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As posted on The first speaker with Microsoft Cortana is a great listener

In the universe of digital voice assistants, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Assistant are the indisputable rulers of the consumer AI solar system. By contrast, Microsoft’s Cortana is like Pluto. We know it’s generally the same as the others, but we can’t decide if it has all the attributes required for classification as a planet… er… true voice assistant.

Part of the problem is that people don’t talk to Cortana. 

Microsoft introduced its digital assistant, named after the synthetic intelligence character in Halo, in 2014 on the Windows Phone platform. It was Microsoft’s smart, and obvious, answer to Apple’s Siri on the iPhone. Windows on mobile, however, is now virtually dead — it has less than one percent of the smartphone market — and Cortana’s primary interaction with consumers has been through Windows 10 and the integrated Search box on PCs. 

It’s true, you can set up your Windows 10 PC so Cortana responds to voice queries from across the room. I just don’t think that’s the typical use case. And when people type queries into the search box, I don’t think they say, “Oooh, I’m using Cortana.” For Cortana to take its place among the voice assistant stars, it needs its own Echo-like home.

Harman Kardon’s Invoke ($199) could be that home. It’s the smart-speaker rocket ship Cortana could ride to take its rightful place in the voice-assistant universe.

Hey Cortana, this is your speaker

Unlike Amazon, Google, Apple and even Sonos, which recently introduced its own excellent Alexa-enabled speaker, Harmon Kardon has more than half a century of audio experience. It’s well known for crafting speakers that are not only great to listen to, but good to look at as well (one of its speakers, co-developed with Apple, is on display at the Museum of Modern Art).

The Harman Kardon Invoke comes in the graphite metal you see here and white.

The Harman Kardon Invoke comes in the graphite metal you see here and white.

Image: lili sams/mashable

There are only two buttons: Bluetooth and Mute.

There are only two buttons: Bluetooth and Mute.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Invoke follows that tradition with a more striking, in-your-face design than most of the voice-assistant hardware we’ve seen. Sure, the 2.3-pound Invoke is cylindrical, but it flares out at the base and is, at 9.5 x 3.38 inches, slightly taller and wider than an Echo. The new Amazon Echo (the Echo 2) favors skins that can blend with your home decor. Invoke comes in white and graphite, and Harman Kardon imagines it as a centerpiece.

Its elegant, spare design features no visible buttons up top and just mute and Bluetooth buttons near the base. The power cord snakes gracefully underneath. 

Like the original Amazon Echo, the Invoke is topped with a volume control ring. There’s also a touch-sensitive pad in the center. You can tap it to stop music playing or to get a random fact. It lights up with a distinctive Cortana ring when the Invoke is listening. (That ring will also glow red when the Invoke is disconnected; the light turns white for setup and adjusting volume).

Under the attractive grille work are three tweeters and three woofers powering the 360-degree sound, plus seven microphones for beamform listening.

You can control the volume with your voice or by turning the ring on top of the device.

You can control the volume with your voice or by turning the ring on top of the device.

Image: lili sams/mashable

As soon as I plugged in the Invoke, Cortana’ voice started guiding me through the setup process. Like the Amazon Echo, Invoke relies on a mobile app: in this case the Cortana app on iOS (or Android), to connect the smart speaker to your network.

The setup walks you through signing into your Microsoft account and connecting to your Wi-Fi network. It grabs the Wi-Fi password from your phone and asks for permission to access things like your location and contacts (both on the phone and available through your Skype account). It’s worth saying yes to all this — the more information Cortana has access to, the smarter she’ll supposedly be. It also has you choose your default music service provider: iHeartRadio, TuneIn or the premium Spotify Service. I chose iHeartRadio.

You have some decent choices for music.

You have some decent choices for music.

Like Alexa, Cortana keeps a history of your interactions.

Like Alexa, Cortana keeps a history of your interactions.

I had no trouble connecting Invoke to my home and office networks, though there’s no easy way to switch network connections, so I had to repeat the setup each time I moved the device to another location, with a different Wi-Fi network.

Invoke’s setup leads you right into your first Cortana voice queries, and this is where things get interesting.

Cortana is, when it comes to intelligence, often the equal of the other better-known voice assistants. And thanks to Cortana’s deep connection to the Windows 10 Operating System, it sometimes surpasses them. But what she lacks, ultimately, is the polish of more well-established voice assistants that have been talking to consumers for years.

Conversations with Cortana

Like other voice assistant-based systems, Invoke is listening all the time (unless you hit the mute button) for the trigger phrase, “Hey, Cortana” (it lights up for just “Cortana,” as well, but doesn’t always answer the queries). It will then listen to everything after that magic phrase, parsing query text from indexable words. 

When I said, “Hey, Cortana, play me music with David Bowie and Queen,” Cortana said, “Okay, setting up David Bowie station on iHeartRadio.” The music that followed was sometimes “Pressure,” but other times just a random Bowie tune or Bowie-influenced song. 

Even though the Invoke is connected to my iPhone (and keeps a full history of all my interactions on it), it can’t play music directly from my phone’s music library unless I connect to the Invoke via Bluetooth. Doing so is easy. I hit the Bluetooth button on the back, and Cortana told me how to connect. I can’t say to Cortana, “Play music from my iPhone,” but I can control music playback from the phone, telling Cortana to skip tracks and pause and play the music. 

