Let’s be honest, the Windows Task Manager isn’t that great for understanding and managing the processes running on your computer. Even on Windows 8, where it’s much-improved, the task manager can’t come close to the power of Process Explorer. It’s part of the Sysinternals set of tools that Microsoft purchased – and for good reason. They’re among the most powerful system utilities for Windows.
In addition to its power, Process Explorer is also flexible. It’s available from Microsoft as a single .exe file. That makes it a portable app you can throw on a USB drive and run on any computer.
Understanding The Processes Running On Your Computer
Perhaps the greatest thing about Process Explorer – from a power-user perspective – is the way it helps visualize the processes running on your computer and their relation to each other.
The task manager included with Windows is a bit of a mess, displaying all running processes in a flat list. It works if you’re hunting for a specific process by name, but it doesn’t give you an overview that really helps you understand what’s going on.
It’s particularly messy if you use multi-process applications like Google Chrome – what if Google Chrome was misbehaving and you needed to kill all its processes? The Windows Task Manager doesn’t make it easy.
Process Explorer helps make much more sense of this. The most obvious improvement is the hierarchical tree of processes – we can see the main chrome.exe process that launched all other Chrome processes and understand what Google Chrome is doing. If we wanted to force-quit Google Chrome entirely, we could right-click the top chrome.exe process and select Kill Process Tree. If we wanted to hide all these chrome.exe processes so they didn’t clutter the list, we could click the minus icon to collapse that part of the tree.
Other improvements also help make this list easier to understand. Each process has an associated icon, a description, and a company name. These descriptions and names may be blank – it’s up to each program to provide this information.
Color-coding helps, too. Processes colored blue are your own processes, while processes colored pink are system services. Your desktop processes will appear under explorer.exe near the bottom of the list, while services will appear under services.exe near the top. This helps sort the process list so you aren’t sifting through system services while viewing the processes running on your desktop.
To view which colors correspond to which types of processes and customize the colors, click the Options menu and select Configure Colors.
Process Explorer is packed with features, including all the ones you’d expect from the Windows Task Manager. You can right-click a process to kill it, change its priority level, or set its CPU affinity and force it to run on only a specific CPU. We won’t focus on all these features – we’ll focus on cool things you can do with Process Explorer that you can’t do with the Windows Task Manager.
- Search Online: This feature is present in Windows 8’s new task manager, but it showed up in Process Explorer first. You can right-click any running process in the list and select Search Online to quickly search for it online. This can help you understand exactly what the process is and where it came from.
- Detailed Process Properties: To view information about a process, right-click it and select Properties. If a process is automatically starting with your computer, Process Explorer will tell you where it’s configured to do so. If a process is hiding in the background, you can click Bring to Front to view its window (assuming it has a visible window).
- Detailed Resource Usage Information: Process Explorer exposes many more ways of visualizing resource usage. In addition to system-wide resource usage graphs, you’ll find per-process CPU, memory, and disk usage graphs in a process’s properties window. You can also see a graph of GPU (graphics card) usage – either per-process or system-wide. To view system-wide resource usage data, click the View menu and select System Information.
- Unlock Locked Files: Have you ever seen a message saying a specific file or folder is in-use by a process and can’t be deleted or moved? This is often to prevent files that are legitimately in-use from being modified, but sometimes programs continue locking a file even when they don’t need it. To see which program is using a file, you can click Find and select Find a Handle or DLL. Search for the name of the file or folder and Process Explorer will tell you which process is “locking” the file. To remove the lock so you can delete or move the file, right-click the handle itself and select Close Handle.
- Find a Window’s Process: Not sure what process a specific window belongs to? Click and drag the target-shaped icon on the Process Explorer toolbar over another window on your desktop. Process Explorer will show you which process the window belongs to.
- Replace the Windows Task Manager: Love Process Explorer and wish the Windows Task Manager was this awesome? Just click the Options menu and select Replace Task Manager. Whenever you open the task manager – either by pressing Ctrl+Shift+Escape, right-clicking the task bar and selecting Start Task Manager, or pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete and clicking Start Task Manager – Process Explorer will appear instead.
Process Explorer is listed on both our Best Windows Software and Best Portable Apps pages because it’s an amazing tool. If you’re looking for another third-party task manager replacement, you may also want to check out Process Hacker or System Explorer.
What do you think of Process Explorer? Do you prefer another task manager replacement? Leave a comment and share your favorite tool!