This Microsoft-powered $200 speaker is great for Spotify and Skype -- but you're probably better off with Amazon or Google

Harman karman invokeMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderThe Harman Karman Invoke, a smart speaker powered by Microsoft’s Cortana.
  • The Harman Kardon Invoke is a $US199 smart speaker powered by the Microsoft Cortana voice assistant. It brings Microsoft into contention with the Amazon Echo and Google Home.
  • The Invoke hardware is great — the speaker is loud and clear, making it great for music. It comes with built-in support for Skype calls (even to telephones) and Spotify.
  • Cortana is smart and useful, and integrates with Microsoft apps and calendars.
  • However, compared with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, Invoke doesn’t integrate with as many smart home appliances, outside apps, or streaming TV devices, making it difficult to recommend.

We live in an age of miracles — it’s so commonplace now to use your voice to get information out of a computer, it’s almost boring. And yet, not all tech miracles are created equal.

Take, for example, the Harman Kardon Invoke, a new $US200 smart speaker powered by the Microsoft Cortana smart assistant. While Microsoft didn’t build the Invoke itself, it’s still the tech titan’s first shot at the leading Amazon Echo and Google Home product lines.

Previously, Cortana was primarily only available on Windows 10 PCs, reaching over 140 million monthly active users. Now, with the Invoke, Cortana is going after the rest of your home, too.

The Invoke has a lot going for it: The sound quality is amazing, which is no surprise, given that Harman Kardon makes some of the best speakers in the world. And Microsoft’s Cortana doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its intelligence: It’s often smarter than Apple’s Siri or Amazon Alexa, and integrates with Office apps, too.

And yet, if you’re looking to buy a smart speaker, I would generally guide you away from the Invoke, and toward one from Amazon or Google. Here’s why.

The good

I can’t say enough nice things about the Invoke’s hardware.

The external design is a matter of taste — at first I was sour on the Invoke’s casing, because I thought it looked like a prop from the next “Alien” movie. Now, after a few days with the Invoke, I kinda like it, for the same reason.

The inarguable part is that the Invoke sounds amazing. Even to my untrained ears, the Invoke sounds way better than any similarly-priced Google Home or the first generation of Amazon’s Echo speakers. And it’s loud, too: Even at 50% volume, it was way too much for my reasonably-sized kitchen, and I had to turn it down to around 30%.

And Harman Kardon and Microsoft have leaned into this audio quality. The two headlining features of the Invoke are its integrations with music streaming service Spotify and support for making calls with Skype.

Harman invoke microsoft windows cortanaHarmanThe Invoke comes in two colours. The top swivels, allowing you to adjust the volume. And the button on the top is the ‘magic button,’ which makes Cortana tell you a random fact.

Both services work great, in my own tests, and benefit greatly from the Invoke’s quality audio hardware. As a nice bonus, the Invoke can make free unlimited phone calls to landline and cellular phone numbers, by way of Skype. The Invoke also supports Bluetooth, to pair up with your phone or other music players, if you want that.

Otherwise, Cortana can do much the same stuff as Amazon’s Alexa and its ilk. You can set alarms and timers, check the weather, and control your smart home gear. Another nice perk: If you set a reminder or a to-do item on your Invoke, Cortana will also remind you on your Windows 10 PC and/or Cortana phone app, or vice versa.

And Cortana is surprisingly smart. Microsoft Bing gets a bad rap, but it’s really not as far from Google as everybody makes it out to be. Using Bing, Cortana is able to answer questions both practical (“How long do I boil a sausage?”) and esoteric (It nailed “What day was the Battle of Hogwarts,” though it mispronounced it as “Hogwatts for some reason).

Harman kardon invoke microsoftMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderThe back of the Invoke reveals a button to turn off the microphone for privacy, as well as a Bluetooth pairing button.

Cortana also connects with Microsoft Outlook and LinkedIn — coming down the line is a Cortana feature that will use LinkedIn to give you a quick profile of everybody you’re supposed to meet in your next appointment. That said, the Invoke won’t currently hook up with Google’s Gmail and Google Calendar, which is a personal bummer, though a Microsoft spokesperson confirms that support is coming down the pipeline.

In other words, there’s a lot to like. But…

The big ‘but’

No voice assistant is an island. So much of what makes these things useful is their integrations with other products and services. It’s in this department that Cortana is sorely lacking, and brings the whole Invoke package down with it.

Here’s a big example. If you get an Amazon Echo, of any variety, you can use it to command an Amazon Fire TV. The Google Assistant, which powers the Google Home, can control Google Chromecasts or any Chromecast-powered TV. Cortana can’t control a Microsoft Xbox One or any other TV-connected gadget, at least not yet.

When it comes to smart-home appliances, Cortana supports a few popular ones, including smart bulbs from Philips Hue and Insteon. But Amazon, Google, and even Apple support a much broader swath of smart home manufacturers, at least for now.

Microsoft harman kardon invokeMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderThe blue ring at the top appears when the device is listening, mirroring its behaviour on Windows 10 PCs.

Another thing, too, is that you can use an Echo to shop on Amazon, and a Google Home to shop at Walmart, Target, and other stores. Cortana offers none of that, either. And if you make a shopping list, your only options to retrieve it are from Cortana on another device, or Microsoft’s doomed Wunderlist, with no other options to export.

Bafflingly, certain “skills,” or apps, that work with Cortana on a PC won’t work on the Invoke. Existing skills for calling an Uber or posting to Twitter, among others, have to be done from Windows (thought you can check the latest tweets from high-profile people like Donald Trump). Plus, Cortana doesn’t support playing the same audio from multiple devices, which is a bummer if you want to rig your house with Invokes.

So to make a long story short, the Harman Kardan Invoke is a great device, with great sound, and a lot of smarts — but with serious limitations, compared to the competition. Unless you just want to listen to Spotify and chat with Skype, and little else, I’d advise looking at a $US99 Amazon Echo or $US129 Google Home.

Besides, pretty soon, you’ll be able to access Cortana from any Alexa device, and vice versa. From that standpoint, it might be worth investing in an Alexa device now, so you can take advantage of Cortana’s particular strengths later.

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