My week with Harman Kardon's Cortana-powered Invoke speaker

My "non-reviewer's review" of the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker that works with Cortana: A solid device, but still not something I want or need.

During the past week, I've said "Hey Cortana" more times than I have over the past couple of years combined.

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Credit: Microsoft

I've been testing the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker, which is powered by Cortana and includes a custom version of Linux inside. The Invoke speaker will go on sale in the US on October 22.

While I've played a bit with a family member's Amazon Echo Dot, I never bought a voice-activated speaker for use at home. I was curious if, after using the Invoke for a week to do everything from set timers, to add items to my calendar, to play music would change my mind and make me want one.

Spoiler: It hasn't. I still find these kinds of speakers more curiosity items than must-haves.For anyone vested in the Cortana ecosystem, this speaker could be a nice addition, however.

The speaker was fairly easy to set up, as long as you have Cortana on your Windows 10 PC (running Creators Update or higher) or phone (iOS or Android). (For PCs, you also need the "Cortana Device Setup" app, which is downloadable from the Windows/Microsoft Store.) I plugged in the speaker using the power connector, paired my device to my Android phone, and started "Hey Cortana-ing."

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The sound quality of the Invoke is impressive and easy to adjust using the ring on top of the speaker or by voice command -- which isn't surprising, given Harman Kardon's history of being a high-end car/home/PC speaker maker. The Invoke has seven microphones and 360-degree sound that emanates from its tapered cylindrical body. The speaker supports iHeartRadio, Spotify Premium, and TuneIn; Microsoft says it expects to add Pandora support soon, as well as more music options (possibly SoundCloud, Deezer, and others) at some point.

In addition to playing music, I used the Invoke to set up Outlook calendar appointments quite easily using just my voice. I also used the integrated Skype calling to dial hands-free. The device recognized my voice commands for the most part, even when I was multiple feet away. A couple of times Cortana said it couldn't complete my request and once or twice my device somehow disconnected itself from my home Wi-Fi, but overall, I was happy with its performance.

I couldn't test using Cortana with the handful of compatible smart-home devices from SmartThings, Philips Hue, Nest, Wink, and Insteon, as I don't have any of these installed at home, but the speaker does support this. (Microsoft is working to add more devices to this list, including ones from Honeywell, Ecobee, TP-Link, Johnson Controls, IFTT, Geeni, Iris by Lowe's, and iDevices to this list, but didn't provide a timeframe.)

Like Alexa Echo and Google Home, Cortana -- which is powered by Bing -- can provide answers to factual questions (how many pints in a gallon, how far away is my favorite restaurant); the news; and other queries. There are comparatively few Cortana Skills at this point, but a few good ones are there, such as the ability to make reservations by voice using OpenTable or to check on fitness stats using Fitbit.

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The biggest problem for Microsoft and its partners like Harman Kardon is the competition. Amazon and Google are already in market with a number of devices and, in Amazon's case, tens of thousands of skills, or add-ons. Microsoft has been slow out of the gate with getting developers to support Cortana, only releasing its Cortana Skills Kit a few months ago.

I thought Harman Kardon might attempt to differentiate itself by marketing the Invoke as a business device, optimized for Office-related tasks, especially given its recent partnership with Amazon for cross Cortana-Alexa collaboration. (Update: Microsoft says that Cortana will get more Office smarts, such as the ability to read email to you, reply, flag messages, etc., "soon.") But Harman Kardon isn't going that route and is, instead, going head-to-head with some pretty well-entrenched devices with more diversified voice options.

Microsoft and Harman Kardon are saying US-only "initially," but not providing specifics about when the Invoke will be available outside the US. It will be for sale at Microsoft Stores (brick and mortar and online), Best Buy, and online at HarmanKardon.com. The Invoke comes in two colors: Graphite (black) and Pearl/Silver, and costs $199.99.

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