Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete
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Every device needs a kill switch. For Windows, it is Ctrl+Alt+Delete (even though Bill Gates has admitted that key combination was a mistake).

On Mac OS X, the equivalent is the Activity Monitor, and if you want to be a fairly proficient Mac user, it is necessary to know what Activity Monitor is, and how to read and use it. As usual, that’s where we come in.

Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete shutterstock 250316581

Start Her Up!

One way to start Activity Monitor is to open up Finder, go to the Applications folder, then the Utilities folder, and the shortcut to open Activity Monitor is right there.

Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete activitymonitor

Another much faster way is if you use Spotlight or Alfred. Then you can just type in the first few letters and up it pops.

Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete alfredactmon

Once it is opened, you may find it much more convenient to keep Activity Monitor sitting in your dock.

The Basics

Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete actmon

Just like Windows’ Task Manager, Activity Monitor provides a list of running processes and shows how much of your available resources each one is currently using. You can see at a glance which processes are using the most of your computing power, and kill them in an attempt to make your computer run faster.

Items in the list can be arranged alphabetically or numerically, by clicking each heading at the top of the column (Process Name, %CPU, CPU Time, and so on).

Back in 2010, Angelina wrote a great post on what a Central Processing Unit is What Is A CPU and What Does It Do? What Is A CPU and What Does It Do? Computing acronyms are confusing. What is a CPU anyway? And do I need a quad or dual-core processor? How about AMD, or Intel? We're here to help explain the difference! Read More . Although it was aimed at Windows CPU’s, quite a lot of it also applies to a Mac. So instead of rehashing what has already been said, I will defer to Angelina’s superior wisdom in this subject.

Quitting Rogue Processes

Not everything works the way you want it to all of the time. There will be frequent occasions when a piece of software on your Mac will crash or become unresponsive and take up too much CPU or memory. Short of taking a hammer to the laptop, the best option is to go to the Activity Monitor and see what’s causing the congestion.

Some apps are great at minimizing their digital footprint, while others such as Chrome The Easy Guide to Google Chrome The Easy Guide to Google Chrome This Chrome user guide shows everything you need to know about the Google Chrome browser. It covers the basics of using Google Chrome that is important for any beginner. Read More and Evernote How to Use Evernote: The Unofficial Manual How to Use Evernote: The Unofficial Manual Learning how to use Evernote on your own takes a long time. This is why we've put together this guide to show you how to take full advantage of the most important Evernote features. Read More have the potential to swallow large amounts of processing power. Firefox The User's Guide to Firefox The User's Guide to Firefox Does your current browser have advanced security options? Does it sync your settings across devices? Can you manage your tabs easily? These are all things Firefox can do for you. Read More is also a persistent offender, as well as the cloud desktop sync tools – Dropbox The Unofficial Guide To Dropbox The Unofficial Guide To Dropbox There's more to Dropbox than you might think: you can use it for file sharing, backing up your data, syncing files between computers and even remotely control your computer. Read More , Google Drive, and OneDrive – as they are constantly grinding away in the background.

Saying that however, as someone who regularly switches between a Windows desktop PC and a Mac OS X Macbook Air, I have to admit that the problem of leaky apps is worse on Windows. That doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing on Mac OS X. Sometimes you need to quit a process because it’s crashed, or slowing the OS down.

Quitting an app is very simple. In the Activity Monitor, locate your app and see if it is really causing things to slow down by using excessive memory or CPU power (you can search in the top-right if you need to). If it is, click on it with your mouse to highlight it, then click the far left “cross” button at the top of the window to close it.

Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete closeappam

You will be asked if you really want to kill the process:

Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete quitui

This is fairly self-explanatory. You can try the normal Quit first, but most rogue apps refuse to obey the regular command. This leaves you with “Force Quit”, which should shut down most apps. Any that refuse to quit at this point will probably require a restart to resolve.

Listing Processes By CPU or Memory Consumption

If things are going slow and you’re not sure why, you need to line up the biggest offenders who are gobbling up CPU and memory like there is no tomorrow.

