Harman Kardon's new Invoke is the first smart speaker to be powered by Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant. Cortana is already inside of all of your Windows 10 devices - including PCs, Xbox One, and more - and you can get it in your Android and iOS devices as well.

So now, it's in a speaker, similar to Google's Home, Amazon's Echo, and Apple's upcoming HomePod. I found it to be an interesting product to review, because Cortana is something that I've been using since mid-2014 when it was introduced with Windows Phone 8.1.

In fact, that's part of the reason that I have this love-hate relationship with Cortana. I've watched firsthand while it was in beta for two years, struggled to reach regions outside of the US, and more.

As someone that uses an Echo, can the Invoke become my main speaker? Find out in my review:

Specs

Rated power: 40W
Frequency response: 60-20kHz (-6dB)
Woofer: 1.75” (45mm) x 3
Tweeter: 0.5” (13mm) x 3
Bluetooth version: 4.1
Power supply: 19V/2A
Power cable length: 47” (1.2m)
Wireless network: 802.11b/g/n/ac (2.4GHz/5Ghz)
Dimensions (DxH): 4.2 x 9.5” (107 x 242mm)
Product weight: 2.3lbs (1kg)
Supported audio formats: AAC, MP3, Vorbis, FLAC, WMA, WAV

Design

The Harman Kardon Invoke comes in two colors: Graphite and Pearl/Silver, and there are no plans for additional colors. It's a beautiful device, and the metal body is much more pleasant to look at than an Amazon Echo; in fact, I think that you could place it pretty much anywhere in your home.

The one that I was sent is Graphite, although I do have to say, they had the Pearl/Silver one on display when I was briefed on the product and it's pretty darn sexy.

But what I really love about the design is the Cortana animation on top. It changes from a solid blue circle, to a swirling white animation, to the blue Cortana circle that we all know and love, and it just looks perfect. I feel like I could stare at that animation all day, which would be ridiculous, but I totally could.

Just a couple things to note here. I absolutely love that when you plug it in, it makes a gentle sound rather than the loud and obnoxious one that the Echo does. If you've got an Echo, it's probably woken you up in the middle of the night before, and it's not cool. You've probably learned that lesson the hard way during a storm when the power goes out and you didn't think to unplug it before you go to sleep.

Other than the metallic Graphite color and the cool animation, it looks just like you'd expect it to look though.

Y tho

When I was briefed on this product, my biggest question was, "Why would I choose Cortana?" Even assuming that you're not invested in Amazon's, Apple's, or Google's ecosystems, there has to be a reason to choose Microsoft's. And of course, that's ignoring the fact that 99% of people have an Android or iOS phone.

This question is a no-brainer if you're big on Microsoft services, or you use Cortana on your Windows 10 PC, your Xbox, and your phone.

Anyway, the answer was, as you'd expect from Microsoft, productivity-related. It lies in how good Cortana is at organizing your to-do list, settings reminders, and more. And of course, all of these things will automagically sync with your phone, your Xbox, and your PC.

Because truthfully, there are a lot of things that Cortana isn't very good at, and that's what I mean by how it needs time to mature.

This product reminds me very much of the Echo when I first got it. If I tell it to turn on my lights, it thinks about it for about five seconds before doing anything. It also has no integration with the Xbox One, so I can't say, "Hey, Cortana, play Star Wars: A New Hope on my Xbox".

Another limitation is that all of your devices will answer at once, so if you're actually using your Xbox when you say the above statement, both will respond. Microsoft told me that the next step is about getting Cortana to be more aware of other devices, so this stuff should get better with time.

The thing is, Alexa on your phone is inside of an app, and if you've got an iPhone, so is Google Assistant. Cortana is the only digital assistant that will seamlessly sync with your PC, phone, and game console.

And I have no doubt that Microsoft will make Cortana better, and since it's a cloud service, you won't have to buy a new device or worry about a software update. The company is laser-focused on machine-learning and artificial intelligence right now, and Cortana is a huge part of that.

