How to Understand and Use Windows Task Manager - dummies

How to Understand and Use Windows Task Manager

By Dan Gookin

The typical Windows PC is running about three dozen processes when it’s just sitting there. Every program that’s running is referred to as a task; hence, the term multitasking. To view the tasks taking place in your computer, the Task Manager window is used.

To summon the Task Manager, press Ctrl+Shift+Esc.

In the Task Manager window, if necessary, click the Applications tab. The programs that are listed are programs you started or windows you opened.

Click the Processes tab to display all programs running in Windows, including the applications you opened (shown on the Applications tab) and processes being run by Windows itself.


Generally speaking, the kingdom of software includes all computer programs. A computer program is simply a file that contains instructions telling the computer’s hardware to do something. But when it comes time to understand how programs work in Windows, you need to understand three terms:

Application: An application is something that you, the user, start in Windows. Microsoft Word, for example, is an application. Internet Explorer is an application. Even a game or utility is an application. If you started it, Windows calls it an application.

Process: A process is a program that Windows runs, or that runs automatically as part of the start-up procedure. Unlike applications, which show up on the taskbar and appear as windows on the screen, a process may not have a window. It runs invisibly. Some processes, however, appear as tiny icons in the notification area.

Service: A service is a task carried out by either an application or a process. A single process can sponsor multiple services. For example, an antivirus program may run as a process (because it’s started automatically), and it may sport several services that monitor your computer for signs of infection.

Basically, applications and processes are the same thing — the only difference is whether you started it or Windows started it. Services can belong to either applications or processes. Pretty much everything is interconnected.

Most people become confused by the difference between processes and services. Just remember that a process is a program and a service is what the program does — its task.

  • Each window you open in Windows Explorer appears as its own entry on the Task Manager’s Applications tab. Likewise, when you have multiple windows open in a single application, such as Excel, each window appears as its own entry. In a way, items on the Applications tab merely echo buttons found on the taskbar.

  • The only window that doesn’t appear in the Application window is the Task Manager itself.

  • In Windows XP, you can also summon the Task Manager by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete.

  • The Windows XP version of the Task Manager lacks the Description column on the Processes tab. Also, the Task Manager dialog box in Windows XP lacks the Services tab.

  • You can configure the Task Manager window to float over every other window on the screen: Choose Options→Always On Top from the Task Manager’s menu bar.

  • The nerdy way to open the Task Manager is to type taskmgr in the Run dialog box. Press Win+R first to summon the Run dialog box.