Microsoft Looks Set to Allow Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant on The Xbox One

Google Assistant Logo

In what could prove to be the clearest sign yet that the personal assistant race is coming down to two horses, Microsoft appears to be set to allow both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant on the Xbox One.  The news, along with a supporting screenshot, came from the team over at Windows Central and points to users having the option to leverage the personal assistant of their choice on their Xbox One for controlling the device from their phone.

The news of this falls in line with other news that Microsoft is fundamentally shifting Cortana, their digital assistant, away from the consumer market and more toward the productivity side of things and not necessarily a personal assistant.  It appears that Microsoft is conceding to Alexa and Google Assistant.

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Latest Microsoft Cortana Update Brings Voice Activated Calls and Texts

Send a Voice Text Message from Microsoft Cortana

A new update to Microsoft Cortana for Android is rolling out today and it brings the ability to send a voice activated call or text from your phone.  The feature isn’t necessarily earth shattering as other assistants can do this too.  But it does give a clear indicator that Microsoft is continuing to develop and push Cortana feature-wise for their customer base.

The update in question is version 2.10.2.2135 for those keeping score at home and it is already in the Play Store.  If you have Microsoft Cortana installed on your phone, you likely already have the update – but double-check.

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New Report Suggests Nearly 20% of Americans Have a Smart Speaker

Voicebot Smart Speaker Adoption USA Chart

A new report from Voicebot.ai suggests that 19.7% of Americans have at least one smart speaker in their homes with nearly 72% of them being Amazon Echo devices powered by Amazon Alexa.  The report goes on to suggest that by the end of the year, nearly 50% of households will have at least one smart speaker in their house.

The reports is based on a survey of 1,057 US adults and extrapolated from there.  While it may not be the largest sample size, it does give a solid indicator of where smart speakers going in the market and their adoption rate.  While Echo adoption was at 71.9%, Google was a distant 2nd at 18.4%.  The likes of the Hardon Karmon Invoke, powered by Microsoft Cortana, falls into the “other” category which accounted for 9.7% of devices.

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Microsoft Cortana Likely Coming to Outlook for Android and iOS

Microsoft Cortana Personal Assistant

When it comes to Personal Assistants on phones, we tend to think of Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa most often while iOS users tend to think of Siri.  But Microsoft Cortana slowly and quietly continues to develop and made inroads on both Android and iOS.  A new report suggests that Cortana is about to go even further into both platforms.

The Verge is reporting that Microsoft is working on integrating Cortana in Outlook for both Android and iOS.  This would allow for things like emails to be read to you while you are on-the-go but could also allow for dictation of emails.

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Microsoft Launcher Update Brings Cortana Fully Integrated

Microsoft Launcher

Microsoft Launcher, the popular launcher app for Android, has a new and big update rolling out.  The new build is version 4.6 for those keeping score at home and it brings a full integration of Microsoft Cortana to the launcher.

Until now, Launcher and Cortana were two separate downloads and apps with basically no interaction between the two.  Now with the integration done, the behavior of Cortana in Microsoft Launcher is similar to the standalone app.  You can make calls, schedule meetings, change wallpaper and continue a browsing activity from your phone to your PC (assuming you are using Microsoft Edge in both places).

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Microsoft Cortana Adds Support for Google Accounts

Microsoft Cortana for Android

Microsoft has quietly rolled out a new feature on their personal assistant Cortana that Android users will appreciate.  Now in Microsoft Cortana, you can set up the assistant to have access to your Google account, allowing it to access both your Google calendar as well as your contacts.  Previously calendars and contacts were limited to Office 365 accounts or to an Outlook.com account.

The addition of Google services means that users of Cortana on their Android phone, PC or their Harman Kardon Invoke, will be able to ask Cortana about events on their Google Calendar or make a call to a Google Contact, a likely scenario for Android users.

As you would expect, this new integration requires that you connect your Google account to Cortana and authorize it.  This is done via Connected Services which can be found in your Cortana Notebook section of the app or on your PC.

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Today’s Deal – Harman Kardon Invoke for $99 at Microsoft

Harman Kardon Invoke Detail

Today’s Deal is on the new Harman Kardon Invoke smart speaker that is powered by Microsoft Cortana.  This week at the Microsoft Store, you can pick up one of these awesome speakers for $99, a savings of $100.  No coupon code require and you can get it in either Graphite or White to match your décor.

