Replacing Task Manager with Process Explorer

Alright, everyone's back from the holidays, and I for one am ready to get my nose back to the grindstone!

In this post, I want to talk about a fairly recent discovery for me: Mark Russinovich's Process Explorer, not to be confused with his Process Monitor. Process Explorer has been around for years and is still being kept current so the fact that I had never really used it before now is a bit of an embarrassment for me, but I'm a total convert now and won't go without it from now on. Hopefully I'll be able to convert someone else with this post.

First, there were two videos that I watched recently that were instrumental in convincing me to keep Process Explorer permanently in my toolbox. It's a two-part series of talks given by Russinovich himself about the "Mysteries of Windows Memory Management." The videos are a little on the technical side, but they're extremely detailed and in-depth and if you're interested in hearing one of the top NT gurus in the world explicate the finer intricacies of how Windows uses physical and virtual memory, then you need to watch these videos. They're quite long, so you may want to save them for later:

Part 1
Part 2

One of the prevailing themes in the videos is that Russinovich doesn't seem to care much for the traditional Task Manager. We all know and love taskmgr and the three-fingered salute required to bring it up. (The three-fingered salute, CTRL+ALT+DEL, is officially referred to as the Secure Attention Sequence. Some free trivia for you.) He explains how some of the labels in Task Manager - especially the ones concerning memory usage - are a bit misleading and/or inaccurate. (What is memory free versus memory available?) He then shows us how he uses Process Explorer in lieu of Task Manager, which gives us a much clearer and more accurate (and cooler looking) picture of all the processes running on the machine, the memory that they're using, the ways in which they're using it, the handles, DLLs and files the processes are using, and so much more.

It's basically better than the regular Windows Task Manager in every way... and the best part? You can easily "replace" Task Manager with it such that when you hit Ctrl+Alt+Del and choose to bring up the "Task Manager," Process Explorer actually launches instead!

Awesome, right? Process Explorer provides an enormous wealth of information where the vanilla Task Manager falls short. Part of me wants to post more screen shots of this program to show you more examples of what you can see and do with Process Explorer, but those videos by Russinovich himself do a better job of showing off exactly how the program works and what all of it means than I can. In the videos, you'll learn what a Working Set is, Private Bytes, Bytes Committed, what a Hard Fault is and how it differs from a Soft Fault, etc.

And not to mention that as an added bonus, you can use this tool to troubleshoot the age-old conundrum of "what process is holding this file open so that I'm unable to delete it! Waaah!"

Needless to say, that if you ever hit Ctrl+Alt+Del on one of my machines and hit Start Task Manager, Process Explorer is going to show up instead.

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