With the Harman Kardon Invoke, Cortana takes her first confident steps into our homes. This is a high-quality device with superior sound, excellent build quality, and broad devices and services compatibility.
Right. I’m a bit surprised myself.
As you may know, I’ve chosen Google Home and its Google Assistant as the center of my own smartphone efforts. But I also have an Amazon Alexa device—an Echo Dot—and I have years of experience with Siri, that special snowflake of digital personal assistants. What I’ve learned is that each of these platforms, including Cortana, has its strengths. And that each can and will leapfrog the others from time to time, or at least catch-up.
As important, perhaps, digital personal assistant technology doesn’t strike me as being particularly sticky. That is, most people will simply use the assistant that comes on their phone when on-the-go, and when you’re at home, it kind of doesn’t matter. You can move very easily between Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and, now, Cortana too. These things are all pretty decent. And they’re even starting to work together in small ways, which could have big implications for the future.
But because of Windows phone’s defeat, Cortana is not the default assistant on a mobile platform that is an ongoing concern, let alone popular. And it hasn’t had a viable place in the home, unless you believe that a bulky Windows 10 all-in-one PC in your kitchen or an Xbox One in your living room satisfies that need. I don’t.
There’s not much more Microsoft can do about that first problem: It has ported the Cortana app to Android and iOS, and any interested parties can, to some degree, have a fairly seamless experience on mobile.
To address the home, Microsoft is turning to its traditional strategy of partnering with others. Including, of course, Harman Kardon, which arrives first with the Invoke.
And it’s a good product. A great one, really: The speaker itself is a well-made, premium device that should appeal to technophiles and modern design enthusiasts. It provides stunning sound for a single conical smart speaker, much better than that of the Google Home. And Cortana’s voice is crisp, clear, and deep. It’s easily the highest-quality assistant voice I’ve heard in my home.
Compared to Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, Cortana appears to offer similar basic functionality. You can ask her about the weather, to tell a joke, or provide a quick newscast. You can control smart home appliances like the Philips Hue smart lights I’m using, plus many others. (That said, it seems to have trouble with rooms, whereas individual light control works.) You can set reminders, create and edit lists, set timers and alarms, and get traffic updates. You can play music from popular services like Spotify. (Pandora support is coming soon.)
Someone with way too much time on their hands will no doubt do a deep dive comparing the respective responses of these assistants to a list of common interactions. But of more interest to us here in the Microsoft community, I bet, is Cortana’s key strength: Its integration with Microsoft’s productivity ecosystems. If your life centers around Skype and Microsoft Office, the Invoke will be of interest.
When TWiT or Brad rings me on Skype, Cortana perks up on the Invoke and asks me if I’d like to answer the call. Likewise, one can make hands-free Skype calls directly from the Invoke using your voice. This includes Skype contacts, of course, but also phone numbers and, in a Google Assistant-like twist, vaguer businesses like “the nearest Chinese restaurant.” Which, yes. Really does work.
And hands-free Skype-based calls work great. If I say something like “Hey Cortana, call Brad,” it will respond with: “Which Brad do you want to call? Brad xxx, Brad Sams, or Brad xxx?” When I respond with “Brad Sams,” the Invoke says “Calling Brad Sams” and connects the call. From there, things work normally, and you can end the call with “Hey Cortana, hang up.”
If Brad were to call me—he got an Invoke review unit as well—the Invoke lights up and says, “Call from Brad Sams. Answer or Ignore it?” If I say “Answer,” it picks up and the conversation starts.
The Invoke also integrates nicely with your Office 365 or Outlook.com account. So you can say things like “Hey Cortana, what’s my next meeting?” You can also have more complex interactions, which will be familiar to any Cortana fans, but perhaps a bit more magical to the uninitiated. Consider the following conversation.
Me: “Hey Cortana, add an appointment to my calendar for tomorrow at 2 pm.”
Invoke: “OK, what do you want to all your event?”
Me: “Meeting with Tina.”
Invoke: “Sure thing. Adding a meeting called ‘Meeting with Tina’ to your calendar. Is that OK?”
Invoke: “Got it.”
And sure enough, there it is.
Less successful, alas, was the command, “Hey Cortana, cancel an appointment.” The Invoke replied with, “I’m sorry, I can’t cancel meetings. Try your calendar app.”
During my Invoke testing this week, I’ve been using it in my home office. But I have about 17 ways to make and receive Skype calls in that room. Where Invoke makes more sense, of course, is in the kitchen, or perhaps some other shared space. We do this with the Google Home right now, and to be fair to Google, that device supports multiple users where Cortana and Invoke, at least today, do not.
Like other smart speakers, the Invoke uses far-field voice-recognition technology to cut through noise—like playing music—so that it can hear your voice when you issue a command. So if I start some music by saying “Hey Cortana, play the Beatles on Spotify,” I can later say “Hey Cortana, turn down the volume” (or whatever) and it will work, even if the music is very loud. This works well, even from across the large room that is my home office.
At $199, the Harman Kardon Invoke carries a premium price tag, and that is a bit disappointing: The high-end Echo Plus is just $149 as I write this, and that is perhaps the most comparable device. (Google Home is often on sale for as little as $79.) But one might justify the Invoke’s price by its premium materials and build quality, and by its superb sound.
Less defensibly, the Invoke is initially only available to consumers in the United States. My understanding is that Harman Kardon will expand availability over time.
Today, Microsoft claims that there are nearly 150 million active Cortana users, most on PCs. And while I can’t imagine that the Harman Kardon Invoke will lead to a usage spike, I also can’t picture a more worthy attempt. Say what you will about Microsoft’s molasses-slow moves with Cortana—I certainly have—but this speaker is fantastic. The only question is whether great hardware is enough to push the platform forward.