What does every geek do when their computer starts to run slow or give them trouble?  They open the task manager and look at the running processes.  This guide will teach you what to look for and how to prioritize running processes to make your computer run more smoothly.

The Tools Needed

The task manager built into Windows will suffice for most purposes, and can be easily accessed in the familiar Ctrl+Alt+Del menu.  Geeks who often resort to the task manager for troubleshooting may be familiar with the more straightforward shortcut: Ctrl+Shift+Esc.  If nothing else, you can always right-click the taskbar and select Start Task Manager.

The task manager in Windows 8:

The task manager in Windows 7:

The screenshots above can be a little deceiving, because at first glance it seems that the task manager in Windows 7 is more useful and informative.  On the contrary, Microsoft overhauled the rather classic task manager and packed it with more features to make prioritization and troubleshooting even easier in Windows 8.

The very first screen — the “Fewer details” screen — as shown in the Windows 8 screenshot, is all you need when a program begins to hang and refuses to close.  Similarly, the Applications tab in the Windows 7 task manager is all you should need to end a troublesome program.  Simply highlight the problematic application, and hit End Task.

If you are using Windows 7, we recommend Microsoft’s Process Explorer to gain a similar level of control over running processes, like Windows 8 provides.  We’ve previously written a guide on Process Explorer if you decide to go that route and would like some more details about it.

Ending Processes

Now you know how to access the tools you’ll need to kill a running process, and we’ve gone over the most common/basic way of ending an application.  However, sometimes you may have a really pesky application that refuses to close even after you have repeatedly spammed the “End task” button.

There are a couple of ways to go a step further in trying to get these nuisances to close.  In Windows 8, you can try clicking “More details,” which should bring you to the Processes tab.  This will give you a much more detailed view of every running process, including ones that are running in the background (sometimes the problematic process that’s lagging your system isn’t displayed under the “Apps” category).

In the Processes tab, try highlighting the suspect app/process and hitting End task.  Even easier, you can right-click on it and hit End task.

The steps are basically the same for Windows 7:

Ending a Process Tree

In the screenshot above, you can see the option to “End Process Tree” right below “End Process.”  Doing so will not only kill the selected process but all processes that were directly or indirectly started by that process.  This isn’t usually a helpful feature, but you may find yourself resorting to it under some extreme circumstances.

The “End Process Tree” option can be found in the Windows 8 task manager under the Details tab, where you’ll see a raw list of running processes, similar to the Processes tab on Windows 7’s task manager.

Checking Performance and Prioritizing Processes

Setting the priority on a process is not something that most geeks need to do very often.  Changing the priority of running processes is particularly useful when your computer’s resources are being maxed out already, and you’d like to manually select what processes you want your computer to give more attention to.

Monitoring your PC’s performance

In the screenshot below, you can see that the computer’s CPU usage is being maxed out, tipping the scale at 99%.  As a result, opening new applications or just trying to use the computer in general can be incredibly sluggish.  A time like this would be perfect to end or prioritize processes.

Bitcoin mining, Folding@home, Prime95, and other similar applications can max out your CPU usage but take advantage of process prioritization so that the end-user (you) doesn’t notice any change in their computer’s performance.

To change the prioritization of a process on Windows 8, you have to be on the Details tab and right-click any of the running processes.  Same instructions for Windows 7, but you have to be on the Processes tab.

Just below the “Set priority” option in the above screenshot, you can see another one named “Set affinity.”  With that option, you can control which core(s) of your processor are used for the selected process.

For most intents and purposes, setting the priority would be the go-to option, but it’s nice to know about the affinity option and have it in your tool belt.

How Do I Use This in Real Life?

We’ve shown you, in detail, how to end and prioritize processes.  As a geek, it’s nice to experiment with these types of things, but you may still be struggling to figure out how any of this would come in handy in a real scenario.

Monitoring your computer’s performance is something that you should do a lot.  The performance tab on Windows 7 and 8 provides great insight into how your computer’s resources are being allocated.  Keeping tabs on this information will help you make decisions like whether or not a memory upgrade may be needed (if you always see your memory usage above 80% or so, it may be a good idea to expand).

Whenever a program hangs for more than a few seconds, you should kill it (if you have unsaved changes, you may want to try and “wait it out”).  This is essential to know so you can avoid unnecessary power cycles or wasted CPU time on an application that refuses to close.

One of the processes that hangs the most is Windows Explorer.  Microsoft must have recognized this problem because they included the ability to restart the process in Windows 8’s task manager.  The majority of the time you find yourself pulling up the task manager, it will probably be for this.

If you’re using Windows 7, try this guide for restarting Explorer.

Lastly, changing the priority of running processes is something to keep in mind whenever Windows isn’t allocating your computer’s physical resources in the way that you’d like.  For example, it may spend a lot of CPU on running background apps that you aren’t using at the moment but don’t want to close yet, meanwhile you are struggling to play a laggy video game because your PC is choking on the applications you’re not using right now.

These situations may not arise that often (then again, it’s Windows we’re talking about), but at least you’ll be prepared for when they do.