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Beginner Geek: What Every Windows User Needs to Know About Using the Windows Task Manager

launch-task-manager-from-ctrl-alt-delete

The Windows Task Manager is an important tool for every Windows user. It can show you why your computer is slow and help you deal with misbehaving and resource-hungry programs, whether they’re draining CPU, RAM, disk, or network resources.

Windows 8 has the best built-in Task Manager yet, but even Windows 7’s Task Manager is a powerful tool that every Windows user should familiarize themselves with. Many of these tasks are easier on Windows 8.

Opening the Task Manager

Windows lets you get to the Task Manger in a variety of ways:

  • Keyboard Shortcut: Press Ctrl+Shift+Escape anywhere in Windows.
  • Mouse Shortcut: Right-click the Windows taskbar and select Start Task Manager.
  • Traditional Method: Press Ctrl+Alt+Delete and select Start Task Manager.

View CPU and RAM Hogs

On Windows 7, the Task Manger opens to the Applications tab, which lists open applications and allows you to quickly close them with the End Task button. This works even if they have frozen and aren’t responding.

This tab doesn’t allow you to view resource usage. It also doesn’t show every program running on your computer — programs running in the background without visible windows aren’t listed here.

close-application-in-windows-7-task-manager

Click over to the Processes tab to view the processes running on your computer, both processes with open windows and background processes that may be invisible or hidden in your system tray.

Click the CPU or Memory heading to sort the processes by their CPU or memory usage. This will show you which programs are using the most CPU time and amount of RAM.

sort-processes-by-memory-usage

To view all the processes running on your computer, click the Show processes from all users button. By default, the list just displays processes running as your user account. The button shows system processes and processes running under other user accounts.

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You may also want to click the View menu, click Select Columns, and enable the CPU Time column. Click the CPU Time column to sort the list by CPU Time. This will show you how much CPU resources each process has used, so you can identify programs that may currently be using a low amount of CPU but have used a higher amount of CPU when you weren’t looking.

sort-processes-by-cpu-time

On Windows 8, the main Processes tab shows processes’ CPU, memory, disk, and network usage all in one place. You can find this information on Windows 7, too, but it’s scattered in several places.

windows-8-processes-in-task-manager

Kill Background Programs

If an process is misbehaving — for example, you may have closed a PC game and it continued running in the background, possibly using 99% of your CPU — sorting by CPU and memory usage will show you the misbehaving process consuming too many resources at the top of the list. Right-click the process and select End Process to close it if you can’t close it normally.

end-process-on-windows

Check Total CPU and RAM Usage

Click over to the Performance tab to view your computer’s total CPU and physical memory (RAM) usage. The CPU usage history graph shows total CPU usage as well as separate graphs for each CPU’s usage over time, while the Memory graph shows you total memory usage and how your memory usage has changed over time.

cpu-and-memory-usage-in-task-manager

If the CPU usage or Memory bars are completely full and your computer is running slowly, you should close some CPU or memory-hungry programs — check the processes list to see which those are — and free up resources. If your Memory and CPU usage are always high, you may want to upgrade your RAM or get a computer with a faster CPU to speed things up.

View System Network Activity

If you’re having problems with your Internet connection — maybe web pages are loading slowly or your voice is dropping out while you’re talking to someone on Skype or a similar VoIP program — you may want to check your computer’s total network usage. You can do this from the Networking tab in the Task Manager.

You’ll see a separate graph for each of your computer’s network adapters, which will inform you how much of your network’s resources the programs on your computer are consuming. This allows you to see whether there are any programs running in the background and saturating your network connection.

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On Windows 8, you’ll find this information on the Performance tab, too.

windows-8-task-manager-performance-tab

Check Per-Process Network Activity

If you can see that your network connection is being used, you may want to know which applications are using the network. To see a list of processes accessing the network and how much network resources they’re each using, click over to the Performance tab and click the Resource Monitor button.

open-resource-monitor[4]

On the Resource Monitor’s network tab, you can view the list of processes with network activity and see what’s sucking up resources. Note that this counts all network activity — even processes just communicating with other devices on the local network and not connecting to the Internet.

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On Windows 8, you can view per-process network activity on the Processes tab.

Check Per-Process Disk Activity

With the Resource Monitor opened from the Performance tab in the Task Manager, you can also click the Disk tab and see which programs are reading and writing to your disk the most. If your hard drive is grinding away, this tool will show you which programs are taking up all your disk resources.

view-process-disk-activity-on-windows

On Windows 8, this information is available on the Task Manager’s Processes tab.

Manage Startup Programs

On Windows 8, you can use the Startup tab in the Task Manager to control which programs automatically start with your computer.

manage-startup-programs-in-windows-8-task-manager

On Windows 7, you’ll need to use another tool, like the startup manager built into CCleaner.


If you want a more advanced Task Manager replacement, download the free Process Explorer utility. This tool is developed by Microsoft and offers a variety of features you won’t find in the standard task manager, even on Windows 8, including the ability to view which files and folders a program has “locked” and unlock them so they can be modified.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 08/9/13

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