The voice assistant most of us overlook is the one that is available to more than 500 million of us on Windows PCs. Microsoft’s Cortana has been sequestered in laptops and desktops for too long, but now it finally has a home in your home via the Harman Kardon Invoke smart speaker.
This is Microsoft’s first attempt to compete with Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, both of which have established smart speakers (not to mention various versions of them). Microsoft is betting on sound quality to set its smart speaker apart from the rest and convince customers to choose Cortana as their home AI buddy. Cortana needs to have a presence free from the PC, but what might hold the Invoke back initially is Cortana’s limited usefulness as a home assistant.
Design and sound quality
Microsoft’s collaboration with Harman Kardon has been nearly a year in the making, and the final result looks like the first-generation Amazon Echo. The Invoke speaker has a tapered, cylindrical body with speaker grille openings on nearly the entirety of its body. The Invoke’s base has the Harman Kardon logo on the front as well as the power connector, service-only micro USB port, mic/on-off button, and Bluetooth pairing button on the back. The top features an adjustable volume ring and a touch-sensitive panel that glows when Cortana is listening for your command or when the volume changes.
Microsoft and Harman Kardon clearly took note of the original Amazon Echo’s design when making the Invoke but made sure to give it their own spin. Instead of saying “Hey, Cortana,” you can touch the top panel to manually make her listen to you, and you can turn the adjustable ring to change the volume instead of asking Cortana do it via a voice command.
Inside the Invoke are three woofers, three tweeters, two passive radiators, and a 40-watt amplifier that create 360-degree sound that can truly fill a room. Harman Kardon has been making audio devices for a long time, and that expertise shines through the Invoke. In comparison to the new, $99 Amazon Echo, the Invoke is certainly the device to get if you want a capable speaker to fill a room with rich audio. The new Echo doesn’t get nearly as loud as the Invoke can, and in general, it produces a softer, more hollow sound. By contrast, music played through the Invoke has power behind it, and the bass is noticeable without being overbearing.
I often listen to electronic-inspired instrumental playlists while working, and I always choose the Invoke over the new Echo as my primary speaker for its rich, voluminous playback. While its quality sound and volume range may not be enough to fill an entire home with audio, it was more than enough for my one-bedroom apartment. You may need something more powerful and versatile, like the Sonos的一, if you have a bigger home or often have loud, thumping house parties. Apple and Google may also have good alternatives when their respective HomePod and Home Max speakers come out later this year.
Also inside the Invoke are seven far-field mics designed to pick up your voice from far away. This is one of the most important features of any smart home speaker with a voice assistant inside, because the assistant has to be available to you even when you’re in another part of your home. I set the Invoke up in my living room, atop a five-foot-tall bookshelf, and it was hit or miss when I wasn’t in my living room and called for Cortana. First, you must say “Hey, Cortana” to wake the voice assistant—no variation of this command works, and you can’t change the wake-up phrase in the Cortana mobile app. A number of times I said, “Cortana,” thinking it would hear me, but all my questions and commands went unanswered.
Second, Cortana simply didn’t react when I said commands or asked questions from another room or when my voice was too soft. I often had to walk into my living room or raise my voice to get an answer. I don’t like raising my voice at my home devices, but I had to yell at Cortana sometimes to get it to do anything.
Even when Cortana worked as promised, I missed the visual feedback provided by the Amazon Echo. While the Invoke’s touch-sensitive panel lights up when Cortana hears your initial command, I never saw those lights because I placed the Invoke on a bookshelf. That’s not a defect of the device but, rather, an unfortunate consequence of my placement. If you plan to put the Invoke in a place where you can’t see the top of the device, you won’t get that visual cue that Cortana is listening. You can, however, turn on activation sounds so the Invoke emits a small sound after Cortana recognizes your initial call. Overall, I prefer the visual cues on the Amazon Echo provided by the circular blue ring that lines the circumference of the top of the device.
