New to Windows 7, the Action Center is a new Activity Center aimed at consolidating system notifications in a single, centralized location. Action Center is a replacement for, and an expansion of, the Windows Security Center feature that first debuted in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2). As such, it notifies you about issues related to the security and maintenance status of your PC when required. You can also manually visit Action Center to configure settings and view previous messages.

Action Center origins

Action Center is the successor to the Windows Security Center from previous Windows versions. In Windows XP SP2, Security Center was designed to track the system's firewall, virus protection, and Automatic Updates features: When any of these features or disabled, Security Center would warn the user via a shield icon in the notification area near the system clock, or via pop-up warning balloons.

In Windows Vista, Security Center was bolstered to track even more security features, including the Windows Firewall, Automatic Updates, malware/spyware (Windows Defender) and virus protection, User Account Control (UAC), and various Internet security settings.

A new generation

In Windows 7, the new Action Center builds off of Security Center in two ways. First, it's far more configurable, and it's now possibly to easily control which features deliver notifications through this single UI. Second, Action Center expands into PC maintenance and also provides notifications for Windows Backup and Windows Troubleshooting.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Action Center
Action Center includes a tray notification icon and an Activity Center-style control panel.

Secret: As with other Control Panels in Windows 7, Action Center is a true Windows executable (.exe) and not a legacy Control Panel (.cpl).

Using Action Center

As you may suspect, you won't typically interact with Action Center unless something goes wrong or one of the tracked features needs to get your attention for some reason. Most of the time, Action Center will simply display a white flag icon in the system tray, indicating that everything is fine. If there is a problem or a less serious issue that requires your attention, Action Center will change its tray icon, adding a red "x," and display pop-up notifications to alert you.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Action Center
Action Center will let you know when something is wrong and, typically, provide a way to fix it.

Tip: You can, of course, manually check the status of Action Center--and thus of all the features it tracks--without opening the actual control panel. To do this, click the Action Center's tray icon. You'll see a pop-up with a list of pending actions, if any. On a perfectly healthy PC, you'll see a simple message noting that no issues are detected.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Action Center
The Action Center pop-up lists any issues it finds.

The Action Center application is simple enough and set up like many other Windows 7 control panels. There are sections at the top for the security and maintenance features that Action Center tracks, links for troubleshooting and recovery tools and, on the left, a list of Action Center configuration options and related system tools.

If all is well, the Security and Maintenance sections at the top of the window will be collapsed. But if there issues to deal with, one or both will be expanded to reveal those issues and any suggested actions. In such a case, you may see items that are marked by red or yellow bars. Red items are "important" and should be addressed immediately if possible. Such items include an antivirus application with out of date signatures or a disabled firewall. Yellow items are "suggested" and can be addresses as you see fit. These items run a wide gamut and can include anything from an overdue Windows Defender scan to some suggested troubleshooting tasks you may want to try.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Action Center
Issues that require your immediate attention are marked with red in the Action Center control panel.

Tip: Even if there are no pending issues, you can expand the Security and Maintenance sections to see a list of the features which Action Center tracks. We will discuss these in the following sections.

Security features tracked by Action Center

By default, Action Center tracks seven security features, up from six that were tracked by Security Center in Windows Vista. They include:

Windows Firewall. This is curiously identified as "Network firewall" in Action Center. This feature monitors network traffic passing in and out of your computer.

Windows Update. In Windows 7, Windows Update is combined with the Automatic Updates functionality from previous Windows versions. This feature ensures that critical software updates are installed automatically unless you configure the system otherwise.

Virus protection. While Windows 7 does not include any built-in anti-virus protection for some reason, Action Center integrates with third-party antivirus and Internet security solutions. (In late 2009, Microsoft will begin giving away a free anti-malware solution called Microsoft Security Essentials.)

Spyware and unwanted software protection. Action Center monitors Windows Defender (which is built into Windows 7) and numerous third-party anti-malware solutions.

