Action Center

With Windows Phone 8.1, all three of the major smartphone platforms now have some form of a unified notification hub, all accessed by pulling a shade down from the top of the screen. Microsoft’s attempt is called Action Center, and like most aspects of Windows Phone it occupies a middle ground between Android and iOS.

Microsoft’s Action Center gives you direct access to four different shortcuts, the settings menu, and notifications from your apps. All aspects of Action Center are user definable. You can control what shortcuts appear at the top of the shade and you can choose what apps get to display their notifications.

The user customizable launch shortcuts are awesome, although I would like to have one or two more shortcuts to avoid scrolling through the mess that is the Windows Phone settings page.

There’s a clear all button in Action Center that not only wipes the screen clean of all notifications, but also propagates the clearing effect down to live tiles as well. In the screenshot below you see I have two emails in my AnandTech account and nine in my Gmail account:

Clearing all notifications in Action Center clears the unread email counter on both live tiles.

The emails remain unread in the apps themselves, which is what you’d expect. If you want to just clear notifications for a single app, just swipe anywhere over the notifications for that app.

Pulling down on the Action Center also reveals a little more information in the Windows Phone status bar. You now get a battery percentage indicator, today’s date and the name of the cellular network you’re connected to. The status bar no longer automatically hides itself either. WiFi and cellular signal strength, notification (if applicable) and battery indicators are all permanently on display.

Microsoft also exposes individual volume controls for notifications (including the ringer) and media playback.


Apple has Siri, Google has Google Now, and Microsoft has Cortana. Pulled straight out of the Halo universe, Cortana ends up being a mix of Siri and Google Now. Cortana launches in beta with the same sort of basic voice assistance you get with Siri in iOS. Hitting the search button will take you to Cortana, while holding it down automatically puts her in listening mode. You can set reminders (including those based on location), create/move calendar events, ask about nearby shops/restaurants, place calls and dictate text messages.

Anything that doesn’t fall into a category that guarantees a verbal response from Cortana triggers a Bing search. By default all Bing searches are aimed at the web but by swiping to the right you can redirect search towards your device itself. Phone search is universal and it’ll index everything from apps to text messages and emails. Cortana features integrated music recognition as well. Just tap the music icon and within a few seconds, if the track exists in the Xbox Music store it'll be identified.

Cortana’s basics work well thanks to Microsoft’s extremely accurate (and speedy) voice recognition. You don’t have to use voice to interact with Cortana, typing is supported as well.

Cortana can prevent incoming notifications from surfacing while you sleep or are in a meeting using a feature called quiet hours. Similar to iOS6’s Do Not Disturb mode, Quiet Hours can be configured to allow certain contacts to break through. In an expansion over what iOS DND can do, Cortana can also instruct contacts who aren’t a part of your “inner circle” to text with a certain passphrase in order to break through quiet hours. Similarly, if any contact calls twice within a 3 minute period they’ll be exempted from quiet hours as well.

Unfortunately Cortana’s usefulness, much like Siri’s, can be quite limited. She’s great for settling alarms and creating meetings, but deeper natural language conversations just can’t happen yet. Cortana can save you from typing something, but that’s about the extent of her usefulness as a voice interaction tool.

This is where Cortana’s notebook comes in handy. If you allow her to, Cortana will look at your emails and monitor your behavior to determine what information she should float up to your attention. The result is a Google Now like experience, where you get things like reminders of upcoming flights based on emails in your inbox, as well as estimated commute time based on where Cortana thinks you live and work. You can give Cortana hints about your interests and she’ll use Bing news to grab headlines you might want to read. I feel like this is ultimately where these virtual digital assistants will end up, but we’re still at a very early stage in their evolution.

It’s interesting to note that Apple is now the only major smartphone player without a notebook/Google Now-like feature on its mobile platform. It’s no coincidence that the two players that do have that feature also derive revenue from selling advertising against user data. Once features like Cortana and Google Now get good enough, the obvious next step is to send highly targeted advertisements to the end user. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s clear that’s going to be the next major jump in advertising on mobile.

