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Harman Kardon Invoke review: A fun, powerful Cortana speaker

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There are a lot of smart speakers out there today, but only one with Microsoft’s Cortana inside. The long-anticipated Harman Kardon Invoke, which first made its debut this spring at the Microsoft Build conference, is a fun, smart, powerful speaker. Cortana still has more integrations and features to add, but the speaker does not disappoint.

The Invoke goes on sale in the United States on Sunday at Microsoft stores, Best Buy, and online for $199. It comes in black and white. No date has been set for availability in markets outside the U.S., a Harman spokesperson told VentureBeat.

Sound and Size

At 9.5 inches tall, the Invoke is roughly the same height as an Amazon Echo.

Atop the device is a 360-degree array of seven far-field microphones. At the bottom are three high-frequency, and three mid-range drivers.

Between the first-generation Echo, Google Home, and Invoke, the Invoke may be a bit better in terms of sound quality, particularly in its ability to deliver smooth mid-range tones.

Design-wise, the Invoke is sturdy and easy on the eyes. The ring on the side of the device that controls volume is intuitive and feels a lot like cranking the sound up on a home stereo. When Cortana is awake and listening to your words, the touch screen atop the speaker flickers between blue and white — or solid red when the microphone is muted. The touch screen can look a bit cloudy and lacking in color compared to Echo’s blue-green ring or Google Home’s spinning wheel of cardinal colors, but overall it’s a beautiful device.

Basics

With Cortana, the Harman Kardon Invoke can do many of the things people have come to expect from intelligent assistants, like set reminders, add events to your calendar, and answer questions (it draws on Bing search results), all while music is playing. It can also do translations and locate your phone.

Cortana can control a handful of popular smart devices, from Samsung’s SmartThings to Philips Hue, Nest, and Wink. At launch, it can’t do much more than turn off the lights, but smart device integrations with companies like Honeywell and Ecobee are being sought.

And, like Alexa or Google Assistant, Cortana has third-party voice apps.

The Cortana Skills Kit opened to developers in May. Since then, more than 150 skills have launched from brands like Fitbit, Domino’s Pizza, OpenTable, and Progressive. The current skills library for Cortana looks a lot like offerings for Alexa and Google Assistant, with offerings such as the bedtime story skill or ambient noise skills, like fireplace sounds or a cat purring. Unfortunately, enabling any skill today requires that you first open the Cortana app for approval.

Cortana is also able to make unlimited phone calls. Connect your Skype account, and all Harman Kardon Invoke users get free calls in the United States. In recent months, Alexa and Google Assistant have also enabled free phone calls.

There are a few key distinctions between Invoke with Cortana and other smart speakers, however.

A hard touch on the top of the device for three seconds can wake Cortana, but a hard touch for one second serves up randomness, absolute randomness.

With one tap you may hear Cortana say “ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT” in a funny voice, while another may prompt it to tell you a funny fact, like that most humans try to lick their elbow after being told they can’t lick their elbow or that sea otters hold hands while sleeping so they don’t drift apart.

This is one of the ways Cortana demonstrates its personality.

Cortana can also create reminders that trigger notifications based on your location.

“We can do geofenced reminders for a lot of things, and that’s a really powerful thing. I find it really useful for random things like shopping. But [it can also send reminders] when I get to my kid’s school, remind me when I get to work, remind me when I get home,” Cortana engineer and Microsoft VP Andrew Shuman told VentureBeat.

Cortana can also be found in many places, including 500 million Windows 10 PCs, Xbox, and iOS and Android apps, and as of last week you can chat with Cortana on Skype. The ability to sling activity from one of these surfaces to a Windows PC was also made available in recent days.

Multi-modal activity between these devices and a smart speaker can be tracked, recalled, or adjusted using the Notebook or device history sections of the Cortana app.

“I think that the history that you have with a digital assistant is the power,” Shuman said.

