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Review: What It’s Like to Have Microsoft’s Virtual Butler in Your Living Room

7 minute read

Microsoft is out to prove that Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant aren’t the only virtual concierges worth inviting into your home. After first teasing its Cortana-powered speaker last December, Harman Kardon’s Invoke will finally launch on October 22 for $199. With Microsoft’s Cortana butler built-in, the Invoke can recite the weather, control smart home devices and more, just like its Amazon and Google rivals.

Invoke’s arrival along with similar high-end devices also marks a turning point for intelligent speakers. Potential buyers no longer need choose between high quality audio and having a smart assistant they can summon by voice. Early Internet-connected speakers, such as the first generation Echo and Google Home, provided good enough sound for casual listening. But audiophiles still turned to premium dedicated speakers to get superior sound.

Harman Kardon’s Invoke and a slew of other recently announced high-tech audio devices — like the Alexa-enabled Sonos One, the Google Home Max, and Apple’s forthcoming HomePod — are evidence this is changing. The Invoke includes a sonically formidable three woofers, three tweeters and two passive radiators for boosting bass. Amazon’s new Echo likewise has a 2.5-inch woofer and a 0.6-inch tweeter, unlike the previous model. And the HomePod has a high-excursion woofer, a custom amplifier and seven beam-forming tweeters. That’s a lot of audio oomph.

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Those differences are evident immediately when listening to the Invoke alongside the Google Home. Music sounded much clearer and richer through the Invoke, while the Home sounded flatter and muffled by comparison. There was much more contrast between high-pitched notes, like soft piano jingles and lower tones when listening through the Invoke, compared to the Home. And you have a variety of ways to sample audio: the Invoke can stream music from Spotify, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

As a personal helper, Cortana is just about as useful as Alexa and the Google Assistant. When asking simple questions such as “How tall is the Empire State Building?’ or “Who is Millie Bobby Brown?” the Google Assistant, Cortana and Alexa all turned out the same results. That was also true when asking for information like the weather or driving directions.

But in my experience, Google was the best at understanding natural language, while Cortana placed second and Amazon came in third. When asking “What’s the best way to cook a steak?” for example, Cortana said she couldn’t help the first time I asked. She answered correctly the second time, and was able to answer on the first try when I asked for steak recipes instead. Whether I requested steak recipes or asked for the best way to cook a steak, Google understood and answered on the first try. Alexa was able to pull up recipes, but couldn’t recite cooking tips from websites, whereas Google and Cortana could.

Try asking these virtual assistants something like “What’s the best way to get red wine stains out of a carpet?” and the results will be similar. Alexa couldn’t help at all, while Cortana only understood when I started the question with “How do I…” rather than “What’s the best way…” Google by contrast understood when I asked the questions either way. It’s another sign that although computers have come a long way in understanding the way we speak, there’s much work to be done — it still feels like you have to speak a special language to get the desired answer.

The Invoke does have a neat little trick that I enjoyed playing with (and I suspect you will, too). The top of the device functions as a sort of mystery button: Tapping it will prompt Cortana to recite a random nugget of information. It’s a small perk, but one that’s amusing and well-executed.

For those who want to use the Invoke as a communication device, there’s also Skype support. That means you can place a call to anyone in your Skype or phone contacts list just by asking. This worked flawlessly in my testing: Cortana understood my request immediately, and both the recipient and I were able to hear each other clearly.

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Devices like the Amazon Echo have become popular as smart home hubs, and the Harman Kardon Invoke is no different. Cortana is compatible with smart home gadgets like lights, switches, outlets and thermostats from companies including Samsung SmartThings, Philips Hue, Nest, Wink and Insteon. Integrations with gadgets from other appliance makers, like Honeywell, Ecobee, TP-Link, Johnson Controls, IFTT, iDevices, Geeni and Iris by Lowe’s are also in the works. That selection is currently smaller than those offered by the Google Home and Amazon Echo, which both already work with items from most of those brands and more.

Microsoft also has some catching up to do when it comes to voice app support. Amazon’s Echo now has more than 20,000 of its so-called “skills” (a way of interfacing with third-party apps), while the Harman Kardon Invoke will launch with just 100. Of course, the quality of those skills matters more than just the quantity. Right now, Cortana supports useful additions like Expedia, Fitbit, the Food Network and OpenTable, but there are also a handful of lesser-known games and seemingly useless apps like Cricket Sounds and Ghost Detector. And crucially, there currently aren’t any Uber or Lyft skills yet for Cortana, which may be a deal breaker for those who want the convenience of calling a cab without reaching for their phone. For Cortana to be successful, Microsoft will have to do a better job at courting developers than it did with mobile phones.

The Harman Kardon Invoke is a strong choice for anyone who wants a smart speaker with better sound than the standard Google Home or Echo offer. At $199, it’s much cheaper than other upcoming high-end speakers, like the $399 Google Home Max or $350 Apple HomePod. It’s much more in line with the $199 Sonos One, which includes Amazon’s Alexa and custom drivers for premium audio. But it also comes down to whether or not you’re excited by Microsoft versus Amazon’s ecosystems, and that’s going to depend on your priorities, as well as your prior experience with either, or current device commitments.

The Invoke represents Microsoft’s first major step into the smart home space, and like most first steps, it has upsides and shortcomings. Cortana fares well when it comes to speech recognition and intelligent responses, but still feels rudimentary in a race toward natural language savvy that’s just getting started. Given Microsoft’s presence in the enterprise, I was hoping to see more tools aimed at productivity. I’m looking forward to the day when the vision Microsoft showed onstage at its Build conference this year comes to fruition: Being able to post updates to your office’s chat room in the car and requesting time off at work just by asking Cortana from the convenience of your couch. The Invoke with Cortana isn’t that device, and it wasn’t meant to be. But its appearance in an increasingly crowded space only reinforces the fact that the race is on to create one.

3.5 out of 5

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