How can I tell what’s running on my machine?
To many this might seem like an odd question. I mean it’s pretty
easy to see if your mail program or word processor is running, right?
Well, yes. But there’s so much more you don’t see. Today’s operating
systems are quite complex and doing nothing your machine might
have a dozen different processes running.
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In the Windows 9x world (Windows 95, 98 and Me), CTRL+ALT+DEL brings
up a dialog box that lists almost all of the processes running. I say
almost because portions of the operating system itself might not be
represented. That’s by design since in Win 9x that dialog isn’t really
there to give you information but rather to allow you to terminate
In Windows XP (and its predecessors Windows 2000 and Windows NT)
the system includes a built in “Task Manager”. There are many ways to
run it, but my favorite shortcut is to right click on the clock in the
task bar and select “Task Manager”. It too will show you a list of
applications running which may be very short much like under Windows
98. However under the Processes tab you’ll find a list of all
processes running on your machine – there will be many
more, especially if you select the Show processes from all users
checkbox. (Hint: you can click on the columns in Task Manager to
sort the output by that column which is particularly handy when you want to
see who’s using the most memory or CPU time.)
Given the difference in size between the list of applications
running and the list of processes running it begs questions like “Why?”
And “What’s that difference between the two?”.
A simple answer is this: a process is a single running program and
an an application consists of one or more processes. If you’ve got
Microsoft Word running you’ll see “Microsoft Word” in the application
list and winword.exe in the process list. All those other processes?
In a sense they’re running as part of the operating system
But what are they? Well that’s going to vary a lot from machine to
machine based on two things: the software installed and the hardware
installed. Certainly obvious items might include your instant messaging
client, or other programs you use and know about. However when you
install some software packages they may cause additional processes to
run on your machine even when you’re not running the application.
Examples include Real Player or QuickTime’s update services, a fax
program’s receive monitor, or a virus scanner’s real-time virus
scanning process. The same applies for hardware, many hardware drivers
include additional processes that run all the time.
There’s no one answer for determining exactly what each process running
on your machine is, however I do cover many of the steps you can take
to figure it out in this previous article:
What’s this program running on my machine?.