Another assistant, Microsoft's Cortana, has been less present in the everyday conversation. That's largely due to the fact that Microsoft's Windows Phone is no longer receiving updates, and Microsoft didn't have a smart speaker to call its own. But all that is changing with the release of a new smart speaker called Invoke, available October 22. The speaker is a joint collaboration between Microsoft and high-end audio company Harman Kardon; the speaker is programmed with the brains of Cortana paired with the sound quality Harman Kardon is known for.
Looks-wise, Invoke is somewhat similar to the Echo Plus. It's a cylindrical column with a ring around the top that you can turn to adjust the volume manually. Instead of activating a light-up circle around the top, like you do when speaking to Alexa on Echo, you'll see a pulsating blue light on the touch panel at the top of the speaker when you're talking to Cortana.
The touch panel serves other purposes, too: You'll see the volume level when you turn the ring around the top. If you're playing a song and want it to stop, you can simply say "Hey, Cortana — stop" or, if Invoke is in reaching distance, tap the touch panel once.
Invoke is just slightly heavier than the Echo Plus, weighing in at 2.3 pounds compared to 2.1 pounds. Cost-wise, Invoke comes in towards the lower end of the spectrum. At $199 it isn't cheap, but it is closer in price to Echo Plus ($149.99) and less expensive than both HomePod ($349) and Google Home Max ($399). It's the same price as Sonos's new Alexa-enabled speaker, Sonos One. There are two colors — graphite (or black), and pearl/silver.
All Together Now
Those who regularly use Microsoft products, whether that's the gorgeous Surface Laptop or another PC, will be pleased to know that Cortana, like the Google Assistant, works seamlessly across devices. You can tell Invoke to add a reminder to your calendar while at home and get into work to see the same reminder pop up on your Windows computer or phone.
However, iOS and Android users may feel a bit frustrated by the current limitations. To use Invoke, you'll need to download the Cortana app. (You can't currently sync the speaker with a Mac.) The app works well and general setup is easy, but one of the most useful features of Invoke — the ability to set reminders and make calendar events — doesn't transfer to your phone's calendar, since there isn't yet a way to connect a Gmail account. Cortana only supports Outlook and Office 365. I could see my Google Calendar calendar correctly in the Cortana app, but when I asked Cortana on Invoke what events I had that day, she wasn't able to queue any up. Fortunately, there will be a fix: Microsoft says Gmail support is coming soon.
As far as music goes, Invoke supports three services: iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Spotify. While the first two of those are free, you'll need to have a premium Spotify subscription to access playlists on Invoke. Microsoft expects Pandora to be available on Invoke, but the timeline isn't clear.
Harman Kardon's audio is top of the line, and it delivers on Invoke. With 360-degree sound, bass lines felt much fuller and more powerful. When I was in the same room as the speaker, I could practically whisper "Hey, Cortana" and it could still hear and respond to me — even with music playing.
Cortana is less responsive when you leave the room — when I went one room over, I had trouble getting the assistant to respond. I've found the same is true of Echo, too.
When asked to change the volume during a song, Cortana seemed to take a second or two longer than what I've experienced with Echo, but still performed the task perfectly well.
Cortana got many of my questions correct, and was able to provide useful information such as the artist of a currently playing song. The assistant also helpfully let me know if I booked two calendar appointments at once.
As with many smart assistants these days, there were times when Cortana wasn't an A-plus student. When I asked when the next Star Wars movie was coming out, Cortana told me it was Rogue One in 2016, rather than The Last Jedi in 2017. I also needed to rephrase certain questions to avoid "Sorry, I don't know the answer to this one but I'm learning."
One of the most useful features on Invoke is the ability to connect the speaker to your Skype account and call mobile phones, Skype-enabled devices, and landlines. For two similar sounding entries in my contact list, such as "Mom" and "Mom Home," Cortana always checked to make sure she was calling the one I wanted. You can also ask Cortana to call someplace that isn't in your contacts, such as "the nearest Chinese food restaurant."
If you are a regular Windows user across devices, you can't go wrong with buying Invoke. With high-quality audio, responsiveness, and the ability to call anywhere, the $199 smart speaker will serve you well.
If you aren't a regular Windows user, you may want to evaluate your options more carefully, since you won't be able to access Invoke on Macs and can't yet connect to Gmail. It's still a very good speaker, but it may not provide you with everything you need throughout the course of your day. As Gmail and other services are added over time, it will be worth reevaluating.