A new smart speaker from audio equipment maker Harman Kardon is the first to come with Microsoft’s voice-based assistant built in, allowing users to ask Cortana to play music and news, check weather, play games, set reminders and a bunch of other stuff.
We’ve been trying the Harman Kardon Invoke in the GeekWire office, and our conclusion is that it’s a good start for Cortana in the world of smart speakers. At $199, it’s more expensive than comparable devices in Amazon’s popular Echo lineup, but the high-quality audio makes it stand out as a cheaper alternative to the upcoming $399 Google Home Max and the $349 Apple HomePod.
Watch our video highlights above, and continue reading for some of our key takeaways after playing around with the first Cortana smart speaker for a few hours.
Setup: This was surprisingly painless. We used the Cortana app for iPhone, but it also works with Android or Windows 10. It was as easy as telling the Cortana app to “Set up the Harman Kardon Invoke,” which kicked off a step-by-step process to set up the device, give it a variety of permissions to access data, and connecting it to WiFi.
Functionality: The device comes with all of the basics: setting reminders, creating and adding to lists, checking the weather, playing news and music, etc. But it also goes further, benefitting from integrations with Microsoft apps and services, including Office 365 and Outlook.com calendars, Skype calling, and Wunderlist, one of Microsoft’s third-party apps.
Phone calling: People who buy and set up the device are given Skype credits for free calling to mobile phones and land lines, not just Skype accounts, a nice perk. The app syncs with your phone’s contacts, so it’s easy to make a call. One caveat: It may take up to 90 minutes after setup for free calling to be activated in some accounts, as it did with ours, although Microsoft says that’s not typical. The sound on the other end is a little hollow, like listening to someone talk on an office speaker phone, my mom says.
Cortana during calls: One feature that caught our attention was the ability to access Cortana when making a call through the speaker, but in reality this is pretty awkward. I called GeekWire reporter Taylor Soper, and as we were talking about the Thursday Night Football game, I asked Cortana the score. Taylor could hear me ask the question, but could only hear what I was saying, not Cortana’s response. This is by design but makes for a weird dynamic on the call, as Taylor thought I was ignoring him when I was listening to Cortana.
Hardware: The tower itself is almost the exact same height as the original Amazon Echo, with a wider base that tapers at the top. The top of the device, where you can see the pulsing and swirling blue Cortana logo, is also touch sensitive, allowing you to tap it quickly to stop music or answer an incoming call, etc., and tap for more than three seconds to activate Cortana or ignore an incoming call.
Music quality: I’m no audiophile, but music playing on this device sounds better to me than it does on my existing Amazon Echo Show, for example. With the speaker sitting next to me on my desk, I can hear the individual guitar strums and other parts of a song in a way that reminds me more of listening to music with high-quality headphones. Microsoft and Harman Kardon tout the device’s “incredible 360-degree sound with 3 woofers, 3 tweeters, and 2 passive radiators, all wrapped in premium Harman design,” and I can’t dispute that.
Music services: The Invoke works at launch with Spotify, TuneIn and iHeart Radio, and Microsoft says it’s working to add Pandora to the lineup. The Invoke also connects via Bluetooth to phones and devices, so I was easily able to play Amazon Music from my iPhone. But the timing of Microsoft’s shutdown of its Groove Music Service is a little unfortunate, leaving the device without a first-party music experience.
Voice weirdness: Small complaint, but there’s an inconsistency in Cortana’s voice on this speaker that ruins the illusion a bit, for me at least. Cortana says some phrases in a noticeably deeper or different voice than others, and the effect is like it’s two different people talking. I’m sure this is the type of thing that will be addressed over time through software updates to the Cortana voice technology. Also, you have to say, “Hey Cortana” to activate the device, not just “Cortana,” which is slightly annoying.
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Smart Home: Microsoft says the Invoke works with lights, switches, outlets, and thermostats from SmartThings, Philips Hue, Nest, Wink, and Insteon, with support coming for Honeywell, Ecobee, TP-Link, Johnson Controls, IFTT, Geeni, Iris by Lowe’s, iDevices and others. I haven’t had a chance to try out the smart home integration yet.
Bottom line: This is a high-quality device with some nice features and a few quirks. It’s a good first step for Cortana into the world of smart speakers, with more expected from other hardware makers. The competition is tough, and Amazon still wins on price, but Cortana has 148 million monthly active users, according to Microsoft, and many of them will want to give the Invoke a serious look if and when they’re in the market for a smart speaker.
The Invoke will be available for $199 in the U.S. starting Sunday, Oct. 22, at physical and online Microsoft Stores, Best Buy and HarmanKardon.com.