Introduction, Start Screen Updates New Keyboard, Camera UI & Calendar
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  • HardwareDufus - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Running Win Phone 8.1 now on my Nokia 920. Decent improvements. Overall I'm satisifed.
    Echo everyone's sentiments on the Music App... can't believe I preferred the Built-In Music App on my BlackBerry Torch 9800. Anyway, the music App is not a deal breaker for me, but I am surprised that it feels so unpolished. How do you close a song? Once I play a song. If I stop it... well it's still there... so, I work the Volume controls several hours later... and up pops the song in a Little slider window (not really a pop-up.. but you know what I mean). I've even done the hold the back button... hit the X or SLide down the window gesture.... Yup... 'In My Place' by ColdPlay is still waiting to resume play (hey.... I'm old... I still like Coldplay).
  • BMNify - Thursday, April 17, 2014 - link

    the Xbox music app is now delinked from phone and will received direct updates from store, the next update should come out by next week which should take care of some of the complaints and after than they have promised biweekly updates, so should solve most of the user complaints within few weeks.
  • nicktina - Friday, April 18, 2014 - link

    I was going crazy trying to figure out how to get the paused music app off my volume keys. The 1st thing I figured out was if I opened Pandora I could stop the playback from Pandora and that would take care of it. But today I found an app that's free this weekend called "stop the music". I pinned it to my start screen. I opened Nokia mix radio, backed out to start screen, tapped the stop the music app and it was gone. Silly it takes a 3rd party app to remove music but whatever, it works.
  • Arbie - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Thanks for the tips re Cortana and MagikMail. But these are approximately infinitely more complicated than I want to get into, even to obtain a whitelist surrogate. I don't use my phone on-line, for mail, data, or anything like that. It's primarily a small media player with phone capability when I need it. And it's great for that, at the price.

    I just... want... whitelist.....
  • Arbie - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Thanks for the info. I am looking forward to using that feature. BTW I did try cleaning my SIM card but that didn't help.
  • ctodd - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    I really want to like WP! Its very tempting, but after being abandoned on an 8 month old 7.1 device, I'm leery to take the plunge again. It is exciting to see them finally catch up on the features but I'm still a little put off with the overly flat look. I like the idea of tiles, but everything else is just too flat and boring. I was hoping they would optimize the look by adding a little more depth and color but I guess they just want to be different.
  • BMNify - Thursday, April 17, 2014 - link

    Dude, the latest WP 8.1 update has great depth and colour to tiles along with some paralax like effect, you should just check out some 8.1 phone for that, i am enjoying changing background of the tiles now after 8.1 update, just check out some examples and how to do it here:
  • gamoniac - Thursday, April 17, 2014 - link

    My 1.5 years old, 2-core Lumia 920 (WP 8.1) scores 968 on So it looks like perhaps WP8.1 limits the max core an app can use to conserve resources or to guarantee responsiveness. Or perhaps IE 11 is not optimized for 4 cores, IDK. Regardless, I love the upgrade and my old phone is as snappy as it was the first day I got it. Kudos to Microsoft.
  • gamoniac - Thursday, April 17, 2014 - link

    @Anand, I have had bad experiences with Android updates in both the phone and tablet spaces. Besides Google's own Nexus line of phones, do major phone manufacturers give their consumers fair and prompt Android patches?
  • Hrel - Friday, April 18, 2014 - link

    "All devices capable of running Windows Phone 8 will be getting the 8.1 update for free over the next couple of months" - This is probably Android's biggest shortcoming. I can buy a brand new phone, with a 6 month old OS that will NEVER get an update. It's pretty infuriating. Now yes, I am techie enough root the phone, but that's not an elegant solution, to say the least.

    I don't know if it would require locking in a certain number of SOC configurations or what, but I really think Google needs to guarantee OS updates for at LEAST 2 years from the phones release.

    IF things go on the way they are, I can see myself switching away from Android and over to Windows Phone. Probably be up OS9 by then, so hopefully this stupid "tile" bullshit is gone and we can have actual windows and icons again. Seriously $soft, the functionality of these "tiles" is infuriating.

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