The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Getting Started with Cortana and Harmon Kardon Invoke

Step by step guide | Tips and tricks | Compatible devices | Comparisons with other smart speakers | and more...
Cortana and Harmon Kardon Invoke
Updated: 20th Dec 2019
Published: 27th May 2019
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By Ricky Harewood

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Microsoft’s Cortana, which is the last to arrive on the smart home scene after Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Assitant, has a lot of catching up to do. But she brings a variety of worthwhile features to the table. Let us get better acquainted with Cortana and find out the value she can add to your smart home.

What is Cortana?

Cortana is Microsoft’s voice assistant which offers voice control on select PCs and smartphones and also powers the company’s smart home ecosystem. The assistant which primarily works on Windows phone 8.1 and Windows 10 launched in 2014.

What Does Cortana Do?

Like other virtual assistants in the market, Cortana’s range of services can be divided into two main categories. First, she provides information on the required queries or topics. You can ask her about the weather or query her on factual information.

Second, Cortana seeks to simplify your life by allowing you to issue voice commands on specific tasks. For example, you can now command her to go through your emails. In response, she will sort out personal and work emails, reading out summaries of the important ones.

Additionally, she has a set of skills that work with a range of smart home devices. She has a Domino’s skill using which you can order pizza and Dark Sky that can give you a weather update. Another handy skill is FitBit which keeps track of your steps, while on the music front you get Spotify and iHeart Radio. Under an innovative feature known as Skills Chaining, Cortana links together common actions intuitively. For example, when you book events tickets, Cortana might suggest that you add the event on your calendar.

The best part is that you can enable these skills without having to download or install any software.

How Does Cortana Work?

To control your smart home using Cortana, you can use your PC, smartphone or a smart speaker known as Harman Kardon Invoke. She uses Bing search engine to find answers to factual questions. Whenever she is not sure of an answer, she will open your favorite browser and offer a list of results for you to examine and figure out the best answer.

Besides answering factual questions, she can also offer a personalized answer to more specific questions like ‘How’s the weather today?’ But for such questions, she will need to know your location. The moment you allow Cortana to get information on your location, she immediately gets elevated from being a glorified search tool to being a personal assistant.

There are two main ways to communicate with Cortana. You can type in questions or commands in the search area of your taskbar. This option applies if, for instance, you are in a noisy place or if your PC does not have a microphone. However, if you have a microphone on your PC and the context allows it, it is much easier to give her verbal commands. To get Cortana’s attention, click inside the search window and then click on the microphone icon. Anything you say to her will appear inside the search box. To make things even easier, go to settings to enable Cortana listening capability by moving the “Hey Cortana” toggle to ‘On’. Once you enable that setting, you simply need to use the wake word “Hey Cortana” to get her attention.

Cortana’s starting point for learning about you is through your Microsoft account. From there, she can get your name, age and all other details you supplied during account creation. A second way is through practice. The more you work with her, the better she becomes, both in terms of intelligence and in personalizing her interactions to your needs.

You can also expedite the learning process by allowing her access to data from messages, email, calendar, photos, movies, documents and other content data. Using the resources accessible in these places, she can make assumptions about the things she needs to communicate, for instance when creating reminders or giving search results. Additionally, the more you give her commands, the better acquainted she becomes with your voice.

Microsoft recently launched Home Hub on Windows 10 PCs which is bound to boost Cortana’s functions and the ability to manage shared PCs as well. There are also efforts to try and get Cortana and Alexa to work together.

In the meantime, Microsoft is trying to woo over developers who have worked on Alexa to port Amazon Skills to Cortana using its Bot framework.

Cortana’s Range of Compatible Devices - A sample

In terms of devices, Microsoft Cortana is still lagging way behind competitors. In October 2017, Microsoft announced that Cortana users could manage their smart home through five devices. These were Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Nest, Insteon and Wink. In February of 2018, they added a number of new compatible devices to the list, further extending the automation of your Cortana smart home. You can control all of these devices from a smart speaker, Windows 10, Android and iPhone.

Take a look at some of the handy accessories you can include to complete your Cortana ecosystem:

  1. Harmon Kardon Invoke

Creating a smart home ecosystem requires the integration of virtual assistant capabilities and a smart speaker for voice control. Microsoft’s Cortana currently only works with a third-party smart speaker, Harmon Kardon Invoke. The cylindrical speaker was launched in the US towards the end of 2017. It is available in two colors, Graphite Black and Pearl Silver and it has a blue light that glows on top known as Cortana Lighting. A not so obvious feature on the top surface too is what Harman refers to a ‘touch to surprise’ user interface.

The speaker has seven microphones and features 360-degree voice recognition. Its Sonique far field technology incorporates echo cancellation and noise reduction to ensure it hears you no matter how noisy it happens to be. One of Invoke’s top features is its ability to make and receive Skype calls, a unique feature that gives it a competitive edge.