Audio quality, and listening to music

When I first asked why I would choose Cortana, they started telling me about the audio quality of the device. Naturally, I interrupted and said I asked about the service, not the hardware. After all, any OEM can make one of these if it wants to.

But indeed, the audio quality is awesome, and it blows away my Echo. This is particularly important too, because one of the key features of a smart speaker is, you guessed it, being a speaker. You'll be listening to music on this thing a lot. Harman Kardon is a major player in the premium audio space, so you don't have to worry about that area.

What you do have to worry about is if your streaming service is supported, because right now, it's just Spotify, TuneIn, and iHeart Radio, with Pandora coming soon. That's right; there's no Groove support - which won't exist after the end of the year - or support for Amazon Music Unlimited, Google Play Music, or Apple Music, for that matter. I signed up for Spotify Premium to test out the Invoke; it's my fourth paid streaming service.

You can, of course, pair your phone through Bluetooth and play whatever you want through that connection.

Microsoft says that the Invoke has true 360-degree audio, whereas competitors will put a speaker in the front and one in the back of the device. And there are seven far-field voice microphones that you can use to control it.

The microphones work great too. I've not had an issue at all with the Invoke misunderstanding me except once, and I was admittedly muttering a bit.

Surprise me

I don't think the feature actually has its own name, but you can tap on the top of the speaker, which is a touchscreen, and Cortana will tell you either an interesting fact or a joke. It's my favorite feature of the device.

For one thing, I feel like it makes the Invoke, and Cortana, more personable. Sometimes I don't have a question to ask, or music to play, or lights to turn on. Sometimes I just want to hear something interesting or funny, and I can do that. I really appreciate little things like this, that just make a device more fun.

Another thing I appreciate is that it's something that my Echo doesn't do. There aren't many such features, so it's worth noting.

If you saw my unboxing video, you noticed that I struggled with getting this to work at first. In fact, at first, it just wanted to suggest things that I can do with Cortana, but after a bit of time, all worked as expected.

Skype

The Invoke comes with six free months of Skype calling to mobile phones and landlines. Anyone that talks to me over Skype knows that my most common thing to say is "****ing Skype", because there's just always something that goes wrong, whether it's hanging on sending a message, notifications, or something else.

But I digress, as you'll be making calls on the Invoke, not sending messages. In fact, if you try to ask Cortana to send a message on Skype, it will tell you that it can't do it, and to try the Cortana app on your phone or PC.

So let's move on to calling. First of all, calls work great. I've spoken to people from across the room and they have no trouble hearing me at all, and their voice sounds crystal clear. But there's one glaring problem, which is that if you call someone's phone number, you'll show up as "Unknown" on their caller ID.

I can only speak for myself, but I would never answer this call. Frankly, I don't know if anyone answers unknown calls anymore.

Update: Rich Hay (@WinObs) has kindly pointed out to me that it is indeed possible to add your caller ID to Skype by following the instructions here. To be clear, this is not what I was told when briefed on the product.

Smart home stuff

The only smart home devices that I own are Phillips Hue lights, and I appreciate that they work with Apple's HomeKit, Google Assistant, Cortana, and everywhere else that I might need them to. So naturally, this was the device that I tested.

As I mentioned earlier, it takes way too long to work. When I tell Cortana to turn on my lights, it takes a good five seconds for it to happen, reminding me of the Echo when Alexa first got the capability. One thing that's better though is that it actually works. Alexa used to do this thing where it would say it's turning on the lights and not do it. At least with Cortana, when it says that it's turning on the lights, it does.

The other issue is that Cortana currently only supports smart home devices from Samsung's SmartThings, Phillips Hue, Nest, Wink, and Insteon. Microsoft says that it's working with Honeywell, Ecobee, TP-Link, Johnson Controls, IFTTT, Geeni, Iris by Lowe's, iDevices, and 'others' for upcoming support.

As with music services, the choice of five smart home vendors feels extremely limited.

Third-party Skills

At the moment, Cortana has 174 third-party Skills to choose from, which you can check out here. Many of them are NFL fan Skills, but there are a couple that seem useful, such as Capital One and Fitbit.

