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Using the Windows Task Manager to Evaluate and Tweak System Performance

Most people are familiar with the Task Manager as a way to escape from a frozen Windows machine. However, the tool is also beneficial as a way to analyze computer performance. Even a user with only intermediate knowledge of computer hardware can use the tool to understand memory and processor usage and identify the processes that are taking most of the machine's resources.

The Task Manager Overview

To open the Windows Task Manager, press the "Ctrl+Alt+Del" buttons on the keyboard. You can also open the Task Manager by right-clicking the Windows task bar and selecting "Task Manager." Task Manager overlays other windows on the desktop. No matter what application you have opened, the Task Manager will always stay on the top. The three tabs important for users who want to evaluate system performance are labeled "Applications," "Processes," and "Performance." These three tabs list the programs running on the machine and monitor the performance of the central processing unit (CPU) and random access memory (RAM).

The Application Tab

The application tab is simple to understand. It's a basic list of the applications you've opened on your machine. It also lists separate instances of the applications. For instance, if you have five Word documents open, the Task Manager shows each document in the list as a separate application.

The main advantage for the applications tab is the ability to find the software that has stopped responding to the operating system. Windows gives you an interface for an emergency shutdown on the frozen application. Right-click any application listed with the "Not Responding" status and select "End Task" to close it. In some instances, this will resolve a frozen Windows desktop.

The Processes Tab

The processes listed in the Task Manager are similar to the applications list. However, processes running on a computer can be hidden or part of the operating system. For this reason, a user observes more processes listed than applications. Unusual processes running on the machine are a sign of possible spyware or viruses. A quick Google search tells you if the process is malicious.

The other advantage of the processes tab is evaluating which ones are slowing the performance on the machine. Click the "Memory" column bar, and the list is sorted by memory usage. For users experiencing a slow machine, this tool helps you find the culprit. Applications using a large amount of memory should be replaced, removed or stopped. It can also be a sign that the machine needs more RAM installed. To stop a process from running, right-click the name in the list and select "End Process."

The Performance Tab

The performance tab is the main screen used to evaluate memory and processor usage. The two main memory values important for observation are the total physical memory and the total free memory. For users with Windows XP, the memory is listed in kilobytes. Windows Vista users view memory usage in megabytes.

Low free memory means the machine needs more RAM installed. When the computer runs out of physical memory, it turns to virtual memory as a source for storage. Virtual memory is a file on the hard drive. The operating system stores and retrieves information from the hard drive, which is much slower than physical RAM. Adding more RAM improves performance and provides enough memory for large applications.

If you can't afford a memory upgrade, use the processes tab to stop programs or disable applications that are taking too many resources. Identify the programs that are causing slowness issues and remove them from memory.

The Task Manager is a useful tool bundled with every version of the Windows operating system. Use it to help identify problems with your computer. You can leave Task Manager running on the machine while you use it to monitor usage spikes. Task Manager is one of the best tools to identify if software is causing performance issues, or if your machine needs more RAM installed.

Microsoft Windows is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and other countries. Speed improvements vary based on your system configuration. ErrorTeck is not endorsed or affiliated with either Microsoft or the third party applications it supports.