  1. Johnson Controls Glas Smart Thermostat

With an alluring blend of futuristic and retro features, this device comes with a 5.9” display and runs on Windows 10 IoT Core. Some of its handy features include checking air quality, monitoring and adjusting the temperature, getting data on energy and weather as well as calendars.

  1. Ecobee 4

Ecobee has a vast array of smart home devices that work with Cortana. One of the most popular one being Ecobee4, a smart thermostat. This device allows you to control your home temperature with ease even when you are not home. It is capable of learning your schedule, both home and away and can adjust the temperature accordingly. In order to make this feature work, all you have to do is feed it with details on your preferences and home/away schedule. Based on that information, it will make the best decisions to suit your custom needs.

Another handy feature is Vacation Mode which alerts you if something happens to the thermostat while you’re not home. Room Sensor is yet another cool feature that allows the device to monitor different rooms and maintain specific target conditions.

  1. Ecobee Switch+

With the Switch+ you can automate your smart home’s lighting systems. Since it has motion sensors, you can set it to turn on the lights anytime someone walks into a room. And thanks to its scheduling feature, it can sense when its daylight and automatically switch off the lights.

  1. Honeywell Home

Just like Ecobee, Honeywell is a comprehensive smart home solution framework encompassing a number of useful devices. All of the devices under its umbrella are accessible on the Honeywell Home App. But with Cortana, you get to enjoy the convenience of voice control too. They include:

  1. C2 Wi-Fi Security Cameras

These are indoor cameras with high-tech features that equip them to detect unusual or suspicious activity and notify you.

  1. T6 Pro Smart Thermostat

With this thermostat, you set optimal temperatures for your smart home and control energy consumption, cutting down on energy bills. You can program it to suit your schedule and control it from anywhere.

  1. Wi-Fi Water Leak and Freeze Detector

This is an early warning system that detects extreme temperature drops and leaks. By doing so, it helps you avoid costly repairs.

  1. TP-Link Kasa Smart Video Doorbell

Check out who is at the door and decide whether or not to let them in with this Smart Video Doorbell. It features a high resolution imaging system and infrared LEDs for nighttime use. A microphone and speaker system with echo and noise control facilitates two-way audio. Using AI technology, it recognizes familiar faces and alerts you when a stranger comes calling.

Anytime someone steps on the front porch, it starts recording video. It saves two-day footage on its free package, with options of extending capacity underpaid packages.

  1. Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Power Outlet

Replace your dump power outlet with the Kasa smart home system which includes scheduling, automation and voice assistance. With this in-wall outlet you can control small appliances and lamps smartly.

  1. Nest Learning Thermostat

As one of the most advanced thermostats on the smart home front, Nest Learning Thermostat takes home management to the next level. It learns without any express programming to adapt to your needs based on what you like. Within barely a week, it automatically learns your schedule, adjusting temperatures to suit preferences. Its sensors work together with location on your smartphone to detect when you leave and then set Eco Temperature to save energy.

  1. Geeni Smart Surge Protector

With four regular power outlets and USB ports, the Geeni Smart Surge Protector adds a ton of functionality to your smart home. It allows you to control each of the four outlets independently or in groups as you desire. And you can monitor all four simultaneously.

  1. Samsung SmartThings Arrival Sensor

Get a notification when someone arrives at a specific location or leaves. With this sensor, you can set triggers that automate responses so that you can program appropriate action. For instance, you can choose to turn on the alarm or record video footage. Or you can have the lights come on and the doors unlock.

  1. Philips Hue

Philips Hue addresses all smart home lighting needs and allows you easy control via Cortana. You can use it to turn lights on and off, to dim or increase brightness, change colors and set the mood. Take it to the next level by setting scenes so as to extend automation features.

  1. LIFX

Create unique experiences in your home with this smart lighting system. You can go beyond lighting up rooms to adding accents to your furniture. Get day and dusk automation, a wide range of colors to choose from, countless lighting settings and other handy features.

  1. More Devices Yet to Come

Though the compatible device list for Microsoft Cortana is still limited, there are a number of partners who are rumored to be working on them. HP is one such company, said to be working on a smart speaker, but details on the mystery project are still scant. Other top players like Intel, Synaptics, Allwinner and Qualcomm are also assisting in building reference designs for the Cortana smart home.

Microsoft has also hinted that in the near future, there will be more speakers, fridges, toasters, thermostats and smart appliances.

How to Set Up Cortana

In order to start using Cortana in your smart home, you first need to have the Cortana app running on your smartphone or Windows 10 PC. For iPhone users, it is accessible on OS 8.0 or later versions while Android users need to be running version 4.1.2 or higher. In both of the latter cases, you have to download the free app from the device app store and install.

Controlling Smart Home Devices

On your Windows 10 PC, click on the search box and check out the icons that appear on the left side. They include a Home button, Notebook button and a Settings cog at the bottom.

To use Cortana to control your smart home devices, follow this simple setup procedure:

Step 1: Open Cortana.

