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SECURING YOUR WINDOWS NETWORK / HOW-TO GEEK SCHOOL

How-To Geek

Lesson 7: Using the Action Center for Extra Security and Maintenance

Network Security

In this lesson we will talk about another lesser-known security tool in Windows – the “Action Center.” This tool that has an impact on both how secure your system is and how well it is running from a maintenance perspective. The Action Center first made its appearance all the way back in Windows XP as the “Windows Security Center” and was such through Vista until being renamed in Windows 7.

The Action Center is more looks the same in both Windows 7 and Windows 8.x, but the version from Windows 8.x has been improved, expanded, and it performs a much larger number of automated checks. This helps Windows 8.x operating systems be more secure and better maintained than Windows 7.

In this lesson, we will teach you how to access the Action Center, how to view the messages it displays and how to take action based on the recommendations it makes. We’ll take you through introducing you to its features, the differences between the Windows 8.x version and the Windows 7, and of course, how to actually use the Action Center.

At the end of the lesson we will share how to customize the messages shown by the Action Center so that this feature checks and informs you only when there are issues with the things that are most important to you. Once you’re all done, you’ll be able to assume complete control over Action Center functions and messages.

What is the Action Center in Windows?

The Action Center is a feature of Windows that continuously monitors the state of your system. It evaluates both the security and the proper maintenance of the operating system and, if problems are detected, it immediately notifies you so that you can take action.

The Action Center is represented by a flag-like icon that is displayed in the notification area of the taskbar, on the Windows desktop.

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The Action Center icon changes depending on what is going on with your system. For example, if everything is working smoothly and there are no issues to look at, its icon is only a small white flag. If there are important messages for the user, an x in a red circle is added to the icon. If there is a scheduled task running in the background (like automatic maintenance in Windows 8.x or a Windows Defender scheduled scan), a black clock overlay is displayed.

In order to quickly learn what is going on with your Windows operating system, all you have to do is click the Action Center icon to get more details.

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As you will see, the messages displayed by the Action Center are easy to see and understand when you need to take action. It will never bother you if there’s nothing to be done on your part.

What’s Different About the Action Center in Windows 7 vs. Windows 8.x

The Action Center looks and behaves almost the same way in Windows 7 and Windows 8.x operating systems. However, in Windows 8.x this feature has been expanded to include a lot more types of checks from a security and maintenance perspective.

In Windows 7, the Action Center regularly checks the following:

Security checks

  • Whether Windows Update is turned on and working correctly
  • Whether all Internet security settings are set to their recommended levels
  • Whether a network firewall is actively protecting your Windows computer or device
  • Whether spyware exists and is working correctly
  • Whether User Account Control (UAC) is enabled
  • Whether virus protection exists and is working correctly

Maintenance checks

  • Whether Windows Backup is working well, if you are using this feature
  • Whether there are any Windows Troubleshooting problems that need to be fixed

In Windows 8.x, the Action Center regularly checks the same things as in Windows 7 and also a host of other things:

Security checks

  • Whether your Microsoft account is working well
  • Whether there are any issues with the activation of Windows
  • Whether the SmartScreen Filter is used to protect you from malicious files and websites, as well as phishing websites

Maintenance checks

  • Whether automatic maintenance is scheduled and performed automatically, without problems
  • Whether all your drives are working correctly
  • Whether you need additional drivers or software installed for some hardware devices
  • Whether apps and programs running at the Windows startup have a big performance impact
  • Whether a Homegroup is available and working well
  • Whether File History is turned on and working correctly
  • Whether Storage Spaces is working correctly when users turn on this feature
  • Whether Work Folders are working correctly when users turn on this feature

As you can see from this list, the Action Center in Windows 8.x does a much better job at being a proactive monitor of the health and security of your system. When a problem is detected, you are notified and provided with guidance regarding what you can do to fix it. If the Action Center has no messages with issues for you to fix, especially in Windows 8.x, then your system is both secure and running well.

Using the Action Center in Windows

Accessing the Action Center can be done in several ways, as is the case in Windows operating systems. The fastest method is to click the Action Center icon on the notification area in the taskbar, then click or tap the link that says “Open Action Center.”

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Another way is to start the Control Panel and go to “System and Security,” then click or tap the “Action Center” category.

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The Action Center window displays all the recent messages it has for you, for the problems it has detected. They are split in two sections, for the two types of checks it performs: security and maintenance.

If everything’s fine, then both sections are minimized and there is nothing special for you to see or do.

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If there are issues, then the section where those issues are found is maximized and the messages are displayed one by one, in a detailed manner. For each message, you will find a description of what is wrong, as well as a button that helps you take the necessary action for fixing things.

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How to Take Action Using the Action Center

To best explain how the Action Center helps you fix the problems it finds, let’s assume that your Windows computer or device no longer has any antivirus running automatically in the background. If you have not installed any third-party security products then the Action Center will tell you that the Windows Defender is turned off and that your computer is missing both anti-spyware and antivirus protection.

As you can see in the screenshot below, the proposed solution is to turn on Windows Defender.

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Press “Turn on now” and wait for a couple of seconds. Windows Defender is turned on and set to provide real-time antivirus and anti-spyware protection. You can now work with it as we have shared in Lesson 3 of this How-To Geek School series.

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You can now work with it as we have shared in Lesson 3 of this How-To Geek School series.

How to Configure the Messages that are Shown by the Action Center

As you can imagine, the Action Center is highly configurable, just like almost any other feature in Windows. If you want to turn off some of its messages, you can quickly set the things that it is checking for on a regular basis.

In order to do that, first open the Action Center using the procedure shared earlier in this lesson. Next, in the “Action Center” window, click or tap the link that says “Change Action Center settings.”

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The “Change Action Center settings” window is now shown. Here you can select the messages that you want displayed and deselect those that you do not want. When you’re done settings things up, press “OK.”

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The procedure works the same in Windows 7. The only important difference is that the list of messages that can be enabled or disabled is much shorter.

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You will also notice that, depending on your Windows version, some messages are grayed out and they cannot be disabled.

Coming up next …

We all know that Windows Updates are very important to having a secure operating system and the same rule applies for the programs and apps that you use every day. That’s why in the next lesson we will talk about ways to keep your most used software up-to-date.

Ciprian Adrian Rusen is an experienced technology writer and author with several titles published internationally by Microsoft Press. You can connect with him on 7 Tutorials, Twitter, and Google+ or even buy his books on Amazon.

  • Published 06/3/14