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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  • rudder - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    I have the $59 Nokia 520. great phone with GPS, camera, SD slot. I have been using a windows phone for almost 2 years now. My wife has an android phone and the kids have iphones. I like the windows UI the best out of all of those.

    The problem continues to be the app store. It takes forever for popular apps to show up. Or they never show up. I shop and Kroger and they have a nice app for android and iOS. Still no windows version. Just one example but this is the most frustrating aspect of having a windows phone.
  • EddyKilowatt - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Finally, the elephant in the room: Apps. No, Microsoft, NOT the latest Flappy Bird or whatever the flavor of the month is, that you will dutifully get ported for you. It's the thousands upon thousands of small specialized apps, like the above-mentioned retail store app, or the one for controlling my new smart TV, or the one that remote-starts my new Nissan. ALWAYS these apps are "now available for iOS and Android". SELDOM and I mean like <1% of the time (and shrinking) are they available for Win Phone. When was the last time you saw Windows mentioned in an app ad?

    I know because I've had the original Lumia 900 for two years and am just in the process of deciding what to replace it with. I would love to another Nokia with a nice camera, but I'll just feel like "fooled me twice, shame on me" if I go Windows Phone again.
  • hangfirew8 - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    One such small "killer app" is a Data Sense replacement, since AT&T deletes this absolutely essential App from WP8.
  • Jonahkirk - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Data Sense is built into 8.1 if you get the developer preview (even on my ATT Lumia 920)
  • Romberry - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Yes, it's in the developer preview. I hope that when AT&T releases their OTA update that they don't take it out...but I'd almost bet that they do.
  • Klimax - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Some things to note:
    1)What for is powerful hardware, when you kill it by software stack? (Android) Chase after hardware is mostly misguided thing if it doesn't have real effect. (And that is mostly true for WP, too optimized) Or rather forced to compensate for bad software.

    2)Reminder html5 test is testing unfinished specs and thus its score is useless. (What is support now may turn up as obsolete unsupport) Or did everybody forgot lesson of IE6?

    3)" It’s no coincidence that the two players that do have that feature also derive revenue from selling advertising against user data."
    That's Google, not Microsoft so it is mostly wrong.
  • akdj - Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - link

    3)" It’s no coincidence that the two players that do have that feature also derive revenue from selling advertising against user data."
    That's Google, not Microsoft so it is mostly wrong."

    Google AND Apple. IOW; in your quote 'the 2 players.' ;)

    HTML 5...useless? LoL. Tell that to the 90% of real 'players' (YouTube? Facebook?) on the web while Flash goes the way of the DoDo, even Android has abandoned Flash support..Adobe isn't refining Flash for mobile any longer. HTML 5, while still being 'refined' is certainly FAR from 'unfinished specs' rendering Anand's measurements/'scores useless'. IE6? It's 2014. The ONLY one that needs to 'remember that lesson' is MS. Not you, not me, not 'us'. Just. Microsoft.
    I'll agree whole heartedly with your first point although I'm not sure it gold water for Window's phones. They're still babies as is Win 8.1. As this is really the biggest and most significant update to the handset yet. Opening their A/SPK and providing an optimized platform for developers, IE XCode, they'll make in roads with developers. I've not spent real time with any Win phone but a colleague of mine at the radio station refuses to use anything but his year and a half old Nokia. He LOVES it and isn't interested in a different platform. As Anand mentions in the article, those in the camp seem content for the most part. Point being this is the FIRST round of Window's handsets using recent silicon. They've NOT chased fluency of the GUI with 'specs' and faster, more powerful silicon ala Samsung. TouchWiz is a HOG...And that added layer of peanut butter...I mean java script to eat through as well as the default apps installed by the carriers mandates hearty silicon JUST to achieve parity with iOS fluency. That said ...Apple isn't resting on their laurels when it comes to graphic and computational power. Look at the 5s/Air/rMini reviews. The A7 is a MONSTER. And 7.1, much like 8.1 on Windows slapped a lot of Mosquitos out of the way born from the virgin rewrite of iOS 7's rewrite for the ground up. Again, these are infants. The OS'es. We've been computing on our desks for 30 years give or take a decade pending your wealth in the 70s/80s. Mobile computing is really REALLY young. While we've had cell phones for decades, the 'smart' phone reimagined by blackberry....evolved/revolutionize by iOS in 2007 & Android '08---we're not even a decade into this serious computational paradigm. Many (excluding those of us geeks hanging and commenting on boards such as this) are finding iPad or Surface or the latest incarnation of Note/Nexus tablet computing to be ALL they need! Facebook, surfing and reading, music and media, email and gaming, social media and communication via FaceTime and iMessage...the list gets HUGE when you add the 2,000,000+ apps/software available in the Play and App Store. More software is available (and for significantly Less $) than any time in HISTORY! That's awesome. And faster, more powered I, and more efficient 'guts' IMHO is a welcome addition. Not for the sake of powering the basic, default UI but the option to access more data faster, play bleeding edge games, lower latency creative (audio, drawing, video manipulation, etc)... Faster radios and LTE infrastructure ...we're JUST getting a peak of the future. And Moore's Law seems to have jumped ship (desk and laptops) to the skiff...and the mobile platform. Intel is jumping HEAD FIRST...That should tell ya what the real 'players' are thinking. Did you see any of the reactions from Intel, Qualcomm, et al when the 64bit A7 dropped? If not, did ALL of their jaws. Snapdragon is aiming for their 64bit chips late this year, early next. Qualcomm ...maybe first or second quarter of '15. Intel is building out 64bit ULV chips as we speak and Haswell was a serious update efficiency-wise in comparison to ivy and sandy bridge...not to mention the phenomenal increase in iGPU performance. While you absolutely MIGHT be right on all accounts it would be sad if the barriers aren't continuously being pushed and more companies 'play'. Competition helps ALL OF US, as well as the companies doing the innovation from the polyurethane companies to the radio producers, SoC and silicon providers to the display and optic development for Gosh Sake...DON'T slow down! Keep it going!!!
  • akdj - Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - link

    My apologies for the length and typos! it mobile only or just the response 'system' that doesn't allow for editing? Seems like I remembered a small edit button post, posting;)...if that makes any sense. Anyway...hopefully you understand my points. All in fun and enjoyment of technology...I wasn't trying to come across as a 'dick'. If my initial response did, my apologies
  • RollingCamel - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    No T9?
  • Da W - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Just bought an HTC 8x on ebay, going back to WP8 baby!
    Got an HTC ONE for SALE! Good bye android, you never did what i needed the way i needed it!

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