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How can I tell what’s running on my machine?

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 unresponsive programs.

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 “application”.

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?.

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29 comments on “How can I tell what’s running on my machine?”

  1. When i open task manager the processes tab is just plane grey and does not show anything. Do you no what the problem is and how i could fix it?

  2. I have seen reference to it only as the result of a virus; SdBot. My advice: update the virus signatures and scan again. ALSO, I *only* saw reference to this from – I would hope the other virus folks have this one, but if not, perhaps Sohpos is worth a check. (I’d be interested in hearing the results.)

  3. On my wife’s Sony laptop (PCG-GRZ610) whenever I open task manager (Windows XP), by whatever methor, I get only a single unlabled pane (not even the blue label and red X at the top) with applications running, and no tabs to allow you to see processes running.

    I’ve never seen this behavior on an XP machine.
    Any ideas?


  4. I would like to find out how to interrogate the
    list of ‘programs running’ from within a C or Basic program. This way I could determine, for example, whether PRFILE32.exe had already been launched or needed launching. This would not be a problem for programs that only allowed a single instance of themselves to be active.

  5. Dear sir ,

    I am facing a problem in slow opeartion of the system in WIN 2000 and its fast in WIN XP… i have deleted all temp files as well recycle bin,,,, can you help me out

  6. Hi Leo,

    I have installed procexp form sysinternals and I use the Windows Task-Manager frequently. However I am a little unsure about what exactly are the several columns concerning memory for the processes telling.
    How can I determine the overall memory that a process consumes? Do I have to add colums together?
    In procexp there is a Virtual Size colum that seems not to correspond to any colum in taskmanager. It shows very large values. And the worst: Nowhere on the net could I find a detailed explanation for both programs.
    Can you help?

  7. Memory Management is so complex these days, there’s no simple answer anymore to “how much memory is it using”.

    In process explorer I use “Working Set” as a measure of how much physical memory the process is currently using, and “Virtual Size” the total amount of memory that the process is using, both real and virtual.

  8. Hi,

    I don’t like the idea of running as Administrator, so I have an ‘ordinary’ account that I normally use. That’s a member of the ‘Power Users’ group. But I can only see my own processes on the Task Manager.
    The “Show processes from all users” box is greyed out.

    How can I set up my account to view all processes?


  10. No — stopping all processes will crash your machine, as some of them are requied. I would follow the instructions in the article and related articles to attempt to identify what each process is, and whether or not you need it before just killing things.

  11. how do I know what processor I have. Software I want to run says I need a pentium 4, but when I check the properties in “MY COMPUTER”, it says AMD athalon. What is this?

  12. My home computer will not allow Task Manager to open when hitting “ctl+alt=del” How can I fix this and/or open Task Mangaer another way?
    Thanks in advance.

  13. I have Windows ME…Outlook Express will not open…error says another instance of it is already running…????…I closed everything in the Task bar except Explorer and Systray…how can I get to the program that they say is already open so I can recieve mail. thanks

  14. iam srinivas,
    i have one doubt , supppose in my task manager is diabled,how to i know what are the programmes going on my machine.

  15. Leo, I just wanted to tell you I needed to remember how to open the “Task Manager” and within seconds in the second paragraph “Right Click The Clock”. Short, Sweet, and too the point. Thanks.

  16. I currently run windows xp on my desktop. I have 1 primary user accnt (administrative level) and 3 secondary user acnts (limited/guest level). I use the adminstrative acnt 95% of the time. My computer is slow so i’m trying to optimize memory by elminating some start-up programs and certain processes, however, when I run “msconfig” and make my changes, I get an error message “Access Denied. You may need to be logged on as an Administrative user to make the neccessary changes”.. I’ve double and tripled checked that my primary user acnt is an “adminstrative level” and that i was attempting to make the changes while logged on to this acnt.. any suggestions on how to fix ?

    mike cunningham

  17. I can see what is running…but seeing it isn’t helping me at all. My “Virtual Memory” seems to max out. I was gonna up it, but it’s at 1000 already..and on this puter, at least, that’s the max, it says. I can tell what is running, but I don’t know what to do with them. For instance, it has “IE” … in TWO places with very, very high numbers. I wish I knew what to do for this. I get soooo much ‘grinding’ sounds when I just want to open ONE screen. Does anyone know how to help me?
    I have windows XP.


  18. hi sir my pc is too slow i am using a 256mb ram p4 prosseer deleted %temp% files defrag the disk and insceese the virtual memory but this is no responce

  19. After I had a HD crash and replaced it I re-installed the OS. I’m a gammer and I play BF2142 “a lot”, or did so to say. Now when I play after a few min’s the screen jumps around and the whole thing stagers worce then a drunk.
    I’ve ran just about every spyware and virious program, reg repair and any other thing I can think of and nothing showes up. If I stop or pause the game everything seems to return to normal. I’m now useing Norton Internet anti-virious and have tried everything I can think of to locate whats going on but as soon as I enter the game Norton seems to stop logging the processes. As soon as I pause the game everything returns to normal. Issue is that it runs great for about 8 min’s and then goes to it’s knees for about 4 min’s then it repeats itself. At other times I get a message that says program not responding and then I’m asked if I want to close it or wait. sooner or later it respondes. On the internet some IP’s seem to take forever to load or I get a “No link” message. Any Ideas? I’m running Quad AMD 64’s at 2.8 ghz, Vista 64-sp2 fully updated. I have 8 gig of mem and plenty of video etc. This thing ran really fast before no matter what.

  20. Hi there! I agree with another commenter. I can find out what’s running, but the file does not give you enough information to determine WHAT IT IS, and exactly what it’s doing. I ask because my grand-daughter has just discovered the Internet, and since she has been using my computer it has, all of a sudden, slowed down. My computer is a Dell, only 13 months old, and I keep it cleaned, inside and out. Any suggestions? Thanks in advance


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