The Action Center is a new feature in the Windows 7 Control Panel that could prove useful for system administrators. It is a replacement of Vista's Security Center and gives an overview of security and maintenance-related status messages.
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Before I start reviewing the Action Center, I want to say a word or two about the changes in the Control Panel. At first sight, it looks pretty much the same as in Vista; however, Microsoft moved quite a few applets to different positions. I don't know whether the new configuration makes more sense than the old one, or if it makes it easier for newbies to find an applet. But one thing is certain: Vista users who just got used to the new Control Panel will start searching again.
I have no problems with changes if they are an improvement. From a psychological point of view, however, the changes in the Control Panel were not a good idea. Vista and Windows 7 have such similar user interfaces that it will be difficult to learn the new locations. In particular, administrators who change machines constantly will have difficulties. It is like learning two similar programming languages at the same time; you will constantly be mixing up the syntax.
My advice is not to use the Control Panel, but to memorize the applets' names instead. This method will enable you to access the Control Panel's applets via the Start Search prompt much faster than you otherwise could.
Anyway, let's have a look at the Action Center. You can find it in the Control Panel under System and Security (formerly System and Maintenance). There are two sections: Security and Maintenance.
The Security section displays information about the virus protection, the Firewall, Windows Update, Spyware, Internet Security Settings, User Account Control, and Network Access Protection (NAP). So only NAP is new here.
The Maintenance section displays if Solutions and Reports is enabled, and has information about the status of Windows Backup, Windows Update and Troubleshooting. I think the idea of having a central place for all maintenance related information is great; however, this Maintenance Center includes only sparse information. For instance, the DNS server on my test machine was not correctly configured. Windows Troubleshooting detected this problem correctly, but the Troubleshooting section in the Action Center just said "No action needed." Perhaps the final release of Windows 7 will be smarter here.
The messages in the Action Center are not only about Windows functions, but can also include information about third party extensions. What I find interesting is that the Action Center contains links to third parties' products. For example, if you disable the Windows Firwall the Action Center will display a link to third parties' desktop firewall products. I guess this will be the favorite feature of some European bureaucrats.
Like in Vista's Security Center, it is possible to take "action" if a setting poses a security risk. When I first heard that the Security Center would be renamed the Action Center, I hoped that we would get a central location where all security related settings could be managed. Unfortunately, the Action Center is mainly for displaying problematic information, but not for managing tasks. So, for example, you can't disable the Windows Firewall in the Action Center. You can enable it only if you dared to disable it before, in the Firewall applet.
All in all, I think the Action Center in Windows 7 is an improvement over Vista's Security Center, but much work remains to be done.