Microsoft's answer to Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomeKit is here with the Harman Kardon Invoke. The first smart speaker with Cortana built in, the $199 Invoke sounds great and looks good, but falls short on skills.
"Hey, Cortana: What can you do for me that Alexa can't?"
That's the opening question you might want to ask the Harman Kardon Invoke , a smart speaker that's the first non-Windows PC device powered powered by Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant. While Alexa is tops for smart home integration and shopping, and Google Home is best for answering deeper AI-powered questions, Cortana -- not surprisingly -- finds her strengths with Office-centric tasks such as calendar queries and Skype calls. And thanks to Harman Kardon's audio pedigree, this speaker sounds great with music , too.
The Invoke was announced months ago, but it's finally available on Oct. 22 for $199. There's no timeframe for UK or Australian availability, but that price converts to about £150 or AU$255.
Invoke's design feels high-end, and that's good news for a speaker with a higher price tag than the Amazon Echo and Google Home. A metal outer casing comes in Graphite and Pearl/Silver. On the top of the device, a smooth-turning volume control and touchpad act as user interfaces. Like Alexa, a circular light on the top of the device lights up when it hears the wake phrase. In this case, that's "Hey, Cortana".
Microsoft's version of Alexa and Siri is available on Windows 10 and as an app on Android and iOS devices. Cortana can do everything you'd expect, including play music, answer questions, make calls and tell you about your day. Microsoft's focus is on bringing professional productivity into the home. With Office 365 and Outlook connected, you can ask Cortana about your calendar or set reminders that will appear across Cortana-enabled devices. I connected my Outlook account and Cortana answered questions about meeting times, places and participants. But if you're not using those services, that functionality won't work. Cortana couldn't recognize events that were only scheduled in my Gmail calendar. Reading emails aloud or combing through Office 365 documents for keywords isn't in Cortana's current skill set either.
Invoke supports calls to mobile phone and landlines via Microsoft's Skype service. In the US, that means Invoke get free nationwide domestic calling. Once you've connected your Skype account in the Cortana app, you'll be able to call anyone from your Skype contacts, phone contacts or a local business. Cortana uses Bing search technology -- yes, the Microsoft corporate family is all here -- to help you find local business numbers. Connect your phone via bluetooth and it's easy to initiate calls with Cortana commands. I was able to call a fellow editor from my phone's contacts, as well as ask Cortana to call the nearest pharmacy.
Unlike Amazon and Google, Harman Kardon has a long and respected audio lineage, and that's why we had high hopes for the Invoke's sound quality. The speaker has three compact "woofers," three tweeters and two passive radiators. On paper, that's a more formidable driver array than the $99 Echo and even the $399 Google Home Max.
I found the Invoke's 360-degree sound to deliver fuller bass and cleaner treble than Amazon's Echo line of speakers. But my colleague Ty Pendlebury compared the Invoke to the $199 Alexa-powered Sonos One , and found it well matched -- though each speaker had its strengths and weaknesses:
Opposite the dark-sounding Sonos One, the Invoke had what it takes to make the most of the epic "Yulunga (Spirit Dance)." Despite being a single, column-style speaker it filled the listening rooms with Lisa Gerrard's soaring vocals. Even the extreme left and right shaker eggs seemed more separated than on the Sonos. The Sonos didn't sound bad, just not as detailed or spacious.
Presented with something more rock-oriented, however, the Sonos wiped the floor with the Invoke. The tight funk of Queens of the Stone Age's "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" sounded a little confused, distant and harsh compared to the Sonos. This is the kind of track where the Sonos shines.
Adjusting the volume via the turning dial feels good, but it's hard to get a great visual of exactly what volume level you're dialing to with a smoky LED circle. From a distance, it's difficult to see any light notifications, as the light on the very top is the only indicator of Cortana's activity. Seven microphones allow far-field listening and separate pipelines differentiate between audio playback and your voice. That means Cortana can hear you well from a distance and over the speaker's music.
Music streaming options are limited for now, though. You'll need Spotify premium in order to ask Cortana to play a specific song. Invoke also works with iHeartRadio and TuneIn, creating or playing stations per your request. With a Spotify premium account, you can ask Cortana to play a specific song. Pandora is not supported, but Harman Kardon says it is working to make it available.
Smart home control is where Invoke starts to lag behind. It currently supports SmartThings, Philips Hue, Nest, Wink and Insteon. That's not a bad start, and it will allow you to control lights, switches, outlets and thermostats. However, I'd like to see that list, as well as Cortana's set of skills, really expand. Harman Kardon say it's working with Honeywell, Ecobee, TP-Link, Johnson Controls, IFTT, Geeni, Iris by Lowe's and iDevices to integrate with Cortana. If those integrations happen soon, Invoke will be a much more viable smart home platform.
We tested the Invoke speaker with the Nest Thermostat E. Connect your Nest account in the Cortana app and Cortana will adjust the temperature with phrases like "Hey Cortana, make it warmer" or "Hey Cortana set the thermostat to 68 degrees."
We tested Philips Hue's Cortana integration and while it did work well once we connected, that account connection process was significantly buggier. It took re-pairing the Hue bridge with a new e-mail in order to get things up and running. Once connected, Cortana can to turn on individual lights or a specific room, depending on what you've built in the Hue app.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Invoke's debut is Amazon and Microsoft's announcement of future Alexa and Cortana interoperability. In August, both companies stated that by the end of 2017, you'll be able to open one virtual assistant with the other by saying "Alexa, open Cortana" or vice versa. From there, you would be able to interact with Alexa or Cortana-specific skills. This supposedly symbiotic relationship looks to fill in the gaps for one another, giving Alexa users the ability to tap into Office 365, Outlook and other Cortana productivity skills. Is that something consumers will welcome? Microsoft and Amazon certainly think so.
Overall, Invoke gets Microsoft and Harman Kardon going in the right direction. Factor in a growing set of skills and brand integrations, and the Invoke is on the right track. But the competition here is formidable: Alexa-powered speakers -- Amazon's own Echoes, plus Sonos and Ultimate Ears -- are on fire, Google's ramping up with new Home models and Apple 's HomePod is just weeks away.
In that environment, it's hard to tell someone to run out and get the Invoke. On the other hand, the speaker's superior sound quality and the promise of additional smart home compatibilities and -- especially -- that forthcoming Alexa tie-up make this Cortana-enabled speaker one that we'll be revisiting soon.