Cortana at home
Music and other audio
If you’re familiar with any AI assistant in a smart speaker, you know how Cortana in the Invoke is meant to work. Cortana is basically your hands-free doorway to the Internet. You can ask Cortana about simple things like the weather or the latest news stories. You can ask it to set timers, reminders, and more. If you use Microsoft services like Outlook.com and Office 365, Cortana can remind you about upcoming meetings on your calendar. However, Cortana only integrates with a few such services: Skype, Outlook.com, Office 365, Dynamics CRM, Knowmail, LinkedIn, and Wunderlist. If your life lies beyond those systems, Cortana can’t tell you much about your day ahead.
Cortana also only integrates with a few music providers: Spotify, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio. Microsoft is currently talking with Pandora to add support, but we don’t know when that will come to fruition. I use a paid Spotify account as my main music source, and Cortana accurately played most of my saved playlists when asked. You can also be less specific and ask Cortana to play the music of a certain artist or genre if you wish. Like the Amazon Echo, you can forego the Cortana’s connected convenience and play music from your smartphone or other devices through the Invoke after pairing it as a Bluetooth speaker.
I had to use the Invoke like this whenever I wanted to listen to podcasts (a daily ritual for me). Cortana currently only has about 46 skills and doesn’t include a podcast player (nor does it integrate with any podcast providers), so I could only listen to my podcast backlog by connecting my iPhone to the Invoke via Bluetooth. Podcast support is getting better on many smart home speakers, but none of the devices currently on the market provides an ideal experience.
I use Overcast to subscribe to and play all my favorite podcasts, and there’s no Overcast integration with Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, or Cortana. However, Amazon’s Alexa has the AnyPod skill that can play almost all of my favorite podcasts. You can even “subscribe” to podcasts using AnyPod, which essentially means the skill remembers your favorite shows and can play them all when you say, “Alexa, ask AnyPod to play my podcasts.”
There is hope for Cortana in this realm particularly because Microsoft and Amazon announced an unlikely partnership in which Alexa and Cortana will be able to “talk” to each other. This will give Cortana access to all of Alexa’s thousands of skills, which should mean AnyPod and other similar skills will work with Cortana. We don’t know when this support will roll out to Cortana users, however.
For now, though, enabling a Cortana skill is a bad and confusing experience. Not only are there very few skills to choose from right now, but you’ll grow some gray hairs trying to install just one of them. You must use the Cortana mobile app or Cortana on a Windows device to enable a skill. I use the iOS Cortana app, and the skills library is hidden in the Notebook option in the app’s menu. The Skills page has all your installed skills and a “discover more skills” link at the bottom. This opens up a Microsoft popup that looks no different from the main Cortana skills webpage. You can browse through “featured” and “all” skill categories, tapping on those that look interesting to learn more about them.
Let’s say you found a potentially useful skill and want to enable it: there’s no “enable” or “install” buttons on any individual skill page. You must tap “try now” underneath the skill’s name to try it out on the Cortana mobile app. This action doesn’t even send the skill to the Invoke—you must try it out using Cortana in the mobile app. When this works (the “try now” link didn’t work on many skills I tried), the app will prompt you to say a command the skill understands and then will ask you for permission before it actually completes the command.
After that necessary trial run, the skill magically appears in your installed skills list in the app. It’s the most roundabout way to enable a skill I’ve ever tried, and the Cortana mobile app failed a number of times during trial test runs. Cortana may gain access to Alexa skills, but Microsoft needs to improve the skills installation process (at least on its iOS app) if it expects anyone to use it without shaking their fists to the sky in frustration.
While you can pair the Invoke with a device as a Bluetooth speaker, you can’t pair it to another sound system or additional speaker. This is a feature included on Amazon and Google smart speakers, allowing you to amplify the sound coming from the main smart speaker to other parts of your home with “dumb” Bluetooth speakers you may already have. The Invoke may have great sound quality, but it would be even more practical and convenient for it to connect to existing Bluetooth speakers instead of being a standalone, incompatible device.