I posted my review of the Invoke just yesterday and as I put in that review, it is one of the most stylish smart speakers out there with stunning audio quality as you would expect from Harman Kardon.  At the heart of the Invoke is Microsoft Cortana which, much like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, is a voice command away to help you with tasks or get information.

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Harman Kardon Invoke – A Beautiful Cortana Powered Smart Speaker

Harman Kardon Invoke Detail

On the surface, the smart speaker market is already pretty packed with competitors.  The two most well known of these, Google Home and Amazon Echo, dominate the market.  So why would someone like Harman Kardon and Microsoft team up to create what is arguably a late entry into this competitive landscape?

Simply put, because they know they have something that can truly compete.  The new Harman Kardon Invoke is a $199 smart speaker that is powered by Microsoft’s Cortana.  It is a stunningly beautiful design that has the audio quality that you would expect from Harman Kardon.  But is so much more.  Skype calls – free in the US, Canada and Mexico – are included, smart home device support is there and, then there is Cortana.  Microsoft’s personal assistant is no slouch and in accuracy, it is only behind Google Assistant on answering questions.  This combination of hardware and software works and it works well.

Recently I was sent the Harman Kardon Invoke (via Gear Diary) from the company and having used it in my office for these past few weeks, I have to say I’m sold.  If you are deep in the Microsoft ecosystem and leverage Cortana on your phone or on your Windows 10 PC, this is the smart speaker for you.

Specifications & Form Factor

When you open up the elegantly designed box for the Invoke, you are immediately struck by the beauty of the device.  It measures 4.2 x 9.5″ or 107 x 242mm in new money and it weighs a hefty 2.3 lbs (1kg).  Size wise, you are not looking at much more than the Amazon Echo but the Invoke is constructed of beautiful graphite aluminum mesh surrounding the speaker and microphone arrays.  This looks and feels like a well designed device.

Internally, there are six speakers and two passive radiators that give amazing sound quality.  The speakers consist of three 1.75″ woofers and three .5″ Tweeters with the two radiators allow for 360° sound.

From a connectivity perspective, you have Bluetooth 4.1 LE available to connect your phone or other device to the Invoke.  WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac are also supported at 2.4GHz and 5GHz.

Turning back to the exterior, the base of the Harman Kardon Invoke is black with the company’s name on it and a small white LED to let you know that it is powered up.  on the back side of the base is where you will find the Bluetooth activation button as well as the microphone mute button.  At the top of the Invoke is where you will find the LED indicator that Cortana has heard you or is working on your query.  This is very similar to the indicators provided on the Google Home or Amazon Echo.  Volume control can be adjusted thanks to ring dial at the top of the Invoke with the LED indictor showing a white circular pattern for how high or low the volume is set.

From a pure aesthetics perspective, you will not find a more beautiful smart speaker than the Invoke.  Period.  I’ve been a long time Google Home user but the looks of it are not exactly cutting edge.  The Invoke looks fantastic and this is not something you will want to try to hide away.

Setup & Configuration

As you would expect, the setting up and configuration of the Invoke is driven from the Cortana app on your PC, Android phone or iPhone.  When you power up the smart speaker, you will hear Cortana greet you and will be instructed to continue the setup from the app.

For this review I am using the Cortana app on my Pixel XL Android phone but the process is pretty much the same on your PC or iPhone.  In the app, you will need to go to the Devices tab in Cortana.  You will need to accept the terms & conditions and once done, the app will start looking for your Invoke.  Once found, you will confirm that it is the correct device by the matching light patterns at the top of the Invoke and within the Cortana app.  Invoke will then be connected to your WiFi network through the Cortana app and as a final step, you can link up your music service of choice.  Currently there are three options:  iHeartRadio and TuneIn which are both free while a premium Spotify account (remember, Spotify is replacing Microsoft’s Groove music service at the end of this year) can also be connected.

In all, the setup of the Invoke took about 10 minutes and that was including a software update which was required.  The setup is also very easy to follow.  Microsoft has done a great job with the Cortana app in making it clear what to do next and how to assure that everything is setup correctly.

