wand is AmazonFresh, not your actual Amazon.com account. Now, keep in mind Amazon just acquired the grocery chain Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. It's clear that Amazon is poised to digitally transform how we get our groceries.

Eventually, Amazon will start delivering groceries from Whole Foods. But let's also not forget that the Dash Wand is yet another way for Amazon to get Alexa into our homes and using it as our default voice assistant. At next to nothing, you can have a portable version of Alexa that you can use in a number of ways -- not just for ordering groceries or products or whatever on Amazon.

The Dash Wand has come a long way since the original Amazon Dash, which was a voice-enabled barcode scanner. It's a 5.6-inch, remote-like flat cylinder with a rubbery black top-half and a glossy white bottom-half. There's a hook on the top for hanging, and magnets on the back so you can stick it to your fridge. It also has a single button surrounded by an LED ring. Just press it to activate Alexa.

Unlike the original Dash Wand, this version uses Alexa for voice recognition, voice commands, and answering queries, while the original had a different system. The device itself looks great, is lightweight, and seems thoughtfully made. Every person we've shown it to, including the people who have spotted it in our home, has asked us about it and immediately expressed interest in getting one.

Lastly, the bottom of the device has the barcode scanner. There's also a built-in speaker, of course, so you can hear Alexa respond. It's not overly loud, but it's loud enough. We could hear bloops easily enough after we scanned items and it recognised them, and we could hear Alexa just fine when she told us dumb jokes and served up info. But that doesn't mean it can play music (more on that later).

It's super easy to set up and begin using, too, so even your grandparents can get started with it in no time. It runs two AAA batteries, which come in the box, and then all you have to do is open the Amazon app on your phone, hold down the button on the wand until the light turns orange, and add the wand to your Wi-Fi so it's connected to your network and registered to your Amazon account.

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Simple: you point it at bar codes. If it recognises an item, the wand will make a noise, then the light will turn off, and the item will be in your AmazonFresh or Amazon cart. From there, all you have to do is check out. If you scan the same item several times, it’ll realise you only meant to add it once. And if the Dash Wand doesn’t recognise something, Alexa will tell you it couldn’t find it.

It may also ask you to say what you scanned, if it can't recognise the item. You can also add things to your cart by holding down the button and speaking to Alexa. Ask for "apples" or "socks" or "milk" -- whatever your heart desires. However, in our experience, it works best for groceries and makes some mistakes otherwise. Amazon also selects brands and types for you, if you don't specify.

So, if you don't say "Macintosh apples", you may see Gala apples in your cart instead. Amazon chooses a vendor for you, too. Once you’ve added everything to your cart, you still have to open the Amazon app on your phone to check out everything, including whether items are coming from Amazon or AmazonFresh. That also means you do need Amazon Prime as well as AmazonFresh.

AmazonFresh has rolled out its services gradually. It's available in US cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Sacramento, Boston, Dallas, Chicago, and Denver. Elsewhere, it's available in London, Berlin, Tokyo. It costs $14.99 per month for Amazon Prime members. At launch, London AmazonFresh customers paid £6.99 per month.

The Dash Wand is Alexa-enabled, which means you basically have a portable version of Alexa. It can do basic things like figure out math problems and unit conversions. It can also provide information, tell jokes, and even control your smart home devices. However, when we asked Alexa to play a song, we were told it couldn't do that. It also couldn't set timers or reminders or connect to our calendar.

It therefore doesn't have full-fledged Alexa. Nonetheless, we were impressed. It's not like you'd want to hear music playing out of the tiny speaker anyway, though setting timers and reminders seem like obvious features, considering this is a shopping tool. Why not have the Dash Wand remind us to check out our cart -- or, since its on our fridge, set timers for us while we cook the food that was delivered?

You also have to press the button to use Alexa, so it doesn't have voice activation like you'd find on the Echo or Echo Dot. However, Amazon did recently enable always-on listening for the Tap speaker, so it's not like this feature can't come to the wand down the road.

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If you're a Prime member, it's basically free. So, why not? It definitely makes adding things to your Amazon cart easier. And if you're lucky enough to be in an AmazonFresh region, it’ll makes life easier, too, as you'll never have to go to a grocery store again, especially once Amazon leverages its Whole Foods acquisition. And let's not forget it offers a portable, limited version of Alexa.

First Impressions

There is so much potential with this thing. And because it's so inexpensive, we can't help but think of the original Google Chromecast. Some critics dismissed it, but because it was cheap, many people picked it up, and it quickly became popular and critically acclaimed. Amazon could easily achieve that with the Dash Wand, and it could help Amazon push Alexa, Prime, and AmazonFresh.

Also, Amazon’s decision to allow third-party app access, providing us with smart home controls, is a much-welcomed feature. It's so cool to use a portable tool to order milk, shut off the kitchen lights, and ask Alexa for a unit conversion. The only gripes we have is that AmazonFresh isn't everywhere, the wand isn't hands-free, and it uses drugstore batteries instead of a rechargeable pack.

Maybe the third-generation Dash Wand will change all that, but until then, you have nothing to lose if you decide to try this version of the Dash Wand. It's even a great conversation starter.