The $199.95 Invoke smart speaker from Harmon Kardon is the first to have Microsoft's Cortana onboard, and invites obvious comparisons with Amazon's Echo and Alexa. But despite the similarities, the Invoke is aiming to do something rather different.
As you'd expect from a smart speaker, the Invoke setup is quite chatty: once you plug in the power lead, the Invoke turns itself on and, if you haven't started the setup after a minute or so, it speaks up to tell you how to download the setup app (which you can get on Windows 10, Windows Phone, iOS, or Android). Pairing does not require any button-pressing or code-typing: the setup app auto-discovers any Invoke in range and uses a mix of flashing lights and spoken instructions to guide you through the process.
You need to sign in with a Microsoft account as part of the process. If you're using a PC with Windows Hello that can use facial recognition, you won't have to type a password -- although you will need to give your wi-fi password so the Invoke can get online. You must also agree to a rather long list of permissions -- which makes sense because Cortana isn't much use if she doesn't have access to your personal details -- and confirm your home address for weather forecasts. Once we'd finished these steps, Cortana spoke up again to say the Invoke needed an update (and proceeded to download it, install it, say when it was done, and then run through some suggestions of what we could say).
For a smart speaker, the Invoke looks the part: it has a sleek design, in dark grey or silvery metal, that looks like...well, a cylindrical speaker with a grille running all around. The whole top ring of the case turns as a volume control, with a very smooth, satisfying action matching the quality feel of the rest of the hardware. There's a light on top that pulses to show what it's up to (handy for troubleshooting) that doubles as a large button: you can tap to pause music, turn off an alarm, trigger a 'fun fact' or answer or end a Skype call if you don't want to do that by talking. Press harder and you can ignore an incoming Skype call, or turn on Cortana if you've decided to turn the microphone off -- the button for that is on the back and doubles as a way to switch to a different wi-fi network. A Bluetooth button on the back gets Cortana to walk you through pairing a device from which you want to stream music.
As a speaker, the Invoke is excellent, as you'd expect from Harmon Kardon. So far, it can connect to iHeart Radio, TuneIn, and Spotify with Pandora integration on the way. You need a Spotify Premium account, and it took a few minutes after entering the account details for Cortana to get access. Once Spotify was recognised, the Invoke showed up as a streaming target on every device containing our Spotify account. We could ask Cortana to play an artist, album, specific track or genre, with voice commands to change the volume, jump to the next track, pause, or get information about the current song. Music also shows up in the Cortana interface on your devices, where you can play, pause, go back and forth between tracks, change the volume, and choose shuffle and repeat.
The sound quality is excellent: on our usual Massive Attack, Rush, and Michael Hedges test tracks, we heard strong bass that holds up well at volume, crisp treble, and clear mid-range detail. The sound quality makes podcasts and radio sound good too. It's definitely an improvement over the Amazon Echo that used to sit in the same spot on the desk, and far better sounding than Google Home. The Sonos Play 5 in the same office has a little more bass and richer mid-tones, but for a speaker the size of the Invoke the sound is impressive. Cortana's voice also sounds natural, although long phone numbers can get a little rushed.
The seven microphones inside give the Invoke good voice recognition from a distance from different angles (even with music playing) and make the Skype integration a strong selling point -- you don't have to set that up separately, because it uses your Microsoft account. You can call people and businesses by name or number, although you have to give the country code for anything that's not a US number, and it's only US calls that are free for six months. If you're calling a contact who isn't on Skype, Cortana reads out the number first to check. When you're done, you can ask Cortana to hang up.
Sound quality on calls is much like a good mobile phone (for both halves of the call), so this will work well for hands-free conference calls when you need to take notes. We'd like to see an easier way to use the Invoke to dial the number in a meeting request: there are often multiple numbers listed to call into, plus a conference PIN that we couldn't find a way to input -- the kind of skills Amazon is promising with Alexa for Business. But the ability to say, for example, 'call First Direct' and get through to your bank is very convenient.
Cortana is equally good at the smart speaker basics like looking up the answer to questions (and telling you where the answer came from), giving you weather forecasts and setting timers and reminders. She also avoids Alexa's infuriating habit of wasting your time by telling you that you only have one timer set before getting around to telling you how long it has to run when you ask how much time is left. Ask for your calendar and you get your upcoming meetings from Outlook and Office 365. You can add items to to-do lists -- which can be Wunderlist lists, so they're not stuck in Cortana -- and Cortana can read you a specific list of reminders.
There are only a few smart home integrations for Cortana so far: the Samsung SmartThings platform, Wink, Insteon, Nest, and Philips Hue lights. However, Microsoft says it's working with Honeywell, Ecobee, TP-Link, Johnson Controls, IFTTT, Geeni, Iris by Lowe's, and iDevices. We were able to turn Hue lights on and off reliably, but controlling the brightness worked only sporadically (there's a frustratingly limited set of vocabulary you can use and it's not always recognised). Again, those connections work through Cortana's notebooks, so they work on the Invoke or on any of your Windows 10 PCs and phones that have Cortana.
The Invoke is also the first way to get Cortana without a screen, although the way you can access the history from the Cortana interface on your PC or phone bridges the gap. The reason Microsoft hadn't initially planned to put Cortana on devices without screens was that so much of the information she finds for you needs a screen. If you ask for a weather report, the status of a parcel you're tracking, a currency conversion, or a 30-minute timer to remind you to take dinner out of the oven, having that read out to you is great. The ability to ask what's in your calendar for the day works pretty well too. But searching your documents on Office 365 or searching for local restaurants where you want to click through to the website to see the menu works better with a screen.
The Invoke doesn't even try to search files or email, because the results would be pretty annoying. For other searches, it gets around the problem nicely by putting your Invoke history right in the usual Cortana interface, so if you want more information from a voice search you can click through from there. Planning a meeting, I found a local restaurant I'd been meaning to try in a voice search and clicked through to get the details. When I asked Cortana on the Invoke how long it would take to get there, she told me -- and also put the directions in the Cortana pane on my PC. Reminders also show up on your PC and phone if you have Cortana there, so you won't miss them if you've left the room.
Ask about a Cortana skill that isn't installed, like Skyscanner or Dark Sky, and the Invoke tells you that you need to set it up - and Cortana pops up a dialog to do just that on your PC (although we didn't always get useful results from either service via the Invoke). Developers can easily bring their Alexa skills to Cortana -- but as always, the question is whether they will, and how well the promised 'Cortana, ask Alexa to do so and so' integration will work in practice.
Invoking a Microsoft world
The ecosystem the Invoke fits into best is the Microsoft one, with Skype, Windows, and Office connections giving you a handy and pretty seamless experience, especially with the way information flows from PC to device and back. However, we'd like to see OneNote join in the way Wunderlist does, and Skype for Business would be a great skill for Cortana to add.
The Invoke has a lot of potential if the Cortana integrations and skills keep expanding. Even today, it's a nice combination of audio quality and Cortana convenience, especially with Skype. It's definitely a consumer product, but we're finding it useful in the office -- as well as being frustrated by the things we'd like Cortana to do next.
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