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A powerful trick to fix an unstable computer

A powerful trick to fix an unstable computer
© Tracy Martinez | Dreamstime.com -

I'm going to start by admitting this isn't the most exciting topic in the world. We're going to be exploring the inner workings of Windows, which any tech will tell you is far from a bundle of laughs.

On the other hand, knowing this one thing can help you fix some big computer problems yourself. That saves you money and - sometimes - your sanity.

If that doesn't sound like something you're interested in - and that's OK - click here for other topics that might interest you. Or head over to my Kim's Picks site to watch some of the funniest, most emotional or just plain coolest videos on the web.

I'm talking about - drum roll, please - processes. If that word means nothing to you, that's OK, you're not alone.

Simply put, a process is the active part of a running computer program. If a process starts having problems, it can slow down your computer and cause software to freeze.

Knowing your way around computer processes is important when you need to troubleshoot a problem.

Warning: Before we start, I need to make a disclaimer. You should avoid messing with computer processes unless you have a good reason to do so. Killing the wrong process can freeze or crash your computer.

There are a few ways to see what processes your computer is running. The easiest is to bring up Windows' built-in Task Manager. Just use the keyboard shortcut CTRL + SHIFT + ESC and go to the Processes tab.

You'll see the process name, how much of your computer's processing power it's using, how much memory it's hogging and - sometimes - what programs use it. Unfortunately, not every process is clearly labeled.

Windows 10 and 8 present process information in a much friendlier way than Windows 7 or Vista. If you're on Windows 7 or Vista, however, you'll probably want to pick up the program Process Explorer. It gives you more information than Task Manager and is easier to understand.

Here are some ground rules for Task Manager and Process Explorer before we continue.

The majority of the processes running on any computer are Windows processes. You want to leave these strictly alone. The only exception is if Windows itself is malfunctioning and then you may have to examine them.

The way you can tell is if the CPU or memory numbers are off the chart, but none of the non-Windows processes seem to be the problem.

If that's the case, in Process Explorer, go to View >> Show Processes from All Users. This will load up the Windows' processes. Windows 10 and 8 should have these processes listed at the bottom of Task Manager already.

Windows processes are a little tricky because several might have the same name. For example, there might be a handful of "svchost.exe" processes running, and the Windows error message you got only says "svchost.exe encountered an error."

To see what programs or Windows services might be using each process, hover your cursor over the process name and it will tell you what parts of Windows are using it. Then you can think about what you were doing when you got the error message and what program or service could be responsible.

Assuming Windows isn't acting up, in Process Explorer go to the Explorer.exe group. Explorer.exe is the program that runs the front area of Windows. It creates the taskbar, file browsing and it lets other programs run.

Under Explorer.exe you'll see processes for running programs, which are labeled with the program executable name. For example, Firefox would appear as "firefox.exe." Process Explorer itself shows up as "procexp.exe" or "procexp64.exe." In Windows 8's Task Manager, you'll just see the program names.

Most processes are easy enough to figure out. However, if you're stuck you can hold the mouse cursor over a process name. This brings up a tooltip window showing the folder path to the executable file. Usually one of the folder names will be the program name.

If you are really stuck on figuring out a process, go to Google. Type in the process name and click Search. You should be able to find what the process does fairly quickly.

So where do processes come in handy? Well, your computer might be feeling sluggish on a regular basis. Open up Task Manager or Process Explorer and check the CPU and memory columns for each process.

You might find one process is using 100 percent - or close to it - of your CPU for a long period of time. Open up the program associated with the process and see what it's doing.

If it doesn't appear to be doing anything, restart it and keep an eye on it for a while to see if it starts hogging your processor again.

For essential programs performing important tasks, like security software, see if you can schedule the task for a time when you aren't using the computer.

For programs that don't appear to be doing anything but are using up resources, try updating the program to see if that helps. In the worst case, you might need to find a replacement that works better on your system.

Sometimes, programs that are acting up won't respond if you close them, so you have to stop the process directly. In Windows 10 or 8, select the process and click the End Task button. In Process Explorer, right-click on the process and select Kill Process.

Aside from processor use, there is also the possibility of a memory leak. This is when a program uses more and more memory until the computer crashes.

Task Manager and Process Explorer let you watch memory usage for each process. You can see which ones keep getting bigger. Some programs - like web browsers or graphics programs - will use a lot of memory normally, but they'll usually stay around the same amount. You're looking for a program that keeps growing and never stops.

Try restarting any offending programs and see if that helps your computer. You should also keep track of how long it takes for the programs to hog your memory again. If you have a program that won't stop hogging memory, update it or find a replacement.

Finally, you might run across a process that is actually a front for a virus. Many viruses disguise themselves as a common program or Windows process names. So, if a process isn't matching up with a program or you can't bring it under control, you may want to run a deep scan for malicious software.

Task Manager and Process Explorer are only meant for troubleshooting. Stopping or suspending a process only lasts until the next reboot. If you want to keep misbehaving programs from running permanently, read this tip.

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