Ask: “How long does it take to get to San Francisco International airport?” or for directions somewhere, and directions will automatically be sent to your device history in the Cortana app. Google Assistant now does something similar, but this is really helpful, and the sort of thing that should be served up naturally and without asking.

Enterprise, email, and calendar

At launch, email and calendar integrations are only available through Outlook and Office 365.

Both services today have tens of millions of users, but not everyone has one of these accounts. Unless you’re willing to jump on Outlook or Office 365 for calendar and email — or Microsoft chooses to make other calendar or email services available — the Invoke might not be for you.

Microsoft is thinking about ways that Cortana can help people get things done at work. Suggested reminders  will surface things like commitments you made in emails to help you stay on top of your schedule.

“I absolutely think this future of an ambient world where you can kind of walk into a conference room and speak to a device or take notes quickly is going to be really compelling for us and where we really want to push Cortana further and further,” Shuman said.

Invoke with Cortana can connect with Wunderlist accounts to add items to your to do list. It can also connect with LinkedIn accounts. It’s not yet clear what this integration will deliver, though the Cortana app says a LinkedIn connect allows Microsoft to share your meeting schedule and the tiles of people you meet with LinkedIn.

LinkedIn integrations could also allow speakers like Invoke that use the Cortana SDK to surface information about people before a meeting. This feature is not available at launch, but it may be available in the future, Shuman said. Enterprise skills for Cortana are also in the works, as are ways to make LinkedIn part of the experience.

“If you meet with a lot people, you might want to have a background of, for example,’Who is John Smith?’” Shuman said. “And instead of getting his name, you get his LinkedIn bio.” He added that this function could be expanded “if it’s somebody we actually know more about because of an email thread you have, or documents you’ve exchanged, or they’re actually a coworker.” In that case, he said “you might be able to show more information by being able to leverage that Office graph, too,” although this is all still being worked out.

The Invoke will not launch with an Alexa integration, though one is in the works, Shuman said. In August, Microsoft and Amazon agreed to work together in order to allow Cortana users access to Alexa and Alexa users access to Cortana.

News

New updates are one of the most common uses for smart speakers, and with the Invoke you can tap into several major news outlets and get podcasts from TuneIn or IHeartRadio.

News can also be requested based on location. Say: “Give me Colorado Springs news,” for example, and you’ll get a rundown of recent headlines in that city. You can also request stories from Cortana based on a specific topic. Both Alexa and Google Assistant still sometimes struggle with this feature.

Stories you’ve read end up in your history in the Cortana app. Interests and topics to follow can also be set in the Cortana app. In your Cortana interaction history you can teach the AI assistant your taste in news by telling it whether you liked or disliked results from news searches. Cortana should ask which news outlets you dislike, as Google Assistant does.

Cortana does not yet offer a dedicated place to program your news, like Alexa does with its flash briefings, so it’s tough to tell the size of the news offerings available from Cortana at launch. Shuman did tell VentureBeat that when you ask for the latest news on a specific topic, results are drawn from Bing News.

Music

To serve up music based on mood or time of day, Microsoft teamed with Spotify. You can play things like bedtime music, sexy music (that’s the “silk sheets” playlist ), frustrated music, or music for cooking.

Cortana can also help you find songs based on the name of an artist or album, so you can say something like: “Hey Cortana, play the David Bowie and Queen song.”

At launch, Invoke with Cortana lacks integration with other third-party music services, like Pandora and Apple Music.

Cortana still wants to make up ground its competitors have gained by including more games or game skills, and adding the ability to accomplish multiple tasks with a single utterance, Shuman said.

Final thoughts

With a $199 price tag, the Invoke is $70 more than a Google Home and twice the price of the second-generation Amazon Echo. It does come with some fun and distinctive features, and the enterprise offerings could be helpful at home and at work.

Ultimately, however, deciding whether the speaker is worth the price may come down to how much you like Harman’s sound, and the Microsoft universe of products that can be drawn together with Cortana.

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