Harman Kardon Invoke

There's something to be said for tribalism when it comes to our digital ecosystems. More often than not you tend to get a pretty apples to, erm, apples experience when your hardware and software all come from the same company. Android and Google. Mac OS, iOS and Apple. Windows and Microsoft.

But that's not to say that there isn't plenty of cross-pollenization. Google services work pretty much everywhere. And Microsoft has done a great job of getting its services on pretty much everything.

In the world of digital assistants and hardware, Amazon Alexa and the Echo speakers still rule the roost. But Microsoft now has Invoke, its smart speaker powered by Cortana. It's $199, and only available in the United States. Amazon Echo, on the other hand, has more (and less expensive options), and a Skills ecosystem that's far more mature.

So what's a Windows user to do? Get an Invoke and stay with the tribe? Or just get an Echo, like most everybody else.

Hey, Cortana

As with everything else, it really comes down to services. The Invoke is in and of itself a really good speaker. It sounds great. It looks great. The little details like the Cortana light up top are a great touch. Invoke is definitely as good as the $149 Echo Plus when it comes to sound quality. And certainly better than the $99 Echo. There's a reason why Microsoft paired up with Harman Kardon, and it shows. (And, uh, you can hear it, too.)

But when it comes to the integrated services — Skills, they're called — Invoke and Cortana lag far behind Echo in most respects.

For me, as often as not, it comes down to what you use for music. If you're a Spotify Premium subscriber, you're golden. Invoke and Cortana rock that. Same goes for TuneIn Radio and iHeartRadio. That's actually going to cover a lot of folks. But if you're deep into Apple Music, Google Music or Amazon Music, you're left out here. (There's a discoverable 'why' when looking at service names and the companies that own them, right?) Sure, you can Bluetooth any device into the Invoke, and play music that way. But that sort of defeats the purpose.

Cortana's connected home skills are pretty lacking at this point, too. That's not to say there's no overlap, and having access to Samsung Smart Things will make up for a lot. But there's just no denying that we're talking a few scant dozens of Skills for Cortana versus thousands and thousands for Alexa. That'll change once Microsoft and Amazon get their reciprocity thing going — Cortana and Alexa will share skills. But even then, we'll have to wait and see how well all that works. Are we still dealing with an added layer of complexity? Or will Alexa Skills on the Invoke work just as well (and as simply) as Skills on an Echo?

Amazon Echo works well with Windows 10

Smart Windows

Harman Kardon Invoke Speaker

There's no one real reason to buy an Invoke, but loads of reasons to get a less-expensive Echo.

Invoke — OK, Cortana — does have a couple tricks up its sleeve. Being able to make calls through Skype is something nobody else can do. (Though Alexa and Google can both make traditional calls, as well as call other devices.) For me, though the bigger deal is the Cortana integration in Windows 10. Seamlessly getting phone calls and notifications on a Windows machine — whether you're using Android or iOS — is one of those things that we've seen tried any number of ways over the years, to varying degrees of success. Microsoft has made it easy here.

But that last part is less about the Invoke and more about Cortana. (It's really just a nice side-effect of setting up Cortana on your phone in the first place.)

So if you're a Windows person, should you buy an Invoke over an Echo?

For me, it comes down to the price. You don't really get anything more for the extra $50 you're going to pay for the Invoke, and that's if the Echo Plus isn't on sale, which it often is. Invoke looks better, and it sounds a little better. But it's definitely more limited at the moment. And we just don't know how much smarter it's going to get over time. The Echo, on the other hand, has a proven track record.

On the other hand, maybe that extra $50 or 75 you're going to pay for an Invoke is just the price you pay for staying with the Microsoft ecosystem.

This post may contain affiliate links. See our disclosure policy for more details.