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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  • Imaginer - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    It is gravy that the start tiles can have a user defined background that shows instead of a flat color, and thus when stepping back and looking at the Start screen, it indeed looks like looking through a window.

    (I see what you did there Microsoft).

    But... having a background instead of a flat color, makes things very busy for me when I need to quickly spot my touch areas for pressing (because I am for sure do not have that tactile feeling to zero my fingers in on). I rather stick with the single color and white text and logo contrasts.
  • Snipeye - Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - link

    Would like more details about the changes with the Music+Video. A major pain I'm dealing with is my old Zune120 died so I picked up a prepaid 520 as a replacement (with a 64GB microSD). To sync DRM songs from the Zune software, I have to install the Window Phone App on my computer (Win7) and enable Wi-Fi. The DRM doesn't transfer over when you sync music. Instead, the DRM is re-downloaded via WiFi by the phone when you have Wi-Fi or data service enabled. A very convoluted and hassling process; not clean compared to how my Zune120 synced to the Zune software.
  • stimudent - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Only one person at work has a Windows phone. He's the only person I know with a Windows phone. It seems nice enough, but it doesn't seem that anyone is interested in it. Everyone else is way more interested in the other choices out there. It doesn't look like Microsoft Windows is being taken seriously in the smartphone market.
  • BMNify - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Decent review for a person who was using windows phone after 3 years for just 2 weeks but you missed many things Anand, please refer Daniel Rubino's review for a more detailed review:

    Hopefully we will get much more detailed reviews in future for windows phones like Lumia Icon/930/1520.
  • BMNify - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Microsoft has already started accepting universal apps and they have even launched universal apps in windows phone store with apps like shazam and xbox games like:

    MS Solitaire Collection
    MS Mahjong
    MS Minesweeper
    Halo: Spartan Assult
    Skulls of the Shogun

    So, just need to purchase once and then can play the game on Desktop, Laptop, Tablet and Phone :)
  • SirPerro - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    So, summing up, Windows 8.1 is finally close (but not equal) to what Android and iOS offered last year, and both are going to be updated within a month or two? Well done Microsoft. Playing catch-up forever.

    Combine that with the fact that most apps (Apart from the ubiquitous whatsapp, instagram etc...) are not in windows phone, and most devs don't even care about it and you have a nice OS I'll never use in the short term.

    Not to say that loads of chinese android phones are rushing to flood the market with entry level devices with kitkat in the following months, and that should be a much better option than an entry level lumia, so how about that for the main advantage of WP being entry level devices?

    And I don't even want to comment about Nokia releasing entry level android devices now. That shows the power of WP as entry level OS at its best.

    Lets be frank. WP is alive because microsoft is spending zillions on it, and most of the buyers are just unaware of the real options they have (I don't know a single person owning a WP which knew what he/she was buying)
  • hangfirew8 - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    Yes, Microsoft is buying marketshare and playing catch-up, but that doesn't mean they are doomed to failure. The market has seen superior technology fail time and again against the mediocre. Existence of just one killer feature- like the amazing Lumia cameras- along with general competence in everything else, combined with good pricing (even if it is MS-subsidized), could see major market share falling to MS. The current Android/Apple duopoly is especially vulnerable in the low-end where currently free or near-free feature phones still rule. Once data plans come down more in price we may see feature phones basically disappear in favor of low-end smart phones, and this is their chance to grab up a big chunk of that market. As many of those buyers mature or grow wealthier, consumers may continue buying the same type of phone in the up-market.
  • Max(IT) - Saturday, April 19, 2014 - link

    Are you really comparing crappy cheap droids with any Lumia ? You clearly don't have a clue about what are you speaking about ....
  • hangfirew8 - Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - link

    No, I am not. My post was about price points and buying marketshare. Perhaps you meant to reply to someone else's post?
  • HardwareDufus - Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - link

    you missed two of the bigger features 8.1 offers.
    VPN support and DUAL SIM. For those of us that use our phones for work, these are welcome additions (of course, Nokia needs to reléase a high end device (not 635) that supports DSDA).
    Downloading the 8.1 DevPrev now... and will test VPN support immediately.

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