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111. Program control in Windows

By Andrew D. Wright

Whether you are the master of your Windows computer or it is the master of you depends a lot on your ability to control its programs.

A program is just a set of instructions to your computer; by itself it is only a map or guide, not something active. When a program is run, it creates one or more processes. It's the process that does all the work.

The core of your computer, its brains, is the CPU, a central processor unit. What it's processing are processes. A process is a mix of the program instructions being followed and the computer resources needed to follow those instructions.

With a single CPU, only one process can be worked on at a time. Processes from many programs will be listed as running, but what's going on is the CPU switching from one process to another and back so fast it appears instant to the user. A multicore CPU can execute one process per core at a time so simultaneous processes can be run.

On Windows XP you can get to the Task Manager by right clicking on an empty part of the Windows task bar then selecting Task Manager from the context menu that pops up. You can also get to it with the famous three finger salute - pressing the Ctrl and Alt and Delete keys at the same time - should the computer appear to be locked up.

Task Manager has a tab marked Applications and another one marked Processes. Applications shows the programs you the user are running. Processes shows everything that's running, a bewildering array of cryptic-looking names and numbers.

A locked-up program can be stopped by selecting it from the list on the Applications tab and pressing the End Task button.

The Processes tab can show a lot of different information. In Task Manager select the Processes tab then click on the View menu item and Select Columns. Click on PID and now all the processes have their own ID numbers. The lower the number, the earlier that process started up.

There will be processes from the Windows operating system labelled as the user SYSTEM as well as processes from anti-virus programs or programs set up to regularly check for updates. On an infected computer processes from malware and spyware will be visible as well, sometimes trying to masquerade as innocent files. Processes can be stopped by highlighting them and clicking the End Process button.

Two very useful tools come as free downloads from Microsoft Sysinternals. Process Explorer is everything Task Manager is and more. Color coded processes make figuring out what belongs and what is excess baggage easier and helpful menu items can verify program signatures so only real Microsoft system files can say they are from Microsoft.

Autoruns is a souped up MSCONFIG replacement showing every program set to run when the computer starts up. You can uncheck the startup of programs, helper programs, services, and malware, check program signatures and much more.


Microsoft Sysinternals Process Explorer (free):

Microsoft Sysinternals Autoruns (free):


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Originally published 24 June 2007


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