Troubleshoot And Fix Your Windows PC Problems

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Windows Task Manager: A Troubleshooting Tool

Hold on. Don't just reboot your Windows 7 PC. I realize that rebooting is the go-to solution when a program won't shut down, or the system starts dragging or acting wonky, but there is another way. The Task Manager is a powerful tool for troubleshooting and resolving issues in Windows 7.

Task Manager lets you view the programs, processes, and services currently running on the PC. You can use Task Manager to monitor your computer's performance, and to close a program that is not responding, view network status, and see which users are connected to the PC.

You can have many applications open at once in Windows 7--limited only by the available memory and processor capacity of the PC. But what you see is a little like watching a duck on a pond. On the surface it seems to calmly glide along, while under the water its feet are furiously paddling away. Generally, Windows does an awesome job of prioritizing and managing all of the underlying processes and services, but every so often something goes awry. That is when you need to dive into Task Manager.

Starting Task Manager

Figure 1: When you open Task Manager, it displays the Applications tab by default.
To begin with, you have to open up Task Manager. You have a few different ways to do this.

  • Press Ctrl-Shift-Esc.
  • Press Ctrl-Alt-Del, and then select Start Task Manager.
  • Click Start, type "task manager" in search bar and press Enter.
  • Right-click anywhere on the task bar and select Start Task Manager.

Use any of the above techniques, and you will open up the Task Manager console.

Vital Information at a Glance

At the bottom of the Task Manager window--no matter which tab you happen to be viewing--is a sort of dashboard view that displays the current number of running processes, the percentage of the processor capacity being used, and the percentage of physical memory.

The bottom of the Task Manager has a dashboard displaying vital information.
Figure 2: The bottom of the Task Manager has a dashboard displaying vital information.
The information displayed here can instantly let you know if a process or application is consuming all of the CPU or memory resources, which is your first clue for troubleshooting a problem.

Task Manager Tabs

There are six tabs on the Task Manager console window.
Figure 3: The Task Manager console window has six tabs.

Across the top of the main window in the Task Manager console are a number of different tabs: Applications, Processes, Services, Performance, Networking, and Users (Figure 3). We will dive into detail on the use of Applications, Processes, and Services, but the other three won't be covered comprehensively in this article because they are not as directly related to troubleshooting and resolving issues. Here is a brief summary of the last three tabs:

Figure 4: The Performance tab displays real-time usage of processor and memory resources.
Performance. The Performance tab displays a real-time graph depicting processor usage (split to show the separate cores available for dual- or quad-core processors), and a real-time graph of the memory in use along with various details such as the amount of time the PC has been up and running, and the amount of virtual memory available to Windows. You can already see the overall processor and memory usage on the dashboard bar at the bottom of the Task Manager; however, by reviewing the usage graphs on this tab you can identify whether there is an issue with a specific core or cores within the processor. For example, if there is significant activity on one processor core, while the other is flatlined, you may have a defective CPU.

Networking. This tab displays real-time usage of active network connections. A pane at the bottom of the console lists the various available network connections, the percent of the network capacity being used, the maximum speed the network connection is capable of, and its current state.

Figure 5: The Network tab displays real-time information regarding activity on network connections.
You can use this tab to determine if there is any suspicious activity going on, such as high network bandwidth usage when you aren't actively downloading a file or streaming a movie, or network activity on adapters that you aren't actively using, like the Bluetooth adapter. Either of these symptoms could mean you have malware on your machine, or that an intruder has gained access somehow. Without a network sniffer of some sort, it is difficult to identify exactly what is going on, but you can run a malware scan of your PC, or dig deeper into the Processes tab (discussed on the next page) to try to determine which process might be responsible.

Figure 6: The Users tab offers little function for most PCs because usually only one user is connected.
Users. For most desktop PCs, the Users tab will show only the actual owner or primary user. On a system that has shared resources or allows external connections, though, this tab will display all of the currently connected users. You can use the buttons at the bottom of this console to forcibly disconnect or log off other users, or you can send a message--perhaps to let them know you're about to forcibly disconnect them. If you do see other users connected on a system that isn't intended to be shared, you obviously have an issue. You can forcibly boot the intruder from your PC, then perform a malware scan to try to determine how the user was able to gain access to your system.

Now that we have covered the basics of those three tabs, let's dive deeper into using Task Manager to identify and resolve problems on your Windows PC using the other three tabs.

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