Harman Kardon Invoke, the first Cortana Smart Speaker: Review
"Hey, Cortana... Is the Invoke any good?"
The Harman Kardon Invoke marks the first time that Cortana is available in a Smart Speaker, the category made extremely popular and accessible by Amazon's surprise hit the Echo.
Harman Kardon is a company with over half a century of experience in making sound equipment. Whether it was for home or in-car audio or speakers for computers they were known for their high quality, no-frills sound systems.
Microsoft's Cortana has had a journeyed history. Technically created in the twenty-sixth century as an artificial intelligence in the Halo series of video games. In her current incarnation, she was originally built as an answer to Siri and Google Now for the Windows Phone platform and has expanded into other operating systems, smartphones, tablets and devices.
Quality From the outset, you feel that the Invoke is a quality package. The packaging is minimal, like the cylindrical design of the speaker itself, and just screams that it wants to get out of the way and just become part of your environment.
Available in both silver and black options, the Invoke is a tapered cylinder in shape that houses two passive radiators, three direct radiating tweeters and three direct-radiating woofers. That all means that the sound produced by this speaker is full, loud and clear. The rounded shape means that the sound can literally fill a room, even when it is only at about fifty percent volume.
On top of the invoke is a small display that represents Cortana as various circles, much as she appears on your phone or PC. Smoothly twisting the top left or right adjusts the volume. A single tap will stop what is currently playing, or if nothing is playing then a random fact will be shared with you by Cortana. A long press will activate the speaker and await your commend, similar to saying "Hey, Cortana...".
The interface is simple to use and doesn't need much explanation. Although tapping to stop the currently playing music can sometimes take practice to avoid getting a random fact of the day.
Setting up the device is simple using our handy guide for Ireland and other non-US countries and your phone or PC can actually be used as a User Interface controlling music, changing settings and showing command history.
Testing, Testing. One, Two, Three As a speaker, Cortana can currently connect to three music streaming services: iHeartRadio, Spotify (Premium) and TuneIn. Configuration is easy, although outside of the United States you will be limited to Spotify and TuneIn.
Although there are no line-in capabilities on the Invoke, it can be used as a Bluetooth speaker for output from any Bluetooth enabled device, with the same crisp sound from the delightful speakers.
Hey, Cortana ... Can you hear me? The Invoke uses 7 microphones that can recognise your voice commands from any direction. It uses beam forming, echo cancellation, and noise reduction algorithms to ensure Cortana can hear you clearly, even in challenging environments such as a kitchen with loud music and a dog barking loudly (purely a theoretical scenario and not one we had many times while testing the device).
Cortana also helps the Invoke to learn about your environment and better pick up your voice commands. This can be a little disconcerting as during initial testing the speaker would pop to life of its own accord and then apologetically scurry back into idleness.
Hearing versus Listening and Understanding. It feels slightly unfair to review the understanding of Cortana on the Invoke when using it in Ireland. The device is currently only available within the United States and is designed for use in the US only.
However, Cortana on Windows, Android and iOS works very well elsewhere in the world, so we figure that it would be fair to test her performance on the Invoke. Cortana does a decent job of understanding the Irish accent (slightly fast-talking, mumbling Dublin accent) and for most questions or commands will do exactly what was requested.
During the configuration, you can be precise when setting your location within Ireland and as such Cortana can provide some extremely relevant local information - traffic, weather, local businesses.
For general queries, she is very capable: Setting the temperature on your thermostat, controlling your smart home, reminders, timers and calendars all work as expected.
Other services are not localised or Cortana does not yet possess the skills to provide these services - such as local news headlines (RTÉ News has a Skill they released for Alexa, as do Sky News, BBC News among others, but they are not yet available for Cortana).
Music Services are a surprising area where Cortana can be fiddly, perhaps just with the Irish accent but also with providing content relevant to your location. For example, trying to request a specific station on TuneIn, like NewsTalk, will bring up Fox News Talk rather than the Irish broadcaster. RTÉ1, a similar issue. TodayFM and 2FM, however, work without any bother.
It is, perhaps, unfair to level these as criticisms against the Invoke because it's not even supposed to be available in Ireland yet. However, for $199, it is an important factor to consider if you plan on using it here.
Skills for Kills, Agent.
For Smart Speakers, Skills are the equivalent of apps. Developers can code Skills to perform various functions, much as apps on your phone.
Microsoft has only released the Cortana Skills SDK to developers at Build in April this year, with the ability to easily port Alexa Skills.
Alexa has the numerical advantage here with over 20,000 Skills available, compared to the roughly 200 that are specifically available for the Invoke.
Although, in both cases, how many of these in both marketplaces are simple 'fart apps' and how many are useful skills remains to be seen.
Skype Calling We were surprised that Microsoft and Harman Kardon did not make more of this feature in the product coverage, but the speaker can be used for hands-free Skype calling.
Calls via Skype to another Skype user are free, as always. If you have Skype credit or Office 365 you will be able to ring landlines or mobiles internationally for preferential rates. The Invoke actually comes with six months free calls to landlines and mobiles in the United States.
The call quality is exceptionally good. You can call by name (from your contacts), by number (calling out digits one-by-one) or even have Cortana dial for you from search results (If you searched for local Chinese restaurants, ask Cortana to call them and your Saturday night takeaway is sorted).
Summary Would we recommend the Invoke? That would be a qualified 'Yes'.
The "Harman Kardon Invoke voice-activated speaker with Cortana by Microsoft", to give it it's full title, is a wonderful speaker and a great audio addition to any room. The design is made for the device to become invisible and blend into almost any environment - you don't want to see the speaker, you want to hear it. The Invoke fulfils that brief excellently well, the sound does the talking for this device.
Skype calling is a useful feature that we enjoy using, the Invoke picks your voice up clearly and does a good job of cancelling background noise.
As a Smart Speaker, the Invoke has some advantages over its competitors - the sound is crisper, louder and deeper than an Echo; the integration with Cortana on your other devices makes it easy to integrate into your life; the precise local knowledge in some aspects is better than Alexa, but the Echo and Google Home devices can be better for finding audio content.
Microsoft is updating Cortana at a frequent pace, adding skills and functions that were not there at launch for the Invoke, so it is possible that it can catch up on functionality available elsewhere.
[UPDATE] For Black Friday, Microsoft were offering this device for $99, as opposed to $199. At that price we would change this from a 'qualified yes' to a strong recommendation
Design: Solid build quality. The Invoke is attractive, but gets out of the way to blend into the background in most environments.
Sound Quality: We had heard about the room filling sound, but it's impressive the tone and volume that can be generated by a device this size.
Ease of Use: Setup and use of the Invoke is incredibly easy.
US-Only: Most of our dislikes come from the US-Only release for the Invoke. The AC Power Brick, News Headlines and iHeartRadio are small quibbles, because other than that the device works very well in Ireland.
Skills: More developers and community skills will increase the functionality of Cortana.
This review is based on a Harman Kardon Invoke, purchased at a retail Microsoft Store for $199.