Internet security settings. These settings are configured through the Security tab in Internet Explorer 8's Internet Options dialog. There are different security settings for each of four security zones (Internet, local intranet, trusted sites, and restricted sites). If any of these zones are configured in such a way that your computer would be put at risk, the application will trigger an Action Center notification.

User Account Control. This feature is designed to ensure that applications running on the PC are always doing so with the lowest possible permission level. When required, UAC can elevate the permission level to accomplish specific tasks, while preventing malicious applications from doing so on their own. Windows 7 makes UAC less annoying than in Windows Vista by minimizing the number of notifications you receive.

Network Access Protection (NAP). This is an enterprise feature by which the network can auto-detect whether your PC meets the baseline security policy of the corporation and, if not, push you into a safe portion of the network from which you can download and install any needed updates before proceeding.

Maintenance features tracked by Action Center

Tracking of PC maintenance features is new to Windows 7, and this functionality builds on ongoing efforts by Microsoft to automate and improve PC performance, reliability, and stability over time. Action Center tracks four maintenance features. These include:

Check for solutions to problem reports. Like its predecessor, Windows 7 keeps track of problems in the system and, when those problems are not fixed, it will keep checking for solutions online until one is found. This option determines whether this feature is enabled and, if so, how frequently Windows checks for solutions.

Backup. The new Windows 7 Backup utility can back up data (documents, photos, and so on) and create backup images that can be used to recover your PC in the event of a catastrophic failure.

Check for updates. This refers to the automatic updating functionality in Windows Update, which can optionally be configured to download and install recommended and other non-critical Windows updates as well as updates for non-Windows components such as Microsoft Office.

Troubleshooting: System Maintenance. Windows 7 includes a new troubleshooting infrastructure that, among other things, actively monitors your PC for routine maintenance issues.

Configuring Action Center

Action Center is designed to keep track of specific security and maintenance features in Windows, but as was the case in previous Windows versions (with Security Center), you can in fact manually configure Action Center not to keep track of certain features. This isn't recommended of course, but in rare cases, you may be running an alternate application that doesn't properly register with Action Center. Third party applications--especially security suites--can also programmatically turn off Action Center's feature monitoring as needed, as these applications often replace and enhance functionality that's built into Windows.

To disable the tracking of an individual feature, open Action Center and select "Change Action Center settings" in the left side of the window. Here, you'll see a list of the security and maintenance features that Action Center tracks, along with checkboxes next to each so you can deselect the ones you no longer need.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Action Center
Here, you can configure which features Action Center monitors.

If you do deselect an item, you will see the message "Currently not monitored" next to that item in the main Action Center window.

Tip: Windows 7's troubleshooting infrastructure is a new feature in this version of Windows as well. You can manually trigger a troubleshooting session via the Action Center tray icon. To do so, right-click the icon and choose "Troubleshoot a problem." When comparing the Action Center with Windows 7's troubleshooters, it may help to think of Action Center as a proactive, automated approach to system maintenance, while the troubleshooters are reactive, and can be launched automatically (by the system) or manually (by the user).

Secret: The Windows 7 Action Center was originally called Windows Solution Center. Its tray icon originally depicted a stylized lighthouse because Solution Center was supposed to be your guiding light in times of trouble. The replacement flag icon is perhaps less dramatic but is more easily recognizable given the palette depth and size of system tray icons in Windows 7.

Final thoughts

Action Center is an excellent addition to Windows 7 and a very concrete example of Microsoft's efforts to simplify PC maintenance. In tandem with the new troubleshooters and low-level system tools that work to ensure everything in Windows is running at peak efficiency, Action Center will help Windows 7 users keep their systems up and running over extended periods of time. This was virtually impossible in Windows XP, even with third party tools. But even when compared to Windows Vista, Action Center represents an improvement, given its addition of system maintenance monitoring. This is a big win for all Windows 7 adopters.