What and where is the Task Manager?

What is it?

The task manager is an integrated Windows application that monitors your system processes, CPU performance, memory usage, network statistics and application activity.

Think of the task manager like the device a doctor uses to measure the health of her patient.  Medical monitors are often used in anesthesia to monitor vital signs such as blood pressure and respiratory rate.  Conversely, instead of using a physiological monitor, Windows uses the Task Manager to keep track of the vital signs of your computer.

Your system processes are analogous to your heart rate.  Your CPU performance is analogous to neurological monitoring and computer memory usage (RAM) is similar to your biological active-memory (short-term memory).

Where is it?

The fastest way to pull up the Task Manager is to press these three keys at the same time.

Ctrl + Shift + Esc

Although easy to bring up it may not be as easy to read.  This Task Manager can be daunting if you’re not a professional geek.

There’s a lot going on here so let’s synthesize a few of the most important elements.

I’ve highlighted three items in the screen snap below:

  • Processes
  • CPU Usage
  • Physical Memory

Windows 7 Task Manager

Processes

To understand what a process is you need to know a little bit about how computer programs work.

A program is really just a bunch of instructions that a computer uses to perform some operation.

The actual execution of those instructions is called a Process.

So in the above graphic, you can see I have 155 processes running right now.  But this doesn’t mean I have 155 programs running, on the contrary, you can see I only have five tasks in the running status:

  • Notepad++
  • CurtainForm
  • Adobe Reader
  • Opera
  • Internet Explorer.

This is because a single program often spawns multiple processes; therefore, the process number is generally larger than the number of running programs.

CPU Usage

CPU usage shows the percentage of your CPU’s total processing power that is actively in use.  Think of it as the true measure of how hard your system is working.  Your CPU usage should stabilize under 30% and even lower than 10% for optimal performance.

If you computer freezes for some reason take a hard look at the CPU usage to make sure it isn’t spiking to some ungodly value north of 80%.  If your CPU ever hits the ceiling, don’t panic, just flip over to the Processes tab and click the CPU column to see which process is draining your CPU.  Select it and click End Task.

One caveat: although ending the task will likely resolve your issue you should know that any unsaved changes will probably be lost after the process terminates.

Physical Memory

Physical memory is one of the most rudimentary resources that your computer depends on to work.  Let’s think about physical memory (RAM) again:

Think of (RAM) like the top of your work desk.

RAM is just a temporary place to get stuff done.  Just like a desk stacked with pencils, paper clips, papers, books, and coffee cups can slow down your productivity, a computer with a lot of running applications fills up the RAM and the consequence is a slower system.

Incidentally, your Hard Drive memory is completely different because it’s the permanent location for all your files; to continue our desk analogy it’s like placing all your folders in a cabinet draw. (I must thank Topher Kessler of CNET for that analogy)

To view how much RAM you have: left click Start, right click Computer and choose Properties.

You can see my computer has 8GB of RAM.

View how much RAM I have in Windows 7

So when the Task Manager shows that my Physical Memory is at 51% that means I’m using 51% of my total usable RAM.  In this case, 51% of 7.89GB.  When this number starts to climb above 80% your computer will start to feel sluggish.

What can I do in the Task Manager?

Here are the three most important things you’re going to want to use the Task Manager for:

  1. Slay Stubborn Apps
  2. View Network Statistics
  3. Manage System Performance

1. Slay Stubborn Apps

When your computer adamantly refuses to cooperate click the Process tab and click the Memory column to identify and close the culprit.

Here you can see Adobe Reader is the glutton eating 136,712 K of my memory.  That means Reader is consuming about 137MB of memory, which is quite a bunch for a single process.  To close it, just select and click the End Process button.

Windows 7 View processes using the most memory

Astute readers will notice a CPU time column that probably isn’t present on their computers.  The CPU time column shows how long a program is taking to execute instructions in the CPU.  More technically, it’s equal to how long the process has been running multiplied by the utilization of the process:

CPU time = Process Uptime * CPU Utilization of Process

What does all that mumbo jumbo mean?  It just tells you how much processing time a process has been using since that process started.  So for example, if a process were using 50% of your CPU and it was running for 5 hours, then your CPU time would be 2.5 (two and a half hours, 0.5 * 5).

If you want this insight in your Task Manager too, just make sure you’re in the Process tab, click View, Select Columns and CPU Time.

Task Manager Select Columns

CPU Time

2. View Network Activity

Click the Networking tab to view the network activity for all your network connections including your LAN and Wi-Fi adapters.

Task Manager Network Activity

Here you can see I’m connected to a LAN at 1Gbps and I’m currently using 19% of the link capacity.  Keep in mind this section comprises all network activity so whether you’re downloading a file from the internet or copying across your local network, all network activity is reflected here.

3. Manage Performance

Task Manager Monitor your Network

The Performance tab reveals graphical data on your CPU and memory usage.  This is nice because you can quickly see a high level view of your system performance over time.

If you want to dive beneath the surface click the Resource Monitor button.

Resource Monitor is a beast.  To be honest, you’ll probably never have to use this but I wanted to bring it up for my curious readers out there.

The Resource Monitor is basically a Super Task Manager that lists everything you could ever want to know about your CPU, Hard Drive (Disk), Network and Memory usage.

Click through the tabs and scroll through the data to get a feel for the information here.

Resource Monitor Overview

The Disk tab is particularly helpful when you need to find which applications are interacting with your Hard Drive.  The noisiest applications with the most read and write operations are all here so you can easily identify and investigate.

The Bottom Line

The Windows Task Manager is the unsung hero that gives you the dashboard of your system health.  By pressing Ctrl + Shift + Esc you call the Task Manager to action which not only lets you view and terminate resource hogs but also provides the gateway for in-depth analysis through the Resource Monitor.  For most users, selecting a stubborn program and clicking End Task will suffice; but it’s nice to know that the Resource Monitor has you covered if you need to dig for details.

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