Windows Phone 8.1 dramatically improves how Microsoft's smart phone platform deals with notifications from the OS and from apps. Now, in addition to live tile updates and banner notifications, the system includes a new notification manager called Action Center. It is arguably the single best new feature in Windows Phone 8.1.
I've often noted in the past that Windows Phone wasn't just different from Android and iOS, the other major mobile platforms, but that it was better. This is, I think, an important distinction: Rather than just copy how other systems work, as Google did with Android, Microsoft designed Windows Phone to work well for the people who actually use it. The firm now expresses this viewpoint in its slogan about Windows Phone being the most personal smart phone system.
But as time moved forward, a few things changed. First, the vast majority of smart phone users run less distinctive and unique platforms, and they expect things to work a certain way. So moving to the innovative but different Windows Phone platform could be confusing. And second, as Windows Phone has evolved and become more capable, some of the old ways of doing things haven't scaled well.
So Microsoft is changing Windows Phone, sometimes in dramatic ways, in Windows Phone 8.1. In Windows Phone 8.1 Tip: Master Social Networking Integration, for example, I was the first to detail the profound way in which the firm has reconfigured OS integration with services such as Facebook and Twitter, moving the integration pieces out to apps that can be upgraded more frequently. This change answers a key complaint about previous Windows Phone versions, that as those services were updated rapidly, Microsoft could never upgrade the corresponding OS bits to match the changes. Windows Phone's vaunted integration functionality kept falling behind.
And then there are notifications, the subject of today's tip.
Notifications are another example where Windows Phone, for all its innovation and distinctiveness, had fallen behind. And oddly enough, this happened because Microsoft had rethought how notifications could work back when rival platforms offered just stupid icons (iOS) or just stupid icons and a handful of more communicative widgets (Android): It used resizable live tiles that could show you what was happening without requiring you to navigate in and out of apps all day. You could simply glance at the screen. It was a good system, for a while. But with many users installing tons of apps, the live tile system wasn't scaling well. And something had to change.
Fortunately, the change was somewhat preordained. Android and then iOS evolved to include notification managers that channeled system and app notifications into a single place. And both work similarly: You slide down from the top of the screen to reveal a panel containing a variety of quick settings (Airplane mode, Wi-Fi, screen rotation and so on), global settings (brightness, volume), and system and app notifications: Apps that have been updated, new email messages, calendar reminders and so on. Here's the notification manager in the recently released Samsung Galaxy S5.
(In iOS, Apple actually divides this functionality into two slide-in panels, with the second sliding up from the bottom. But let's not get bogged down in the details of each implementation.)
With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft has finally added a notification manager to its smart phone platform. Called Action Center, it looks and works much like similar interfaces on rival platforms, which some cite as evidence that Windows Phone has "fallen behind" its competition. I don't see it that way, exactly. Windows Phone was (still is) superior to Android and iOS in key ways, and its live tiles in particular have always been a key differentiator. Action Center is required because Windows Phone and its ecosystem of apps has matured so quickly: Just a year or so ago, most people could see live tiles for all of their important apps right on their Start screen, without needing to scroll. Today, that's just not possible.
Making Action Center look and work like the notification managers on other platforms makes as much sense for Microsoft and it did for Apple when it, um, borrowed this feature from Android. This is now an expected way of doing things, and having this feature in Windows Phone will help ease the transition for those coming to the platform from Android or iOS.
As such, it is engaged in the same way as it is on those platforms: You slide your finger down from the top of the screen. By default, this works from anywhere in Windows Phone, including the lock screen. (You can disable that if you want.)
Action Center also provides two views, if you will. While you can slide the panel all the way down to see the normal view, you can also stop partway to view just the quick action tiles at the top.
As anyone who has used a notification manager on Android or iOS can tell you, this feature is quite useful. In Windows Phone 8.1, Action Center provides the following functionality:
Detailed status information. It's a bit subtle but if you look below the status bar when Action Center is open you will see additional information about each status item: The cellular data network to which you're connected, the type of that connection (LTE, etc.), the battery life as a percentage, the date, and so on.
Quick access to key system settings. You can access key system settings—Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane mode, and rotation lock by default—without having to find and then peck around in Settings. Since these are settings you need to access fairly frequently, this is in fact quite a convenience. (And if you have a big screen Windows Phone handset like a Lumia 1520, you can configure 5, not 4, quick action tiles: Screen brightness is the default additional choice.)
Quick access to all settings. I routinely pin a Settings tile to my Start screen simply because I find myself needing to root around in there so frequently. But no more: Now you can just tap the handy All Settings link right below the quick action tiles to jump right into the full Settings interface from anywhere in Windows Phone.
App notifications with per-item access. Any app can display notifications in the notification list that appears in Action Center below the quick action tiles. New email (Mail), Facebook updates, pending appointments and more will appear in this list. To jump right to a particular item in the right app, just tap the item in the list. Now you can go right to a particular new text message, for example and not just to the Messaging app (as would be the case if you handled a notification from the live tile).
Notifications for apps that are hidden or not available on the Start screen. Just in case it's not obvious, one of the issues with app proliferation on Windows Phone is that it's not possible to see all of your live tile-based app notifications on a single Start screen. You may have tiles that are below the bottom edge of the screen, or apps that are not pinned to the Start screen. In either case, you weren't previously able to see notifications from those apps. But now, with Windows Phone 8.1, you can: They're in Action Center.
App update notifications. In Windows Phone 8.1, new app updates are installed by default, so the Store app provides notifications for each of these updates so you can see what's changed. If you tap this link, you'll go to the app update history list in Store. Tap an item here to view the app in the Store.
Notification completion. In Action Center, you can swipe to the right on any notification to mark it as complete. This swipe removes the notification from Action Center, but it also removes it from the app's live tile. Neat! (Notification completion is on an app-by-app basis, not item-by-item. You can't "complete" a single email message in Mail, for example.)
Clear all. You can also quickly clear all notifications, and remove them all from the notifications list: Just tap the Clear All link below the quick action tiles.
Configure Action Center. You can configure a number of features related to Action Center. Navigate to Settings, Notifications + Actions to determine which tiles appear in the quick action area, whether to allow Action Center access from the lock screen, and to toggle the display of notifications for each installed app. For that last item, you can determine whether the app's notifications appear in Action Center, whether the app can display banner notifications (when available), whether to use a notification sound and if so which sound, and whether to vibrate on notification.
Whether you choose to look at Action Center cynically—that is, as a feature that should have been added long ago—or appreciatively is sort of beside the point. It's here now and it works well. And it is, I think, the single best new feature in Windows Phone 8.1.