The top of the Harman Kardon Invoke is actually a touch-sensitive pad.

The top of the Harman Kardon Invoke is actually a touch-sensitive pad.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Whether I was using Bluetooth or playing iHeartRadio tunes, I could stop the music by telling Cortana to stop or by tapping the Invoke’s touchpad. I could, of course, also use my voice to raise and lower the volume. 

Speaking of volume, the Invoke can get very loud — house-filling loud — without distortion. It produces some of the best sound I’ve heard from a single smart speaker.

At the highest, ear-splitting volume, I could still talk to Cortana (though I did have to raise my voice a bit). If I asked for, say, the weather during a song, Cortana would lower the music volume and give me the forecast.

Cortana on the Invoke knows a lot thanks to the Bing knowledge graph. Most responses are insightful and delivered in a natural-sounding voice that would’ve been at home in the movie Her.

Sometimes, though, Cortana would reveal her Wikipedia-like back end and seem unaware of what she was saying. When I asked, “Are frogs mammals?” Cortana responded quickly with a multi-part answer (from Answers.com) that repeated “Frogs are amphibians” at least four times. At another point, I asked Cortana how the Yankees were doing while I was watching them pound the Astros in Game 4 of the ALCS. Cortana bizarrely told me the Yankees were still two games back from the already eliminated Boston Red Soxs. 

Similarly, while I enjoyed tapping the Invoke to hear one of Cortana’s fun facts, I found that she would often go on at length about a subject, like she had to get through a whole paragraph before she could stop. I usually just tapped the Invoke again or said, “Hey Cortana,” to get her to move on.

Cortana can give me my news, but doesn’t know how to keep it brief. Instead, I got an entire NPR news podcast.

The digital voice assistant can also tell jokes, which seemed to amuse her more than they did me, and answer random questions like, “Are you married?” with clever responses like, “No, I complete me.”

When the Invoke can't connect,  the touchpad shows this red circle. It glows blue when Cortana is engaged.

When the Invoke can’t connect,  the touchpad shows this red circle. It glows blue when Cortana is engaged.

Image: lili sams/mashable

She can also play games like, “Can you guess the movie I’ve got in mind?” where Cortana gives you clues and you try to guess the movie. I enjoyed this except for the time that she gave me clues for The Big Lebowski, I guessed the movie, and she kept telling me I was wrong. After three tries, Cortana informed me the correct answer was The Big Lebowski. WTH?

Generally, Cortana’s AI efforts are more effective. When I asked her “How do I get to Fleischer Dental [my local dentist’s office]?” Cortana immediately offered me specific directions based on my location. I didn’t have to tell her where my dentist’s office is located or where I live. She used her location information and impressive search results to give me the perfect answer.

Here to help

Good information and music is the baseline expectation for a modern voice assistant, but the Harman Kardon Invoke with Cortana goes further. 

On more than one occasion, I asked Cortana to set reminders for me that automatically appeared on my PC, which is signed into the same account.

I also called people through the Invoke. As with most other Invoke interactions, Cortana guided me through. If I had a single contact for the name I wanted to call, say, “Raymond,” Cortana simply initiated the call. If my contact database had multiple Raymonds, Cortana asked me which one and listed them out. If I had multiple numbers per contact, she walked me through that, as well. This, by the way, is very similar to how voice-activated calls work on Apple’s Siri.

Invoke will also integrate with smart home systems. In a demonstration, I saw a Microsoft representative use Cortana to turn on and off lights. In addition, Microsoft just announced Insteon smart home device integration. Wink hub and Nest integration are in there as well. 

The Harman Kardon Invoke can fit on most shelves, but, with its 360-degree sound and striking looks, it's designed to live in the center of a room.

The Harman Kardon Invoke can fit on most shelves, but, with its 360-degree sound and striking looks, it’s designed to live in the center of a room.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Microsoft does a pretty good job of hiding this functionality. I had to dig under Cortana’s Notebook section to find “Connected Home,” under which is a list of smart home partners. I selected Nest, signed into my account, and now I can control my Nest Thermostats with Invoke.

I have no idea why Cortana hides its smart home controls under Notebook.

I have no idea why Cortana hides its smart home controls under Notebook.

Cortana is off to a decent start for smart home connectivity, but it still lags behind Alexa.

Cortana is off to a decent start for smart home connectivity, but it still lags behind Alexa.

There is no question Microsoft is far behind Amazon in the smart-assistant space. Amazon Alexa is a more mature system with thousands of skills that tie into a growing list of third-party services and hardware. Developers can build skills for Cortana, of course, but there are currently only a handful of approved hardware partners.

Even so, I’m impressed with the first Cortana smart speaker. The Harman Kardon Invoke is elegant, smart, and delivers awesome sound. If you live on a Windows 10 PC and often use Skype and Microsoft Office, this could be the perfect smart speaker for you. No other voice assistant has such deep hooks into the Microsoft’s popular operating system and productivity suite.

It’s nice to see Cortana break free of its earthly bonds and fly high among the constellation of voice assistants. Let’s see if it can achieve orbit.

Harman Kardon Invoke smart speaker

The Good

Great design Gorgeous sound Impressive smarts Great integration with Windows 10 Good listener Good price

The Bad

Doesn’t always listen to its own answers Smart home device setup should be more obvious

The Bottom Line

Harman Kardon Invoke may be the smart speaker Cortana needs to break free from your Windows PC.

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