Keeping your PC Updated and Running Smoothly

Getting to Know the Task Manager

The “Task Manager” should be your first stop when nailing down performance hiccups. To access the Task Manager, you can hit CTRL+ALT+DEL and choose “Task Manager” or right-click on the taskbar and choose it from the menu.


The “Task Manager” in Windows 7 is probably familiar to a lot of you. It’s relatively unchanged between Windows versions.


The “Task Manager” in Windows 8.x has received quite a makeover but retains its essential functionality. For the purposes of this section, we’re going to concentrate on this “Task Manager” version. You should be able to achieve the same goals using the Windows 7 version, it will just look different.

The new-look “Task Manager” defaults to a very simple streamlined interface. There’s not a whole lot we can do with it other than end non-responsive applications however, if you click “more details” then the sheer power of the “Task Manager” is revealed.


The “Processes” tab lists every running process on your system. This is very useful for diagnosing hung apps and excess system overhead.


If an application “hangs” it means it stops responding, this can be a temporary situation while the computer works to free up resources, or it can mean that the application needs to be ended. In the following example we’ve purposely stressed our system with a bunch of resource-intensive tasks to show you what this looks like. Note, the application with “not responding” in red next to it.


If this happens to you and it feels like your system is dragging, you may need to free up resources by quitting stuck applications. You can try closing a problem application by trying to properly exit, but if an application is really misbehaving, then from the “Task Manager” click on the problem app and then the “end task” button in the bottom-right corner.

Note, if you end an application abruptly, you will possibly (probably) lose any unsaved work so use this power with great care. When at all possible, try closing other unused, running applications to try to free up system resources and/or wait for the hung application to respond.

Pinning Down Performance Bottlenecks

Applications don’t always need to become non-responsive for your system to slow to a crawl. At times like this, it’s great to use the “Task Manager” to check where you might have performance bottlenecks. Looking at the “Performance” tab, we see a freshly restarted system under minimal load. Across all our metrics, we see that our system is having no performance problems.


Check out what happens, however, when we place our system under extreme load. In this example, we’ve fired up a virtual machine, which causes RAM and CPU usage to spike and destabilize our system.


See here we are utilizing 100% of our CPU.


And there’s also a sharp spike in disk I/O, which can cause our system to stutter and lurch along as well.


Sometimes if you stress your system to the max, a warning box will pop up telling you that your memory is low, and you need to close programs to free up resources.


The dialog box has a button “close programs,” and it will list various applications that it will end. Note, you may actually be using some or all these programs so simply clicking that button may have undesirable results.

Obviously, there’s a more refined way to diagnose system slowdowns. In our “Task Manager” we can order applications and services by clicking on the appropriate header (“CPU” in the screenshot). Here the “VMware Workstation VMX” process has our processor tied up pretty well and overall it is pegged at 99 percent. There’s basically no room for any other process.


Note here in the next screenshot, we’ve ordered everything according to “memory” to give you an idea of which things can help you free up RAM in a pinch. In this case, we can close Google Chrome, Dropbox, and MusicBee and recover quite a bit of memory.


The “Task Manager” is invaluable to any Windows user but it’s important to remember that it is only a diagnostic tool so knowing how to apply the information it conveys and make intelligent maintenance decisions can alleviate a lot of common system slowdown woes.

Coming up Next …

Tomorrow, in our final lesson, we’re going to talk about a critical, yet consistently unheralded, aspect of PC maintenance: protecting your data. We’re going to talk about the various backup mediums you can use as well as the tools that come with Windows. You definitely don’t want to miss this lesson as it can be a world of difference between a major data catastrophe and minor inconvenience.

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and dyed-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.