Cortana Skills

Like Google Assistant with Google Home and Amazon Alexa with Amazon Echo, Microsoft Cortana with the Harman Kardon Invoke comes down to skills, or functions which can be performed.  The keyword to get Cortana to listen from your Invoke is “Hey Cortana”, the same command that you can use on your Windows 10 PC if you have it enabled or the Cortana app when it is open on your Android phone.  The list of skills that Cortana has is growing rapidly and you’ll find that there are many skills already available to give you news, information or to allow you to interact with services.  The complete list of skills can be found on the Cortana Skills site and I recommend readers bookmark it as it is constantly being expanded.

Like Google Assistant and  Amazon Alexa, in order for services to work where you are getting personalized data or making purchases, you will have to authorize those skills in the Cortana app on your phone or PC.  For example, one of my favorite skills is with Fitbit.  I can say, “Hey Cortana, ask Fitbit about my activity summary” and Cortana will read back to me my activity for the day from Fitbit.  For this to work, I have to sign in with my Fitbit account in the Cortana app and authorize it.

As you would expect, there are several service skills available like Fitbit, OpenTable, Expedia, Progressive Insurance and others as well as other productivity skills like HP Print, reminders of when you are at a location to complete a task (buy milk at the grocery store for example) and add things to your Outlook calendar.  Equally as important, you can order a pizza from Dominos!

When it comes to home automation, Cortana has a few skills but not the the extent that Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.  Phillips Hue lights are there as well as Nest and Samsung SmartThings.  I have several Wemo devices which work with Google and Amazon but are not available to me on Cortana – not yet at least.  If you have a lot of home automation, be sure to check the skills list prior to purchase to assure it will indeed work with the Invoke & Cortana.

General Performance

Having used the Invoke these past few weeks as my primary smart speaker over my Google Home, I have been very pleased with the general performance of it.  The microphones are excellent and even when speaking at a lower-than-normal voice, the Invoke easily picks me up and completes my Cortana command.  This is something that I am hit-or-miss with on the Google Home.  I generally don’t like to have to raise my voice to get one of these devices to respond to me.  I should be able to talk to it “normally” in my mind and with the Invoke, I can do just that.

When it comes to audio playback, the sound is crisp and clear.  Cortana information is easy to understand even when the volume is low.  Music playback is absolutely stunning.  I have played a wide range of music on the Invoke during the past two weeks – from Enigma, to Deadmau5 to Rammstein – and the high and low tones are exceptional.  It absolutely crushes the Google Home when it comes to music playback and Home isn’t a slouch.  But then again, this is what you would expect from a Harman Kardon product.

The single complaint I have about the Harman Kardon Invoke is Cortana’s Fault

My single biggest complaint with the Invoke is actually not its fault.  It’s Cortana or, more specifically, how Microsoft has enabled it across multiple devices.

With Google Assistant and Google Home, my main point of comparison, if I say “Hey Google, what is the weather outside?”, my phone (a Pixel XL) and my Google Home will light up to listen to me.  But, because the Home heard me, it is the default playback device and I hear nothing come from my phone.  This is how it should work because I don’t need both devices giving me the same information or the phone overriding the Home.

That, unfortunately, is not how Cortana works with the Invoke and your PC.  I have a Huawei Matebook with Windows 10 Pro.  If I say, “Hey Cortana, what is the weather outside?” Cortana will light up both on the Invoke and my PC.  That’s how it should work.  Unfortunately, both devices will read me back the information.  To make matters worse, the timings are off so it is like I have a Cortana echo going on in my office.

To get around this, I’ve disabled the voice enabled Cortana feature on my Matebook so that I have to actually open Cortana on my PC for it to respond.  Its a good work around but I shouldn’t have to do this frankly.  Microsoft needs to sort out how Cortana responds with multiple enabled devices present.  I suspect that this will only become a bigger issue as more Invoke units are sold so hopefully Harman Kardon and Microsoft can work on it together to get it figured out.

Conclusion

As you’ve probably figured out, I’m more than impressed with the Invoke.  It is a beautiful smart speaker with stunning audio performance and excellent far-field microphones.  It is a smart speaker that every Windows 10 users should seriously consider, especially if you leverage Cortana on your phones too.

To be sure, there is still a lot of room for Cortana skills to grow so it the Invoke can become even more useful.  Frankly, it reminds me of where Google Home and Google Assistant were a year ago.  Hopefully Microsoft will continue to work with the developer community to improve the functionality.

The Harman Kardon Invoke is $199 and available from Microsoft directly or on Amazon.

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