The Basics About the Task Manager: View, Run or End Applications and Processes

I’ve personally always thought of Task Manager as the manual override button for whenever a computer or one of its programs is acting strangely and I just want to close it or shut it down immediately. But, Task Manager is actually much more than that. It’s a Windows function that can provide detailed information about various processes, applications, and the general performance of your machine’s memory. So, while yes, it can be used to quickly shut down the computer or terminate any program; you might have noticed it also has several other tabs that do so many other cool things.

How to Open the Task Manager

The traditional (but not the fastest) way to open the Task Manager is to hold down the Ctrl and Alt keys and then press the Delete key. Note that this is not the Backspace key, but actually the Delete key.

This will bring up the following screen, on which you will see several options. All of these can be pretty useful, and are relatively self-explanatory. For example, if you wanted to log out of your profile you can simply click that option here and it will do exactly that. Start Task Manager is the bottom option.

Clicking it will take you back into Windows, only now you will have the Task Manager open.

Alternatively, you can directly open the Task Manager by holding Alt and Shift and hitting Escape. Very useful!

Old habits die hard, but I’m sure I’ll eventually warm up to this method.

Now... looking at the Task Manager window, you’ll notice that it has a row of tabs across the top that allow you access to many different types of information. The Applications and Processes tabs can be used to navigate, be aware of, and manage your currently actively running programs and processes. Applications are usually programs you are actively running, like video games or Microsoft Office applications. In the list of Processes you will find the applications listed in the Applications tab as well as Windows services or other less visible processes, running in the background.

We will go over these two tabs in a bit more detail, later in the article. The other tabs are Services, which details the various services currently running on your system; Performance, which gives data about the current performance of your machine’s hardware and is somewhat tied to Resource Monitor (offering similar information); Networking, which gives data about the currently active internet networks the computer is accessing; and finally Users, which will tell you which user accounts are currently active and even allow you to communicate with them.

How to Use the Applications Tab from the Task Manager

First, you can use it to turn off any application you are currently running. Sometimes an application might act up and become unresponsive, and this tab can help you shut it off quickly so you can restart it or simply get it out of your way. Often, such a program’s status will be shown as "Not Responding." To do this, stay on the applications tab, select the application that you’d like to terminate, and hit End Task.

This will usually bring up a notification which will basically warn that, if you haven’t saved recently, you may lose some data by forcing the application to close. It’s ok to go ahead and hit the End Now button if you really want to close the program.

In the Applications tab you can find also the Switch To function. This can be used a lot like a manual and more direct version of Alt-Tabbing through your open programs. To use it, simply select the running program you want to switch to and click the Switch To button. The specified program should pop up.

You can also use this tab to start a new program by clicking the New Task button.

This will basically activate a window, similar to Run, that you can use to type out or Browse and select any program on your computer and start running it.

Once you’ve typed or selected a program, hit OK and it will begin running for you.

How to Use the Processes Tab from the Task Manager

In this tab you can check out all of the processes your computer is currently running. A lot of them may surprise you, you might have had no idea how much your computer was doing behind your back! To give this a look, simply click the Processes tab. Notice that you can end any process in a fashion similar to ending any program. Be careful with this, as while several of those processes might seem unfamiliar to you, they might be essential for the computer to keep running. With a little research though, you might find that some of these processes aren’t necessary and are needlessly taking up your resources. Ending them here won’t stop them for returning the next time you reboot, but it may free up resources temporarily if you need memory for something else.

Notice that there are several columns of information here on the processes tab. The default columns, from left to right, will tell you the name of the processes running on the computer, the User Name of the profile where the process is running, CPU usage - which is a % of how much of the computer’s processor’s resources that specific process is using, the Private Working Set of Memory which tells you how much memory the process is using, and Description which gives brief details to help you recognize where the process may have originated.

Notice also, that you can choose to view all of the processes running on every user’s profile by clicking "Show processes from all users". This makes the User Name column a bit more useful, and you will see what processes every user on the system is using. The default setting will normally only show the processes being used by the active user.

You can also sort the data displayed using any of the available columns, by clicking on its name.

Another cool trick you can do on this tab is setting the priority of certain functions as higher or lower than others. For example, if you are playing a game or working with a particularly powerful program and it seems to be lagging, you might want to divert priority from less important processes and raise the priority of a program you are working with. Be careful with this, though; some processes need to keep a certain level of priority or your system might start acting funny. To do this, right click on any process which will bring up a drop down menu. Go to Set Priority and select the priority level of your choice for that function.

With a right click you can also end a process tree, meaning all the processes that were started by it, view the file location of the process, view its properties or the services associated with it. All, cool and useful tricks in certain situations.

Closing, for now!

This is just a taste of what Task Manager can do. It’s a pretty complex tool, so we’re starting small and will move on to other functions and other tabs in future articles. If you want to keep learning about it, don't hesitate to read our follow up article: Less Known Tricks about Using the Task Manager in Windows 7.