Microsoft's noble attempt at a smart speaker isn't as good as the Google Home or Amazon Echo

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Tech Guide

Microsoft's noble attempt at a smart speaker isn't as good as the Google Home or Amazon Echo

  • The Harman Kardon Invoke is the first smart speaker with Microsoft's smart assistant, Cortana, built in.
  • The Invoke isn't as good as the Google Home or Amazon Echo, CNBC's Todd Haselton says.

The Harman Kardon Invoke is Microsoft's answer to the Amazon Echo and Google Home, but it isn't as good as those products.

Microsoft didn't build its own smart speaker — as Amazon and Google did — but instead decided to outsource the hardware to Harman Kardon, an established player in the audio market. It's a towering speaker that fires 360-degree audio around the room and has built-in microphones to accept voice commands for Cortana.

You can ask it things like "what's the weather?" and "How tall is the Empire State Building?" Or you can give it commands, like "Remind me to pick up orange juice when I leave work."

What's good about it

The Invoke looks better than the Amazon Echo and Google Home
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The Invoke looks better than the Amazon Echo and Google Home

The Invoke serves as a pretty decent speaker and easily filled the downstairs of my house with music. It sounds far better than the original Echo and the Google Home and looks more sophisticated than both.

It's also pretty good at listening to commands, even when the speaker is playing, which is important. Google and Amazon have been able to do this pretty well, too, so the Invoke doesn't really stand out here.

Cortana is thinking right now
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Cortana is thinking right now

I like the dial on top, a direct copy of the volume controls on the Amazon Echo. It also has a soft glowing light that dances around the top when you give a command. A fun little touch: If you tap the top of the speaker, the Invoke will give you a random factoid.

The Invoke can read out calendar reminders if you use Microsoft's Office 365 products, but it didn't work with my corporate Exchange account or Google Calendar. Microsoft said it plans to bring in additional calendars. I also liked asking it to read out the news in the morning, though this is something the Echo and Google Home can do just as well.

The Invoke answering a question
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The Invoke answering a question

The Invoke can be used to send reminders to the Cortana app on a smartphone. The feature worked well when I asked for a reminder to pick up orange juice, and I saw it pop up on my phone in the Cortana app.

I like the dancing lights on top
Todd Haselton | CNBC
I like the dancing lights on top

The Invoke also serves as a phone. Skype powers the experience but an unlisted number appears when you dial, so the receiver might not know it's you trying to call.

Finally, you can use the Invoke to control smart devices in your house. It worked just fine for turning my Philips Hue lightbulbs on and off, which is really the only smart gadget I control by voice.

What's bad

The Harman Kardon Invoke
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The Harman Kardon Invoke

The Invoke left a sour taste in my mouth that I couldn't shake. It wasn't always reliable and lacked so many features available in other products.

For instance, I left the speaker playing while I hung out in my living room working and, on numerous occasions, music from Spotify completely stopped playing.

Unlike the Echo and the Google Home, you can't use the Invoke to order products from grocery stores. That might sound unnecessary if you haven't used the Home or the Echo, but it's really convenient to walk through the living room and quickly ask to order toilet paper or other toiletries, and I missed that option.

The bottom of the Harman Kardon Invoke
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The bottom of the Harman Kardon Invoke

You can only listen to three music services right now: iHeartRadio, TuneIn and Spotify. That should cover a lot of folks but leaves out Pandora, the most popular streaming option, and other heavy hitters like Google Play Music and Apple Music.

One more thing: The cord that plugs into the bottom of the Invoke is super short, which means you need to keep it close to an outlet. It's a weird design decision.

Finally, unlike Google Home and Amazon Echo, the Invoke doesn't support multiroom audio, so you can't buy multiple units and play the same song in different rooms of your house. That's one of the best new features of the Echo and Home, and it's possible Harman Kardon might add this in an update.

Should you buy it?

A towering and good-looking speaker
Todd Haselton | CNBC
A towering and good-looking speaker

I really wanted to like the Invoke but I just couldn't warm up to it. As a Windows user, seamless integration with Cortana and my computer seemed really neat. I just wish it could do more and that it was more stable.

It doesn't stand out against the more affordable Google Home or the Echo, the latter of which is getting a refresh this month with a new $99 model that's supposed to offer better audio. You can buy two of those (or four Google Home Minis, or four Echo Dots) for the price of the Invoke and still have almost all of the same features. You'll also gain multiroom audio, the ability to order products by voice and integration with hundreds of apps and services, including more music options.

If you're chasing great audio, you might want to consider the Sonos One instead. It has Amazon Alexa built in and sounds better. Plus you can add multiple Sonos products to create a multiroom effect.

Microsoft needs to play in this space. Apple's HomePod is coming out this year and, if Microsoft sat still, it would be the odd-ball out. It's on the right path with the Invoke, but still lags behind the pack.