Understanding the Task Manager

by Barry Dysert
(last updated April 27, 2015)


The Task Manager is a useful tool for monitoring system activity, terminating misbehaving processes, and performing some high-level performance analysis. It runs at a higher priority than normal applications, and it has sufficient privilege to view and control the system's running processes. There are a couple of ways to invoke the task manager: either right-click the task bar and choose "Start Task Manager" from the Context menu, or press Ctrl+Shift+Esc. Either way, Windows displays the Task Manager. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. The Applications tab of the Windows Task Manager.

Notice that there are six tabs: Applications, Processes, Services, Performance, Networking, and Users. The tab that initially gets the focus is the tab that had the focus the last time the Task Manager was used.

The Applications tab gives you a quick look at the applications running on your system and allows you to easily terminate them, bring up an application's window, or create a new application. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. The Processes tab of the Windows Task Manager.

The Processes tab provides details about all of the processes running on the system. By pulling down the View menu you can configure what columns should be shown in the display. Effective use of the information provided with each process lets you find those that might be exhibiting memory leaks or consuming an inordinate amount of CPU time. You can also terminate processes from this tab. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3. The Services tab of the Windows Task Manager.

The Services tab displays information about the Windows services installed on your system. By right-clicking on a service, you can start a stopped service, stop a running service, or immediately go to the process using a service. By clicking the Services button you can bring up the Services application, where you have full control over your services. (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4. The Performance tab of the Windows Task Manager.

The Performance tab displays some graphs and some numbers. The top two graphs show CPU usage over time and range between 0% (an idle system) and 100% (a very busy system). The CPU Usage History graph can display one graph for all CPUs (as in Figure X), or a separate graph for each CPU core. The Memory graphs show the amount of physical memory in use and range between something greater than 0 and the amount of installed memory. If you're consistently seeing high numbers here, then you could probably benefit from adding more memory.

The numbers part of this tab is separated into groups for Physical Memory, System, and Kernel Memory. Under Physical Memory there are two important numbers: the total amount of memory installed on the system (16 GB in my case), and how much is available for use (11172 MB). If the amount of available memory is low, the system will use the disk as virtual memory and performance will suffer.

Under the System group the important numbers are Handles, Threads, and Processes. A process is an instance of an executable program. Each process can be multi-threaded across the CPUs, and each thread can have multiple I/O handles open to system resources.

The Kernel Memory group simply indicates how much physical memory is being used by system-level processes and device drivers.

Clicking the Resource Monitor button brings up a utility that provides much more detail about the CPU, Disk, Network, and Memory. (See Figure 5.)

Figure 5. The Networking tab of the Windows Task Manager.

The Networking tab is one of the least interesting and least useful displays of Task Manager. The graph shows network activity as a percentage of network utilization, and on a dormant client node, this doesn't give much to look at. You can see more information by pulling down the View menu and selecting additional columns to be shown in the display—perhaps Bytes Sent and Bytes Received. (See Figure 6.)

Figure 6. The Users tab of the Windows Task Manager.

The Users tab simply provides a list of users who are currently logged in. By selecting a user (other than yourself), you can send that user a message. Additionally, you can disconnect or log the user off the system.

 This tip (12208) applies to Windows 7.

Author Bio

Barry Dysert

Barry has been a computer professional for over 30 years, working in different positions such as technical team leader, project manager, and software developer.  He is currently a senior software engineer with an emphasis on developing custom applications under Microsoft Windows. ...


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What is four less than 6?

2017-01-27 11:55:44


This was really helpful. Thank you!

2016-06-10 20:34:38


When I open my task manager under my name shows Jo (54) users, with only my name showing.

2015-08-29 18:44:25


thank you! this was helpful!
i've a qst though! why are there a lot a processes open? for instance why is explorer.exe open? (that's win explorer ?)

2015-04-27 08:37:17

Jennifer Thomas

This is a good explanation of the possibilities -- I would just warn everyone to be very careful about stopping processes on any tab except Applications because you can cause serious problems if you do not know preceisely what you are doing. Task manager should be a 'guess-free zone':)

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