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Windows XP

Monitoring Performance with Task Manager

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The Task Manager utility is excellent for getting a quick overview of the current state of the system. To get it on-screen, press Ctrl+Alt+Delete. If the Windows Security dialog box appears, click the Task Manager button.

Tip

To bypass the Windows Security dialog box, right-click an empty section of the taskbar and then click Task Manager.


The Processes tab, shown in Figure 1, displays a list of the programs, services, and system components that are currently running on your system. The processes are displayed in the order in which they were started, but you can change the order by clicking the column headings. (To return to the original, chronological order. you must shut down and restart Task Manager.)

Figure 1. The Processes tab lists your system’s running programs and services.


In addition to the name of each process and the user who started the process, you also see two performance measures:

CPUThe values in this column tell you the percentage of CPU resources that each process is using. If your system seems sluggish, look for a process that is consuming all or nearly all of the CPU’s resources. Most programs will monopolize the CPU occasionally for short periods, but a program that is stuck at 100 (percent) for a long time most likely has some kind of problem. In that case, try shutting down the program. If that doesn’t work, click the program’s process and then click End Process. Click Yes when Windows XP asks whether you’re sure that you want to do this.
Mem UsageThis value tells you approximately how much memory the process is using. This value is less useful because a process might genuinely require a lot of memory to operate. However, if this value is steadily increasing for a process that you’re not using, it could indicate a problem and you should shut down the process.

Tip

The four default columns in the Processes tab aren’t the only data available to you. Select the View, Select Columns command to see a list of more than two dozen items that you can add to the Processes tab.


The Performance Tab, shown in Figure 2, offers a more substantial collection of performance data, particularly for that all-important component, your system’s memory.

Figure 2. The Performance tab lists various numbers related to your system’s memory components.


The graphs show you both the current value and the values over time for the CPU usage (the total percentage of CPU resources that your running processes are using) and the Page File Usage.

What is a page file? Your computer can address memory beyond what is physically installed on the system. This nonphysical memory is called virtual memory, and it’s implemented by using a piece of your hard disk that’s set up to emulate physical memory. This hard disk storage is actually a single file called a page file (or sometimes a paging file or a swap file). When physical memory is full, Windows XP makes room for new data by taking some data that’s currently in memory and swapping it out to the page file. The PF Usage graph shows the current size of the page file, and the Page File Usage History graphs shows the relative size of the page file over time.

Below the graphs are various numbers. The items in the Totals group appeal only to programmers, so we’ll skip them. Here’s what the other values mean:

Note

The memory values are listed in kilobytes. To convert to megabytes, divide by 1,024.


Physical Memory TotalThe total amount of physical RAM in your system.
Physical Memory AvailableThe amount of physical RAM that Windows XP has available for your programs. Note that Windows XP does not include the system cache (see the next item) in this total.
Physical Memory System CacheThe amount of physical RAM that Windows XP has set aside to store recently used programs and documents.
Commit Charge TotalThe combined total of physical RAM and virtual memory the system is using.
Commit Charge LimitThe combined total of physical RAM and virtual memory available to the system.
Commit Charge PeakThe maximum combined total of physical RAM and virtual memory the system has used so far in this session.
Kernel Memory TotalThe total amount of RAM used by the Windows XP system components and device drivers.
Kernel Memory PagedThe amount of kernel memory that is mapped to pages in virtual memory.
Kernel Memory NonpagedThe amount of kernel memory that cannot be mapped to pages in virtual memory.

Here are some notes related to these values that will help you monitor memory-related performance issues:

  • If the Physical Memory Available value approaches zero, it means your system is starved for memory. You might have too many programs running or a large program is using lots of memory.

  • If the Physical Memory System Cache value is much less than half the Physical Memory Total value, it means your system isn’t operating as efficiently as it could because Windows XP can’t store enough recently used data in memory. Because Windows XP gives up some of the system cache when it needs RAM, close down programs you don’t need.

  • If the Commit Charge Total value remains higher than the Physical Memory Total value, it means Windows XP is doing a lot of work swapping data to and from the page file, which greatly slows performance.

  • If the Commit Charge Peak value is higher than the Physical Memory Total value, it means at some point in the current session Windows XP had to use the page file. If the Commit Charge Total value is currently less than Physical Memory Total value, the peak value might have been a temporary event, but you should monitor the peak over time, just to make sure.

In all of these situations, the quickest solution is to reduce the system’s memory footprint either by closing documents or by closing applications. For the latter, use the Processes tab to determine which applications are using the most memory and then shut down the ones you can live without for now. The better, but more expensive, solution is to add more physical RAM to your system. This decreases the likelihood that Windows XP will need to use the paging file, and it also enables Windows XP to increase the size of the system cache, which greatly improves performance.

Tip

If you’re not sure which process corresponds to which program, display the Applications tab, right-click a program, and then click Go to Process. Task Manager displays the Processes tab and selects the process that corresponds to the program.

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