A Techno Babble Article by Reg Charie
My computer is stuck, what can I do?
When the PC comes to a halt, first make sure it’s not just a momentary freeze – sometimes the PC needs to take a couple of seconds to complete a task, particularly if it’s an old computer or lots of programs are running.
Look for signs of life – press the Caps lock or Num lock keys on the keyboard and see if the appropriate light switches on – this will show if the PC is still responding. Look to see if the hard disk, CD or floppy disk lights are flashing.
There are several levels of crashes – sometimes a single program has frozen, or maybe several have stopped responding.
If it’s possible to get to other running programs, do so and save any outstanding work before continuing such as sending any unfinished emails.
Remember that if this happens more than once to the same program, it may indicate an underlying problem. If a newly installed program may be causing the problem try using System Restore ad go back to a date before the program was installed.
Can you fix it?
First try closing the offending program by clicking on its Close button or right-clicking on its Taskbar icon and selecting Close or Exit.
If there’s still no response, it’s time to get into the Task Manager.
This is a part of Windows that keeps track of what programs are running and how they are performing, as well as how many of the computer’s resources each program is using.
To get into Task Manager, give the 3 finger 'salute", Ctrl + Alt + Del
It’s not possible to damage a computer using the Task Manager, but you might accidentally end a program.
If you’re having a look through it or following this feature, it is worth saving all work first.
The Windows XP Task Manager has several tabs, three of which are really useful when it comes to fixing a crashed program.
The foremost of these is the Applications tab, which is the first to appear with the Task Manager. It lists the main programs running on the computer, such as Internet Explorer or Microsoft Word. Next to each program in the list is its Status, which should say Running if the computer thinks it’s working normally. If there’s a problem, it changes to Not Responding.
Right-click any of the programs in the list and a menu will appear. The first option is Switch To, which will take you to the main program window. For instance, right-clicking on Internet Explorer and clicking on Switch To will take you to the Internet Explorer window and minimise the Task Manager. The next option, Bring to Front, does the same thing, but leaves the Task Manager window on top.
More useful are the two options at the end – End Task and Go To Process. If a program shows as Not Responding and can’t be closed in the normal way, you may need to terminate it from the Task Manager by right-clicking it and selecting End Task. A window may appear asking for confirmation, if so click on the End Now button.
Any unsaved data will be lost but if you have saved regularly, the impact should not be too serious.
Sometimes clicking on End Task doesn’t work, because the program in question has crashed and can’t be ended in this way. That’s when the final option, Go To Process, becomes useful. It relates to the next tab,
The Processes tab shows similar information to the Applications view, but in much more detail. Instead of just showing the main programs that are running, it displays almost all the processes the computer is using. Processes are what Windows sees when a program is run. When you double-click on Internet Explorer to browse the web, Windows starts running a process called iexplore.exe.
Similarly, when the Word icon is clicked, a process called winword.exe begins. One application might use more than one process, and some parts of Windows have their own processes, which are always running. For instance, the main Windows functions are provided by a process called explorer.exe.
All these and more are listed in this tab, along with the User Name of the person that started them (this might be SYSTEM, LOCAL SERVICE or NETWORK SERVICE if the computer started them automatically), the amount of processing power each is using (in the CPU column) and finally the amount of memory each is using.
To sort by any of these, click on the column heading – clicking Image Name sorts them alphabetically, while clicking CPU sorts by processor usage. Click the same heading again to toggle between an ascending and descending sort.
As with the Applications tab, right-clicking an entry will bring up a menu of options. The last two, Set Priority and Set Affinity, are not really for home users, and it’s possible to freeze the machine temporarily by tampering with these.
If a program is still not responding, it might be possible to close it by ending its process from here. Right-click on it and click on End Process, the first item on the menu. For most programs, the name of the associated process should be fairly obvious – apart from the two mentioned above, Excel is excel.exe, Adobe Reader is acrobat.exe, and iTunes is itunes.exe. Sorting the list alphabetically might help to find the process. To do so, click the button marked Image Name above the list.
For other programs, the name of the process might not be obvious. For instance, Outlook Express is listed as msimn.exe. This is where the previous screen comes in handy. In the Applications tab, find the program in question and right-click on it. Click on Go To Process to be taken straight to the Process tab, with the appropriate process highlighted. It’s easy to close it from there.
The power of processes
The second option here is End Process Tree – this is because occasionally one process might start another process. Clicking End Process Tree will make sure all of these processes are closed, not just the first one that was started. Generally, however, it’s necessary to click only on the first option to close the program.
This tab can also be used when the computer is running slowly, to diagnose what’s holding things up. To do so, click on the CPU column heading to sort the list by processor usage. This shows, from top to bottom, which processes are hogging the computer’s resources, in per cent.
If a process is consistently using more than around 40 per cent, it can be said to be using an abnormal amount. There may be a good reason for this – video and audio playback, for example, use lots of power, especially on older computers. Running a Java application in a web browser or visiting graphics-heavy websites might cause this figure to leap.
However, if it’s only a temporary leap and the figure returns to normal after a while, then it shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re playing music or video, try pausing or stopping it and watch the processor usage. If it drops, that’s the answer. Similarly try closing applications that might be causing the problem (save all work first), and watching the meter as before.
What a performance
The third tab, Performance, can also come in handy here. This shows several graphs relating to the computer’s performance. The first, at the top left, is CPU Usage, or overall performance. This relates to the sum of the numbers in the CPU column in the previous tab – the higher it is, the harder the PC is working. The ideal is for this to be consistently low.
The graph or graphs to the right show a historical graph of this value: like a medical printout, it shows the PC’s activity over time. In normal use, it should have peaks and troughs, but should only have long periods of high activity if a high-intensity application is being used, such as playing or editing video. If it’s constantly at 100 per cent, it’s likely something is going wrong – potentially some spyware at work, for example.
There may be more than one graph in this row, if the PC has a dual-core processor, or uses hyperthreading technology – which makes the PC think there are two processors when there aren’t, and it will make two processor graphs appear here.
The second row shows how much virtual memory is in use. This is where the computer uses part of the hard disk to make up a shortfall in the physical memory (the microchips inside the PC’s case). Because the hard disk is extremely slow compared with actual memory, lots of virtual memory use will slow the PC down. The readouts below detail how much memory is being used, and what type of memory it is.
However, there’s not much that can be done about this in this situation, so it’s best to concentrate on the processor usage graphs above.
Using these tabs can really help with diagnosing a problem with a crashing or freezing application – remember that you can use these tools to track down the offending program and close it.
A task well done
When disaster strikes, it’s not the end of the world. Always make sure your work is saved – that way, if offending programs need to be closed down, work will not be lost. It’s important not to be scared by the apparent complexity of Task Manager – once you get to grips with it, it’s easy to use, and it’s powerful when it comes to putting an end to troublesome programs.
It's not always easy to track down which processes represent which programs in the Task Manager, even if you use the Go to Process option described earlier. In fact, many of the processes listed may not appear to make any sense at all.
Fortunately, the internet can be of great use. If you’re wondering what a particular process is, the first port of call should be to type its full name into a search engine. This should bring up a list of pages discussing it, and may even turn up a solution.
A good list can be found here along with descriptions, and www.neuber.com also contains a list of user-submitted processes. Both of these sites list System processes that should not be stopped – while you can’t damage the PC in the long term, stopping a system process could cause a full crash.
Thanks to Anthony Dhanendran, Computeract!ve, for most of this article.