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How can I identify this blank taskbar item?

Question: Hi, I am running XP2 Home Edition. I am getting an icon indicating an open application in the taskbar with no identity. The background of the rectangular part is like any normal one. There is a white folder icon with a blue top border within the rectangle. Right and left clicking only cause the color of the rectangle to go from lighter to darker and back again. The “phantom” has no association and when I open Task Manager it shows no applications running. I have been told that I might have to stop processes one at a time and reboot each time as well as use msconfig to do the same with services and startup. I assume this process could be risky as well as extremely time consuming and I hope it can be avoided.

Time consuming? Certainly. Risky? You bet. Done improperly, I believe you can render Windows unbootable. The result would replace a small problem with a huge one.

The good news is that I don’t think we need to resort to anything like that at all. In fact, we’ll use one of my favorite free tools … the Swiss Army Knife of diagnostic tools, and see if we can’t at least begin to narrow down the possibilities.

But it will take a little investigation by process of elimination.

Go grab a copy of SysInternals Process Explorer. Think of it as Task Manager on steroids. Lots of steroids. If I could have only one diagnostic tool, this would be it.

When you run Process explorer, you’ll see that you have a lot of programs running. Probably more than you realized. That’s fine, and for the most part normal. In fact, as I type, the list of processes running on my machine is longer than the screen.

What we’ll do is examine the processes that are running, rule out the ones we know are not an issue, and see if what remains have windows we can close. For those, we’ll close the window, and see if that makes your phantom process go away.

Process Explorer defaults to a “tree” view of processes (click on the Process column header until it shows an indented list. It most likely will show two processes that are on the far left, “System Idle Process”, and “explorer”. Everything indented underneath the “System Idle Process” is Windows, and is running whether you’re logged in or not. Everything underneath “explorer” represents the programs that are running as a result of you’re having logged in, including the things that show up in your taskbar (“explorer” is the program that actually displays the task bar.) Here’s part of the list from my machine – you can see that there’s a lot running:

List of running processes

Now, it’s fairly easy to identify what most of those are. Either the icon, the name or the description, if present, will make it fairly clear. But sometimes that’s not enough. Take the “rundll32.exe” in the list above – what’s that? If I right click on it, select Properties, I get this:

Properties of my rundll32 task

That holds a clue. Rundll32 is a helper application that runs other programs. In this case we can see that the command line says it is to run something called “NvMcTray” – a quick Google of that shows that it’s the little control icon for my NVidia graphics card. Mystery solved.

After you’ve identified most of what’s running you’ll probably have an item or two left, one of which may be your “phantom”.

Right click on one of the remaining unknown items in process explorer, and click Window. If the resulting sub-menu is not gray, the click on “Restore”, or “Bring to Front” and see what happens. If nothing happens, then click on “Close” in that sub menu, and see if your phantom disappears.

If the Window sub-menu is grey, then we’ve only one course left … right click on the unknown process in process explorer and click on Kill Process, and see if your phantom goes away. If not, you may want to reboot at this point to restore whatever it was we just killed.

The process I’ve just outlined helps me identify 99% of the processes, windows, taskbar items, or what-have-you that are running on my machine. Hopefully it’ll help you identify yours.

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11 comments on “How can I identify this blank taskbar item?”

  1. Hi Leo,
    Thank You for addressing my question regarding the “phantom” icon in the taskbar! I am thrilled to let you know that since I sent you my question I found the culprit. It was the process (VERIZO~1.EXE). This process is part of the Verizon Online Help and Support Package application which I have deleted from my computer. Fortunately it is a redundant application anyway. I assume it was running in the background attempting to intermittently go to the Verizon website and look for updates. There is an active X control necessary for this to happen which needed approval for installation and since it was running in the background that never happened. At that point I guess the icon ended up in the taskbar as the application got stuck waiting for that active X control to be installed? The only thing I am certain of is that this process was causing the problem. The rest of this commentary is based on my limited understanding of the complex interaction of software. Thanks Again for your feedback.
    Happy Thanksgiving!
    Harry Rodgers

  2. I think Harry Rodgers’ theory on the Verizon Online help app is my culprit too. One thing that tells me this, is that when I go to try and uninstall the app, it hangs. CPU climbs to 100% very quickly. I let it sit for an hour and nothing happened.

    I am guessing that maybe there is a corrupt file which is causing this and the phantom window.

    If so, how do I uninstall if it keeps hanging? Do I have to find the CD and reinstall from scratch the on-line help app and then uninstall?

    Any ideas?

  3. The Program ‘Process Explorer’ which I downloaded
    from microsoft following the link on this page
    helped me identify an unknown taskbar icon.
    T H A N K Y O U .
    The problem taskbar icon with Absolutely No Explanations (had tried most everything one can think of) turned out to be from Adobe MacroMedia Shockwave Helper thing. This Icon caused me to waste three hours of my life. It appeared the other day and today I’ll make it go away.

  4. Leo,
    Man you have help me identify processes that no one else could do… That is without trying to sell me their software!


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