Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Mastering the Windows Task Manager

 Mastering the Windows Task Manager 
Date: March 3, 2004
By: Paul Corchado

I think that everyone who has used Windows XP would say it’s the most robust and most stable of all the Windows operating systems before it. However, there are times where an application or even a game doesn’t respond well or locks up the system. A lot of people would assume solutions from past operating system experience and just turn off the power and restart the computer. This technique is a little extreme and sometimes a little dangerous as well. Windows since version 98 has had a function called Task Manager, and with every version of Windows it’s gotten more powerful and better at bringing back locked up or misbehaving applications.

In the Task Managers before Windows 2000, holding the Ctrl-Alt-Del combination does either a complete reset of the system or brings up the task manager and hopefully allows you to shut down the program that is not responding; sometimes holding the keys doesn’t result in anything at all. Windows 9x or ME sometimes also evoked a blue screen of death if the Ctrl-Alt-Del was used. In Windows 9x, when you did get the task manager open and try to close a program that is not responding, sometimes it wouldn’t shut the application down, and you would still have to do a hard reset. I think Microsoft learned from Windows NT—which by far, up to this point, was better at handling locked up systems—and decided that the home PC user would appreciate the added stability especially when it came to installing beta software, hardware drivers, or even just tweaking one’s system and the software provided some unexpected results. Its important to have control when it is needed most, and that’s exactly what Windows NT-, 2000-, and XP-based operating systems gave the user.

XP’s Task Manager is the most useful of all managers before it. Just right-clicking on the task bar brings up a small menu, and through that menu one can select the Task Manager. The manager has several tabs running across the top, but the most important ones are the Applications, Processes, and Performance. Each one of these tabs will give users critical information regarding the status and health of their machines.

The Applications Tab

The Applications tab shows all the currently running applications. If you have an application that locked up, this is the first tab I would recommend going to. The software being used is listed in the window under the task column, and the status column will show either “Running” or “Not Responding.” Here you can highlight the unresponsive software and click on the End Task button, and after a few seconds the application will close; and depending on your settings, a dialogue box will appear and ask if you want to send a report to Microsoft. This procedure should take care of most lockups on the system, and it will bring Windows back to its normal functionality without having to shutdown and restart.

Also in this section you can run a new task or switch to another task to bring it to the front if you have multiple windows open.

The Processes Tab

The Processes tab is a little more powerful and more information-ridden. All applications and tasks running in the background are listed here, as well how much memory each task is using including how many CPU cycles it uses. If you are running low on system resources here you can find which tasks are causing the problem. The best way of determining if processes are being a system hog is to look at the amount of memory being used and look at the process and determine if it’s necessary. For example, processes virus scans that are running in the background while you are writing an article or doing some video editing obviously are not needed and you can shut them down temporarily and gain back some memory as well as some CPU power. You can shut down the non-critical tasks to give you back some memory or CPU power if need be. Windows starts a lot of tasks, and some of them are not necessary; shutting these extra tasks gives you back some memory and CPU cycles, thus more overall system performance. Don’t, however, try to end tasks that are SYSTEM tasks; sometimes they have random results and ending them could make more problems than it could solve. For example, shutting down the EXPLORER tasks will produce a non-working system because the taskbar and windows and icons will disappear. User tasks are okay to shut down, and if you do want to close a system task, make sure you understand what it does before you decide to close it. If you are not sure about a task and if it’s safe to close, do a Google search for the process and the detailed information will make it clear if you want or can shut it down.

The Performance Tab

Finally there is the Performance tab. This tab does just want it says—it monitors, in real time, the performance of the system. Specifically, the memory usage is monitored here. You will find information about total system memory and how much of it is in use and how much is left. CPU usage also is shown here, and if you keep this window open and use the PC, you will see the graph move in real time in relation to work being done on the computer. This window allows you to see in real time how a change that you make has an effect on your system. You can see immediately in the processes tab how closing non-critical tasks restores some CPU power as well as see how much system memory is left for other applications If you tweaked your system and you see that you are running low on memory, you can pinpoint it to the last application you opened and see if it’s a poorly written application or you have a memory leak somewhere. By going back to the processes tab and closing tasks one by one you can check the performance tab to see if makes a difference on the system.

The task manager can be a powerful tool to manage your overall system health or can be used to monitor you system for problems, even though there are more freeware/shareware programs out there that may do it better, but the task manager is free and it’s easy-to-use once you understand what you are looking at.

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