To do so, click the title bar at the top – %CPU or Memory on the Memory tab. The little arrow should be pointing downwards. As you can see, my CPU usage is quite low at the moment, even with Google Chrome running since yesterday. Start playing a video in VLC or run a Time Machine backup and watch the numbers go crazy.

Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete cpupercen

If you can see that any of the processes are consuming way too much CPU or memory, then you can quit or force quit it, as we have just seen. This is also a good place to keep an eye on your computer’s performance if your Mac is randomly shutting down.

The Energy Tab

If your Mac takes the form of a laptop, rather than a desktop computer, then battery usage should be something you should keep an eye on, especially if you are out and about and you’ve forgotten to bring your charger with you.

Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete actmonenergy

To find out which apps consume the most juice, click on the Energy tab, then click on the Energy Impact title bar to order the results accordingly. You can now see what is draining your battery and quit any unnecessary processes to increase overall battery life.

Track Down Where Apps Are Located On Your Computer

Do you see a rogue program going absolutely havoc in your Activity Monitor? Are you mystified as to where that app is located on your computer? Does the name of the running process not provide any clues as to what it is? Then Activity Monitor will show you where it is located in your Library.

Just highlight the mystery process with your mouse, then press the “i” button at the top, next to the Quit button. This will open up a box like so:

Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete chromeinfo

Now click on Sample at the bottom to get this :

Activity Monitor: The Mac Equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete chromesample

As you can see, under “Path”, it gives you the exact location of the process in your Activity Monitor. Now you can go and see if you can identify it by looking at its other folders. It’s pretty obvious what Chrome is, but you may see some other mystery processes that aren’t so obvious and this can help you identify what they are.

Why Is All This Important?

Activity Monitor is a window to the beating heart of your computer. It can give you an idea as to why your computer is running slow and why your battery life is dismal among other technical information most users have little need for. It pays to understand what you’re looking at, understand what each part means, and how it fits into the whole.

So fire up Activity Monitor, and become better acquainted with the inner workings of your Mac. If you have any questions at all, leave them in the comments below, or ask over at MakeUseOf Answers.

How often do you have to kill processes on your Mac?

Explore more about: OS X Mavericks, OS X Yosemite.

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  1. Zachary Brown
    March 5, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    this should have the information about the network section of the activity monitor and what task could be slowing down the internet

  2. Caracarn
    June 23, 2017 at 12:07 am

    ok you dont even state how to open activity monitor if the imac is slow finding this or that wont work if your mac is slow. How about stop all the verbal diarrhea and just state the facts. What is the short key for activity monitor? What does the applications folder look like?
    Can anyone on this planet answer a simple question without walking people around the block.

    • skruze
      September 10, 2017 at 6:40 pm

      I can't seem to find it for the life of me, too.

  3. Ccw Sparks
    May 29, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Oops, I meant Chrome. This thing needs an Edit option (or I need to learn to type)…

  4. Ccw Sparks
    May 29, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    I have to kill Firefox several times a day due to script hangups. Thunderbird hangs fairly regularly too. (I had to stop using Chrime - it was just hopeless.) The quick-and-dirty Cmd+Opt+Esc is my friend! But thanks for this article - it can't hurt to have a more detailed way to actually see what's happening inside those black boxes we call apps. :-)

  5. L3 CM
    May 29, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Awesome article, Mark. Thanks especially for the screenshots and tips.

  6. Brian Tkatch
    May 27, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    Nice article. Covering the basics is always a good thing, especially after were past the basics. Now that we're able to understand and care, we're actually ready to hear about them. :) Personally, i think ps ax/kill -9 is better. Or top. But, that depends on what you;re comfortable with.

  7. Jason Sandys
    May 27, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    Nice article; however, this is not remotely equivalent to Ctrl+Alt+Del in Windows. It's equivalent to Task Manage which can be launched by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Del, but that's just one way to launch it and does not in any way suggest or imply an equivalency.