The Invoke works as a speakerphone for calls, and it’s compatible with hands-free Skype calling as well. There are no fees attached to this, so you can ask Cortana to call anyone in your contacts or any US number for free using Skype. You must connect your Skype account to Cortana via the mobile app first, but afterward, you can say, “Hey Cortana, call Mom” or “Hey Cortana, call 212-555-5555.” Calls are placed quickly, and Cortana will ask you to clarify which contact you meant to call if there are a few with similar names in your address book. Anyone I called said they could hear me, however, it did sound like I was on speakerphone. My audio quality was similar: clear, but with a slightly far-away tone. When you want to end a call, you can tap the touch-sensitive pad on the top of the Invoke and Cortana will tell you she’s “hanging up.”
Smart home and daily tasks
Much like Amazon’s Alexa, Cortana can control some smart home products. Cortana doesn’t support as many smart home devices and protocols as Alexa does, but it does support Smart Things, Wink, Philips Hue, Nest, and Insteon systems. It was quite easy to connect my Hue light system to Cortana in its mobile app, and I could then ask the assistant to turn on and off lights as I pleased. This came in handy the most when my hands were busy typing, cooking dinner, or something else. I also didn’t need to ask Cortana to turn off the lights when I left my apartment because Hue already has a geolocation tool that knows when you (your smartphone, really) leave the home and will automatically turn off the lights.
We often overlook voice assistants’ smallest features like setting timers and reminders and adding things to lists. However, those are my most-used features, and Cortana performs them well. Setting timers with my voice while cooking dinner or baking for a family occasion is incredibly convenient. I try to write down all the things I need to do in a day on a notepad each morning, but I have plenty of “lightbulb” moments during the day when I’m not near my pen and paper. Asking Cortana to remind me to call the dentist to reschedule an appointment or add take out the trash to my to-do list ensures I don’t forget to do small yet important tasks before the day ends.
The amount of emotion and intonation in Cortana’s voice is charming and pleasantly surprising. Microsoft’s voice assistant sounds more natural than both Amazon’s and Google’s, with fewer robotic transitions and a more natural flow. There’s a choppiness that both Alexa and Google Assistant can have when responding with long or multi-layered answers, but Cortana doesn’t have that. When speaking to it through the Invoke, it felt more like talking to a person than an invisible robot living in a speaker.
Cortana isn’t ready for the living room—yet
Harman Kardon is a great partner for Microsoft to have for Cortana’s introduction into the home. The Invoke clearly shows off Harman Kardon’s audio expertise, producing loud, high-quality sound that’s both immersive and convenient. The Invoke could be your favorite Bluetooth speaker thanks to its sound quality and Cortana’s music streaming service integration (here’s hoping that continues to grow over time). The Invoke’s overall design feels slightly outdated considering its resemblance to the original Amazon Echo, but, nevertheless, it’s a well-built device that won’t be too conspicuous in most living rooms.
But Cortana isn’t as well equipped as other virtual assistants. The one-account, Microsoft-only support, as well as the lack of skills (and a good mobile skill experience), will hinder those who intend to use Cortana as more than just a virtual reminder-setting and fact-answering buddy. Accessing Amazon Alexa’s skill library should help increase Cortana’s usefulness, but as of now, Microsoft’s assistant isn’t optimized for the home as much as it should be.
The situation should improve. I hope other manufacturers create Cortana-enabled speakers so customers don’t have only the Invoke to choose from if they want Cortana in their homes. I’d only recommend the $199 Invoke to someone who prioritizes sound quality and only wants to dabble with a virtual assistant in their living room—or someone who lives and dies by Microsoft services. Harman Kardon made a great speaker, but the inclusion of Cortana makes the Invoke a less-capable smart speaker than the Amazon Echo or the Google Home.
- Great sound quality.
- Convenient touch pad and volume adjuster ring.
- Cortana has one of the more natural-sounding voices of all the AI assistants.
- Conveniently makes Skype calls to contacts and other numbers.
- Cortana only responds to “Hey Cortana.” No variations allowed.
- No Pandora integration at launch.
- Not as many skills as Amazon’s Alexa.
- Unable to connect to other Bluetooth speakers/sound systems.
- No word on when Alexa and Cortana can “speak” to each other, which will open up Cortana to thousands of more skills.
- At $199, it’s much more expensive than the new Amazon Echo, Google Home, and others.