The device itself is really nice to look at. It’s a little bigger than I expected it to be, but seeing as how I’m used to an Amazon Echo Dot, that’s probably not surprising. It has a nice, very slightly tapered look which gives it its own, unique look compared to the cylindrical shape of the Amazon Echo or the slightly sloped look of the Google Home. I think the Invoke looks much nicer than the others.
The power supply is much bigger than I expected although given the power that’s probably needed to drive the six speakers in the Invoke. It has a power brick like you’d expect to find for a laptop. The cable that goes from the power brick to the wall is a little shorter than I’d like, but the part from the brick to the Invoke is more than long enough. Honestly, I feel like the two cable lengths should have been reversed.
The sad part is that as beautiful as the Invoke looks, Cortana falls a little bit short. It can do most of the things I want, but not as easily as I would like. A few examples might help explain what I mean.
Let’s start with playing music. Out of the box, Cortana works with three services: TuneIn, iHeartRadio and Spotify Premium. (And, yes, it has to be premium; it doesn’t work with a non-paid account.) Weirdly, you have to choose one of the three.
I started by choosing TuneIn. If I said “Hey, Cortana, play music by artist Night Ranger” she got really confused and started playing some random station. My wife said “Hey, Cortana, play Christmas music” and she started a Dutch radio station. It did play Christmas music, but every now and then it’d slip in a song that wasn’t in English. I think TuneIn works best if you know an actual radio station you want to listen to.
I switched it to iHeartRadio using the Cortana app on my phone. It didn’t seem to take effect right away because when I tried playing a station based on an artist it still didn’t work. When I tried it a few days later and said “Hey, Cortana play artist Styx” she started a station based on Styx. One annoying thing: the first few times I tried creating a station, I got an annoying ad where Cortana replied with something along the lines of “I work better with a Spotify Premium subscription.” It doesn’t do that anymore so I assume it’s something that only happens the first few times you ask her to create a station. The ads in Windows have never bothered me but the pushing of Spotify Premium was annoying on my Invoke.
Two things are obviously missing: Groove integration and Pandora. While Microsoft has killed off Groove Music subscriptions, I wish it would at least recognize my music stored in OneDrive along with my playlists. And Pandora is great if I just want to listen to some music based on my tastes/favorite artists, such as my Night Ranger station (amongst a bunch of others). One thing you can do, though, is use it as a Bluetooth speaker, so you can in a way use Pandora or whatever service you like. Kind of defeats the purpose of a smart speaker, though. I could have easily just bought a Bluetooth speaker.
The other thing that I use my Echo Dot for is some smart home stuff. I have a SmartThings hub and two light bulbs. I just started my smart home journey a few weeks ago when my wife and I decided it’d be nice to be able to turn on a light for our dog (let’s call him “Rex”) when we are already out, the sun has gone down and we still won’t be home for a while. Seriously, that’s why I looked into it.
Right now, I have two bulbs in our front room: Rex Light 1 and Rex Light 2. With Alexa, I can create a group in the Alexa app and put both lights into that group (named “front room”), say “Alexa, turn on the front room” and both lights automatically come on. With Cortana, I can’t do that. Instead, I have to turn on each light individually: “Hey Cortana, turn on Rex Light 1. Hey, Cortana, turn on Rex Light 2.” (The strange thing is that in the SmartThings app I can create a group, but even Alexa doesn’t recognize them. I have to create a group in the Alexa app as well. Cortana doesn’t allow me to create groups at all, which is why I have to ask to turn on each light individually.)
I believe that Brad on an episode of First Ring Daily noted that Cortana is slower than Alexa when it comes to turning on and off lights, and I completely agree. I assume that can be improved and it’s certainly not a deal-breaker. It’s pretty amazing I can control lights with my voice. I’m also going to assume that the groups will be added sometime – if Microsoft doesn’t abandon Cortana or Harman Kardon doesn’t abandon the Invoke. Given Microsoft’s track record in consumer tech, I worry about it, although since Cortana involves the cloud, my guess is Harman Kardon will give up on the Invoke before Microsoft gives up on the cloud.
When it comes to skills, there certainly is a dearth of skills when compared to Alexa. This wasn’t surprising to me but it is worth noting. I also found it weird to integrate with SmartThings. In the Cortana Notebook there’s a “Connected Services” option. I couldn’t find SmartThings there. Then I saw that there was a “Connected Home” option below labeled “Connected Home”. That’s where you connect your SmartThings (or Wink, Insteon, etc.) account. Where would I have put it? Underneath the Skills option in the Notebook. When you select that, though, you get a screen that says “Manage Skills” and all that’s there is a link that says “Learn more about how to start using skills and discover what’s available.” Tapping that takes you to a web page that lists the various skills available. Tap on a skill and it tells you how to use it. In general,discovering and connecting skills just doesn’t seem very well laid out or user friendly.
In short, while this speaker looks and sounds fantastic, Cortana just falls short. As someone who used Cortana on his Windows Phone (R.I.P) and loved it, it’s disappointing. The Echo seems to be a little easier to use, especially for non-technical people. I’m not disappointed in my overall purchase because I knew what I was getting. I’d have a hard time recommending it to most people, though.