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What programs should be running on my machine in the background?


Can you please tell me what programs I should have running in the background
as my PC has slowed down, especially when opening applications. I am running
Win XP SP2 Home.

No, I can’t.

It’s not that I don’t want to, honest. If I could provide a comprehensive
list of what you do and don’t need, I would.

The problem is that it’s nowhere near that simple.

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The fundamental problem is that everyone’s list is different. What should be
running on your machine is not the same as what should be running on someone
else’s machine.

Why is it so different for everyone? Because people’s machines are
different, and how people use their machines is different.

And, of course, what people care about is different.


“What should be running on your machine is not the same
as what should be running on someone else’s machine.”
  • Hardware differences can manifest as different helper
    applications running on the machine. Your video card, for example, might
    include an important utility to manage your video settings. Removing that
    utility might cause the video card to be unable to do everything you might
    want. And that’s just an example, almost every peripheral on your machine
    could have something similar. Note that I’m not saying that it
    does, I’m simply saying that different manufacturers of different
    peripherals could choose to provide additional software that runs and shows up
    in your list of running programs.

  • Configuration differences in Windows itself will frequently
    manifest as differences in the processes showing up in your task list.

  • Installed software will often install helper applications
    that run all the time and show up in the task list. Naturally not all people
    install the same software, so that list will be different from person to
    person. As just one example, consider all the different anti-spyware and
    anti-virus software that’s out there – depending on which you choose to run,
    each will have a different impact on the running process list on your

  • How you use your computer can have a big impact. Perhaps
    you run programs and leave them running; perhaps you run programs that, as part
    of their operation, run other programs that you might not know about or

  • Personal preference is a theme across much of the above.
    For example, perhaps you like the QuickTime icon on your tray; that’s
    one difference right there between your machine and mine. What you
    want is almost as big a part in all this as what you

  • Software complexity makes this even harder. I’m thinking
    here of the infamous “SVCHOST” process that in actuality hosts other
    processes; often several at a time. You’ll see several svchost.exe processes
    running at all times, and that’s normal. And turning off some system services
    may, or may not, impact what you see.

That’s a really long list of excuses for why I can’t give you a simple list
of what you need and what you don’t. That list doesn’t exist; our machines are
simply too different and customizable.

Now, having said all that, you can do some research and make some
decisions about some of what you’re finding on your machine.

Let me start by throwing out my usual mantra: backup. If you’re about to
make configuration changes to your machine, potentially turning off software and
services that you could find out after the fact were required, you’re going to
want a full system backup to go back to. It’s the fastest, and the safest way
to protect yourself.

I have these suggestions:

  1. Use Process Explorer to examine the
    running processes on your machine. It’ll often show the descriptive text that’s
    included with many executables, and that might be enough to answer the age-old
    “what’s this?” question.

  2. Use Google for the
    processes you don’t recognize. Nine times out of ten the answer is there in one
    of the first results. Many sites, even though they might be selling a product,
    also include good, basic information as well. A good example is liutilities, or Uniblue; they’re a frequent result when
    searching for a specific “.exe” or “.dll”, and while they try hard to sell you
    their product, the basic information they provide for free on the search
    results page can often be enough to answer your question. Wikipedia can also be a good resource for
    very basic information. And of course you’ll also find a few right here on
    Ask Leo!.

  3. Use Black Viper’s list of
    to evaluate which system services you need to have running on your
    machine. Lists are provided for both Windows XP and now Vista. It’s a little
    techie, and as I said, you’ll have to make decisions based on your
    understanding of your own needs, but Black Viper provides a ton of valuable

By the way, all that assumed you have a properly working and clean machine.
If you have spyware, viruses or a rootkit on your machine, things get
significantly more difficult. Step one would be to ensure that your machine is
virus and spyware free.

Do this

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2 comments on “What programs should be running on my machine in the background?”

  1. Simply closing processes will not usually do any irreversible damage. Pretty much everything that you close using Task Manager, Process Explorer or similar will reappear next time the computer is restarted – for the better or for the worse.

    Its better if you accidentally close something you want/need but simply closing things from Task Manager doesn’t get rid of them permanently. That’s something which is a whole article in itself because each process will have a different way to deal with it. There is no single way to kill any process. You might come across tools that claim to “block a program/process from running” but these tools themselves will be an extra program, and usually they will simply let the program start and try to close it as soon as it starts, which is extra work for the computer and will certainly not make your computer start up any quicker.


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