When I set up the Capital One Skill on my PC, it said that the Skill itself will only work with the Invoke, redirecting me to the Capital One website. But once set up, it works about as expected, allowing me to check my credit card balance and such. I've still not been able to get payments to work, as Cortana tells me that it's unable to find a preferred payment account (even though I set one up), but I assume that this is a glitch.

But obviously, 174 Skills isn't a lot, when compared to Alexa's 15,000 or so. This will presumably get better over time, but for now, I just wish I could play Jeopardy on the Invoke like I do on the Echo.

Things you can do

We've talked about playing back music, Skype calling, smart home control, and third-party skills, all of which have their limitations in their own way, but there are a lot of things that Cortana is really good at.

For one thing, you can ask it questions about what's on your calendar, with queries like:

  • “Hey Cortana, what’s my first meeting tomorrow?”
  • “Hey Cortana, what's on my calendar for today?”
  • “Hey Cortana, what do I have between 3 and 5 on Friday?”
  • “Hey Cortana, what is my next meeting?”
  • “Hey Cortana, add dentist appointment to my calendar for Friday at 3pm”

You can set reminders as well, and the cool thing is that you can set location-based reminders. So now, you can ask things like, "Hey Cortana, remind me to feed the dog when I get home", and even though you said it to the Invoke, you'll get a notification on your phone while you're pulling into your driveway, based on your phone's location.

Of course, you can also make lists, as Cortana integrates with Wunderlist. This is great for making shopping lists, lists of TV shows to watch, and more. For example, when someone tells you about how great the show Psych is and you've never heard of it, you can just tell Cortana to add it to your list of shows. After all, we all have a list of shows that we're planning to watch.

And then there are more simple tasks, such as timers and alarms. They do exactly what you'd expect them to. You can check the weather, traffic, and news, and of course, you can get more specific.

You can ask Cortana if you'll need an umbrella tomorrow, how long it will take you to drive somewhere, or what the top stories are in technology (obviously, for the top stories in tech, you'd just open your mobile browser and navigate to Neowin.net, but that's neither here nor there).

My favorite though, as you can probably guess from my commentary on the Surprise Me feature, is the simple chit-chat stuff. You can ask Cortana to tell a joke, what its superpower is, to recite a poem, and more. Cortana has always been great for those simple and fun types of questions, and I enjoy having it in a speaker.

Finally, there are general questions, which Cortana is pretty good at answering. In fact, it tends to provide additional context compared to other digital assistants. The example that I used in my video was, "Is an earthworm an insect?" Not only does it say that an earthworm isn't an insect, but it also describes why it's not an insect.

Conclusion

As I've pointed out many times throughout this review, Cortana is immature right now for a smart speaker. When you say "Hey, Cortana", all of your devices will respond, you can't use it to control your Xbox One, it supports few music and smart home services, and more.

Don't get me wrong though, as the hardware itself is really good. It's a beautiful device, the speakers sound great, and the microphone is excellent. It's just the back end that needs some work.

And I have no doubt that Microsoft will make this better. After the death of Windows phones and Groove Music, many have speculated that the Invoke will die as well, but I don't think that's the case. Even if Harman Kardon discontinued the speaker next week, it still works off of the Cortana back end, something that Microsoft is heavily invested in, and will continue to improve.

There's a unique value proposition with Cortana, and that's that it automatically works with all of your devices. As I pointed out in the previous section, there are a lot of things that Cortana is good at, and one of those is cross-device functionality.

As I've stated a few times, I really appreciate the lighthearted features that Cortana has always excelled at, such as telling a joke, answering an oddball question like if it has superpowers, and so on.

At this point, the question is, should you buy one? If you're looking for a smart speaker and you use music and smart home services that are supported, maybe. Cloud-based services like this tend to get better over time, without the need to worry about software and hardware upgrades, so if it's something you're interested in and you don't mind a couple of shortcomings that early adopters often find, go for it.

The Harman Kardon Invoke will be available on October 22 in the United States, for $199.

 

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