Last year was huge for voice assistants in the home. Amazon’s Alexa services, primarily through their Echo products, grew substantially. Google’s Assistant technology and Home devices also spread. Microsoft has had their own assistant technology, called Cortana, for years, but prior to last fall it never had a stand-alone device in the house. They partnered with Harman Kardon to bring Cortana into the home in the form of the Invoke. Like the big competitors, it’s a tall and skinny cylinder that houses multiple microphones and speakers. You can ask it questions, set timers, play music, even make voice calls with the Invoke. Does its hardware, and Cortana’s services, provide enough value to make its own place in the increasingly crowded voice assistant market?
Hardware and Design
Harman Kardon’s Invoke is a beautiful device. It’s tall, slim, and cylindrical that curves in toward the center. At its base it is 4.2” wide, and it stands 9.5” tall. It’s available in two colors. One is dark grey, called Graphite, the other is a metallic white called Pearl Silver. At the top, there is a touch surface mounted to a radial dial. The top lights up when Cortana is listening, thinking, or responding. The dial mechanism is used to physically control the volume of the speakers. The only other button that might occasionally see use is located on the back at the bottom. It’s used to mute the microphone. This prevents the Invoke from hearing anything in the room.
The multi-dimensional microphone array almost always heard us, even across the room, whenever we tried to control the Invoke with our voices. It also never struggled to hear us while using the speaker to listen to music. The only downside to the Invoke’s microphone system is that, like a narcissistic sibling, it always thought we were talking about it. Far too frequently it would come to life thinking we had said the wake phrase, Hey Cortana, when we hadn’t said anything like that. Most assistants will suffer from this occasionally, but the Invoke experienced this far more often than the various Google Home devices spread throughout the same house.
One of the Invoke’s biggest advantages is the company who makes it: Harman Kardon. They aren’t an ecommerce site or a search engine company. Harman Kardon’s business is audio. Given that, you’d expect the Invoke to take music playback to a new level. There is one aspect of the Invoke’s music capabilities that is absolutely undeniable: it produces an incredibly clear sound. When dealing with small speakers there a few characteristics we’re used to experiencing. On the low-end side of the spectrum most devices will either have no bass at all, or they produce a very muddy bass sound. For higher frequencies, especially at louder volumes, the audio tends to get screechy or even painful. The Invoke sits comfortably between all of those extremes. The high pitches remain clear without ever becoming harsh. At the low end the Invoke continues to produce a remarkably clear sound, but it does so at the cost of bass.
What does all that mean for day-to-day use? It means when using the Invoke as a voice assistant you’re always greeted with exceptionally clear responses. There was never a moment when we had wished Cortana had repeated herself. For music, you’ll get a very clear sound, but it’s one that is lacking bass. We tested multiple music genres (rock, country, pop, and EDM) using Spotify by listening to a track on the Invoke, then switching the music to a Google Home. Again, the Invoke always provided a cleaner sound than the Google Home. For the little bit of mud you get with the Google Home, it rewards the listener with far more bass sounds than the Invoke. A lot of this is going to come down to personal preference. If you’re a discerning listener who demands an even, crisp signal you’ll love the Invoke. If you’re the type who always cranks the bass you might be a little disappointed with the Invoke’s audio.
Listening to music isn’t the only trick a smart speaker can perform. The Invoke is pretty smart too. You can ask it run-of-the-mill questions (ex. What time is it, who was the 30th president of the United States, and what’s the weather?) Cortana’s services can tightly integrate with your email and calendar through Outlook and GMail. This opens up the ability to inquire about your day’s appointments. You can also use Invoke to create timers. Another standard feature, and one loved by children, is the ability for Cortana to tell a joke. Unfortunately, she’s a comedian who doesn’t really understand her audience. Most of the jokes she tells use higher level science, math, or computer science knowledge as the punch line.
The Invoke has another feature that separates it from the likes of Amazon and Google. It gives you the ability to make hands-free calls using Skype. You’re not just limited to calling other Skype users either. It can dial mobile phone and landline numbers too.
Voice assistants really start to shine once they’ve been set up to work with third-party services. The Invoke supports Spotify, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn Radio for music. While those three will certainly cover the needs of many people, it’s odd to still see Pandora missing from the list.
Controlling a smart home is another area where the Invoke shines as long as your devices are supported. Currently there are three major smart home partners with Cortana: Insteon, SmartThings, and Phillips Hue. We tested with Insteon, and generally everything worked well. It was able to quickly recognize commands for turning lights on and off. It also had the ability to dim them. There were some limitations though. For example, you can’t currently execute an Insteon scene. You also can’t ask Cortana to perform two actions at the same time. For instance, you can’t say “Hey Cortana, turn on the desk lamp and couch lamp.”
While the third-party integrations that currently work with Cortana do their jobs well, the real problem is the limited number of partners available. Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home assistants have thousands of partner skills. Currently, even after two months of availability, there are only a couple hundred skills for Cortana. To make matters worse, most of those that are available border on completely useless. Having a skill to play your alma mater’s fight song seems neat. When there is a separate skill for each school though, it seems its only purpose is to artificially inflate the skill count.
Another problem with Cortana is that it can only be configured to support one person’s voice. That’s fine if you’re single person, but what if you have a spouse or children? Alexa and Google Home already have the ability to set up multiple profiles, each with their own default apps. This missing feature is one that can’t be overstated. Sure, it took months for Alexa and Google Home to support this, but when Microsoft is trying to compete against companies whose products beat them to market by years, not months, these are the types of features that are absolutely required to have at launch.
It was no surprise that Microsoft had a huge task to attempt to catch up to Amazon and Google in the voice assistant space. Microsoft even showed signs of understanding their position. They released a software development kit for the creation of Cortana skills months ago. They even made it simple for developers to port Alexa skills to Cortana. None of that effort seems to have made any dent in courting large third-party partners though.
Perhaps what is even more frustrating is that while Cortana works well on Windows 10, Microsoft made no effort to integrate the Invoke with their other large consumer product, the Xbox One. The game console already has Cortana, and the Kinect includes an incredibly powerful microphone, but they don’t work together. You still can’t use Cortana on an Xbox to control your lights, for example. It seems like such an obvious advantage that Microsoft could have used to differentiate themselves. Instead, they are actively killing the Kinect.
Harman Kardon did a wonderful job creating a speaker that looks and sounds great. Unfortunately, Microsoft let their partner down with the device. While Harman Kardon’s $200 price doesn’t help at all, the biggest knocks against the Invoke all stem from the Cortana underpinnings. We’ll be keeping an eye out at CES for any other devices that might be supporting Cortana. If there isn’t a significant showing for Microsoft’s virtual assistant this wonderful speaker might die before it even really gets to live.
Thanks to Harman Kardon for supplying the Invoke for review purposes.