Step 2: Click on “Notebook” and then select “Connected Home.”

Step 3: Under “Enable Connected Home,” switch on the toggle.

Step 4: Sign in using the same Microsoft account that you use for Cortana. Select your service and then input your account information.

After enabling the Connected Home feature, you can now link Cortana to all your smart home devices. The feature is available on Windows PC, iOS, Android and Windows phones. Once you set up your smart devices, their icons will appear below the Home and Notebook buttons.

Customization Options

At the bottom of the page, click on “Stay up to date” to customize the Home area, specifically the information that Cortana lists there. The main categories include Weather, Sports, Finance, Flights, Stocks, Packages and News.

Take your time to add all the information you need here since Cortana will use this data to decide what information takes priority.

Adding Skills

To get the most out your assistant, you need to add relevant skills. To do this, go to the official Microsoft site and check under Cortana Skills to identify the ones you need. When you see something you like, click on “Try Now” and Cortana will appear. She will ask for relevant permissions and you will be good to go. Note, however, that some skills such as FitBit and Dominos will require that you link accounts to Cortana.

More on Cortana Notebook

Besides being the place where you manage Cortana skills, the Notebook is also where your assistant will remind you of things. Anytime you tell her to create a list or remind you to do something, it will appear in this area. It is comparable to her personal diary, with the only difference being that you have full access and can edit things to suit your preferences.

Accessing Cortana on Locked Screen

If unlocking your screen every time you want to access Cortana is annoying, you could opt to access her from a locked screen instead with these steps:

Step 1: Open ‘Cortana’

Step 2: Scroll down and click on ‘Lock Screen’

Step 3: Toggle on ‘Use Cortana when my device is locked’

Step 4: Tick the box ‘Let Cortana access my calendar, email, messages and other content data when my device is locked.’

Sync up Office Work

One of the key advantages that Cortana has over other personal assistants is her ability to streamline your office work through access to Microsoft apps. You can control these by adjusting the settings under “Productivity.”

Cortana Competitors

With things heating up at an alarming phase on the virtual assistant front, Microsoft Cortana has an uphill task at competing with earlier arrivers on the scene. Nevertheless, she has a few tricks up her sleeve that give her the upper hand in some aspects, while in others, she still has some work to do. Take a look at how she performs against the three top voice assistants.

Cortana vs. Amazon’s Alexa

Alexa is admittedly the toughest contender that Cortana is up against. However, Cortana has an upper hand because you can control her from a mobile phone, Windows 10 PC and compatible smart speaker. She is also better at handling office work thanks to her close interaction with Microsoft apps.

Alexa though has one of the most advanced AI systems and countless compatible devices to work with. Furthermore, the vast Amazon ecosystem gives her an advantage in matters such as automated shopping and TV streaming. Cortana is comparatively limited in functionality and device compatibility. Microsoft has yet to produce its own smart speaker, while Alexa has a whole range of them to suit different user needs.

Microsoft still has a good deal of work to do to catch up with Amazon’s Alexa.

Cortana vs. Google Assistant

Cortana puts up a hard fight against Google Assistant in a number of ways. To start with, she is more suited to the enterprise user, by virtue of her affinity for the Windows PC and Microsoft apps such as Office. It is available on multiple device platforms, giving the user room to choose. The Cortana app, especially on mobile, is a lot more functional than Google’s, with multiple quick-click buttons to help you get things done fast.

Google Assistant, just like Cortana, is available on Android, iOS devices and Chromebook. But unlike Cortana, it has its own line of smart speakers with several options to match user requirements. Additionally, there are a ton of third-party players producing devices that are compatible with the system, extending its functionality. Assistant also has an advantage over Cortana in search results as she draws from the vast repository of information available of Google. Cortana uses the far less extensive Bing search engine.

In the future, Cortana might hold her own against Google Assistant when her planned integration with Amazon’s Alexa becomes reality. But for now, Google reigns supreme over Microsoft in the virtual assistant race.

Cortana vs. Siri

The battle between Cortana and Siri is a tough one. Cortana is quite useful in the sense that she functions just as well on voice commands as she does when you type them out. As such, if you do not want to bother the people around you or if your device does not have a microphone, you have a way out. Her Notebook feature also comes in handy in learning about you and presenting ready information when you launch the app. With Siri, you have to ask for the news or weather update. Cortana, unlike Siri, is a The battle between Cortana and Siri is a tough one. Cortana is quite useful in the sense that she functions just as well on voice commands as she does when you type them out. As such, if you do not want to bother the people around you or if your device does not have a microphone, you have a way out. Her Notebook feature also comes in handy in learning about you and presenting ready informHowever, Siri, not one to be left behind, offers the option of working with voice control or the comprehensive home app. She also works with more devices than Cortana and the smart homeowner has tons of options to choose from. Her voice recognition and language processing smarts are more advanced that Cortana’s. And she has the best speaker system in the entire category.