When your PC seems slow or unstable, or you think it might be infected by malware, your first step should be to take a very close look at the processes it's currently running.
The question is, how do you take a peep under Windows' hood and find out what's ailing it?
You could turn to the Windows Task Manager, but that provides only basic information. If you want an in-depth report – something that makes it easy to spot and control unnecessary, resource-hungry or malicious processes – you'll need to try an alternative.
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Here are five of the very best apps available to download.
1. What's Running 3.0
At the heart of What's Running is a Task Manager-type display of all the processes running on your PC. Clicking a process will display a graph showing its recent RAM, CPU and I/O activity great for identifying programs that are hogging your system resources.
If you don't recognise a process, right-clicking it reveals a 'Check online' option that compares its name to an online database and will usually give you more details about it.
What's Running crams in plenty of functionality. Its tabbed interface shows you running services, loaded drivers and DLLs open internet and network connections, start-up programs and basic system information. The program even provides a snapshot feature to save all this information.
You could set a baseline snapshot this month, say, then compare it with another next month to see what's changed. This is helpful if you're trying to find out why your system has suddenly become unstable.
What's Running has one or two problems: we found the interface occasionally confusing and it won't list the files, Registry keys and other Windows objects opened by your processes. The program does make it very easy to access a great deal of useful system information, though, and it's definitely worth a look.
2. Process Explorer
Launch Process Explorer and you'll see a colour coded tree view of your processes that makes it easy to see what's running. If you spot a name that looks unfamiliar, simply right-click it, select 'Search Online' and the program will launch a web search to help you discover what it is.
Click a process to reveal the DLLs and other modules it's loaded, as well as the files, Registry keys and other Windows objects it has open. Doubleclick to display a process's performance graphs, open network connections, thread details and more.
There's even a Strings tab, which displays text strings inside the executable file – very useful if you're trying to identify malware or find out what a particular process is doing.
Process Explorer doesn't have as many extras as some of the competition (there's no list of start-up programs, for instance), but that's because it concentrates purely on Task Manager-type functionality. In fact, it's produced by Microsoft. It's lightweight, extremely reliable and portable, making it a must-have for your troubleshooting toolkit.
3. Anvir Task Manager
Check out the Startup tab in Anvir Task Manager – it gives you control over all the processes that are launched when Windows starts. Its Log window records major PC activity, such as processes started and windows opened.
There's also Tweaker for Windows, a TweakUI-type app that provides easy access to more than 100 hidden Windows settings.
4. Process Hacker
This tool's top features include a Services tab, which you can use to view, stop and start services; a Network tab that displays open internet connections; a Hidden Processes tool that detects simple rootkits; and an option to trim the working set of selected processes to help free up RAM on your machine.
5. System Explorer
This program is particularly good when it comes to identifying mysterious processes. With just a couple of clicks, you can look up a process name in the software's own database, search for it using Google or upload its file for a malware check at either virustotal.com or virusscan.jotti.org.