To set up the Invoke, you'll need Cortana's iPhone or Android app. Alternatively, you can use a Windows 10 PC. The speaker shows up as a device in Cortana's settings, and it takes just a few seconds to connect to it. After that, all you need to do is say "Hey Cortana" and start issuing commands. You could ask about the current weather or the latest news, or for directions. For the latter, it'll read off basic navigation instructions and send a copy to the Cortana app on your phone. These are all things Cortana has been able to do for years on PCs and smartphones, but having it available in a standalone speaker is quite useful.
I started out testing the Invoke by doing just about everything I do with my Amazon Echo. It played New York City's NPR station from TuneIn when I asked it to "Play WNYC." And it had no trouble relaying the weather when I asked. (That might sound dull, but it's something I end up asking my Echo several times a day.)
The Invoke's biggest weakness at this point is the limited selection of audio streaming services that Cortana works with. So far, the list includes Spotify, TuneIn and iHeartRadio. There's no Pandora support yet, which is a big disappointment, considering that this is being positioned as a music-first device. Still, Microsoft says it's in talks to sort that out. The company also intends to work with other services like Soundcloud and Deezer, but it's unclear when we'll see those available on the Invoke. In Spotify, the speaker found my Discover Weekly playlist when I asked for it, and it also easily played music from specific artists and albums. In addition, it's a Spotify Connect device, meaning you can control what the Invoke is playing from any of the service's apps, either on your computer or your mobile.
I've mentioned this already, but it's worth repeating: The Invoke sounds fantastic. Music from every genre sounded immersive, with detailed mid-range, crisp highs and some decent low-end thump. It can easily fill a room -- but more than that, it does so in a way that's enjoyable. It sounds more like a decent bookshelf speaker than a mere smart gadget. The better sound quality also makes radio shows and podcasts sound more natural. The Invoke simply blows the original Amazon Echo away. I haven't tested out the new model yet, though, which is supposed to sound better.
I've listened to the Echo daily for years, and generally I've found it good enough for casual listening, but that's it. The difference between Amazon's speaker and Harman Kardon's is readily apparent when you switch between the two (which is pretty easy using Spotify Connect). With Flying Lotus's tracks in particular, the difference between the two was stark. The Invoke's audio is much richer and nuanced, while the Echo sounds cheap and flat by comparison.
Cortana's voice also sounds much more natural than Alexa at this point. When I asked her to tell stories and jokes, it was difficult to notice that I was listening to something artificial. Some Cortana responses are also read directly by her voice artists, which also helps to sell the illusion of her being more than a machine. Alexa is steadily getting better, but it still sounds vaguely robotic.
Amazon's voice assistant wins out when it comes to controlling smart home devices, though. Cortana works with Wink, Nest, SmartThings and Hue, but it doesn't integrate with devices from Sonos or Logitech's Harmony platform like Alexa does. I was also disappointed with how unreliable Cortana was when it connected to my Philips Hue smart lights. At first it had no problem turning lights on and off, or changing scene colors. Several hours later, though, it stopped working entirely. Resetting my Hue Hub and all of my settings didn't help; it's as if Cortana got into a fight with Philips and refused to talk to my lights anymore. I'll chalk this up to growing pains for now, but I hope Microsoft irons out these issues soon.