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Using the Task Manager

Posted January 19th, 2012 by

The Windows Task Manager has been an integral part of the operating system for over a decade and the interface has remained pretty much the same throughout. New features that have arrived from Vista have improved upon the functionality of the program, but the fundamental purpose for the task manager is, and always has been, to let the user manipulate and control the vast number of tasks running on their PC.

So how do you start it up? Well you probably already know… Ctrl + Alt + Delete will open up the task manager in Windows XP and older, with newer versions requiring the extra step of clicking the Start Task Manager button from the menu brought up. Other ways include Ctrl + Shift + Esc which from my knowledge works on pretty much every Windows NT installation, or context-clicking (Right-clicking) the task bar will allow you to click ‘Task Manager’ or ‘Start Task Manager’.

Task Manager (Default interface)

Task Manager (Default interface)

Once you’ve brought up the Task Manager, you’ll be greeted with a nice simple interface. A list of your running programs (or tasks) and buttons that allow you to end, switch to, or start a new task. These are pretty self explanatory. Selecting a program and clicking ‘End Task’ is the equivalent of clicking the close button on the top right corner of the application. The difference here is that if the program doesn’t end itself, a dialog shows up allowing you to force an end to its mischief. This generally works well, and will usually let you end a program relatively hassle free if it so chooses not to listen to you. ‘Switch To’ is like clicking on the programs task bar entry and ‘New Task’ will bring up a Run dialog to let you type in the name of a command to execute.

There comes a time, however, when a program refuses to close no matter how many times you’ve pressed ‘End Task’ and ‘End Now’. In this case, it becomes necessary to look at another tab of the Task Manager: Processes. This is the more harmful of the tabs, because a false move here could crash your system and cause a BSOD (Blue screen of death). Don’t mess around here randomly or you’ll risk destroying the flow of things on your computer. So back to the malfunctioning program… You’ve tried and failed to end it, and now you’re getting frustrated, so what do you do? You right click it and choose ‘Go To Process’. This will switch your view to the second tab, selecting a process with it. This process is what starts the ‘task’ you saw before. Killing the process will stop the task, and any other task directly related to it. So now you’re gonna kill it, by pressing ‘End Process’. This is the sure-fire way to ensure a program is really stopped. Once it’s killed, it’s not running anymore. There are some side effects to ending some processes, though.

Ending a Windows Explorer application will end the ‘explorer.exe’ process, which is actually the GUI start menu, desktop icons and task bar. They disappear, leaving you with programs and a background. It usually restarts itself after this, but sometimes it doesn’t, and you have to start it again yourself. To do this, open the File menu and click ‘New Task (Run…)’. Type ‘explorer.exe’ and click OK. Your menu has now reappeared.

Task Manager (Processes tab)

Task Manager (Processes tab)

The Processes tab is also very useful for letting you know who’s hogging your resources. The detail view of the processes shows you which user is running the process, how much (percent) of the CPU the process is using, how much memory (RAM) the process is using and a description of the process. Looking through this information can give you some insight into how your computer does what it does. If it’s there, click on ‘Show processes from all users’ or make sure it’s checked. This will, as the name suggests, show all processes running on your computer, including ones started by Windows itself (User: SYSTEM).

In Windows Vista and later, there is a tab labelled services which let’s you see which services are running on your computer. These are like behind the scenes workers which usually provide functionality to processes. You can start/stop them by right-clicking the service and choosing the appropriate option from the menu. I’m not going to go in-depth into this view, because it’s seldom used and not really important for the average user.

Next tab along we have Performance, which gives an overview of what system resources are being used at present. It’s fun to look at, but now actually all that good at helping you improve your system efficiency, except in later versions of Windows with the ‘Resource Monitor…’ button, if you don’t have it, you may as well open ‘perfmon.exe’ the same way you did ‘explorer.exe’ and have a look around.

Memory is RAM, and CPU is brain utilisation… Those are the main pieces of information shown, higher CPU means more hard work being done, and higher memory usage means more RAM is being used. The information in the System group really don’t give the average user anything important, so I generally just ignore it. If it’s available, click the ‘Resource Monitor…” button. Now.

The Resource Monitor is like a better version of task manager, really allowing you to tinker around with processes and find which ones have gone rogue. The tabs and lists are quite self-explanatory, and give information regarding each component of your computer: CPU, Disk (Hard Drives), Network (Internet and stuff) and Memory (RAM).

Resource Monitor

Resource Monitor

I might write a better, more detailed article on the Resource Monitor soon, but for now, I’ll leave that be and focus on the Task Manager.

So next tab across on the Task Manager is Networking. You get a graph per network adapter, and it’ll tell you when your network cards’ being used. Next tab is Users, obviously showing the Users logged in to the PC. You can log off or disconnect users, or even send them a nice message from this tab. Useful when you’re on a domain workstation, managing lots of users logged in, but if you were, you probably already knew that, so I’m not going to explain how to use them (For now).

That’s pretty much it for the Task Manager… As you can see, the first two tabs are key, so you should definitely learn your way around them. Also, if you feel adventurous, a more powerful task manager, such as Process Explorer or Process Hacker will quench your thirst for deep system knowledge. Check those out when you have time, because they’re useful for looking for suspicious processes that aren’t legitimate.

This is the end. I’ll be back. Soon. Probably.

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