Windows 8 Memory Tricks: Microsoft’s all-new Task Manager

The principal element of efficient memory management is knowing just how much memory the OS and your programs use (and which ones are performance hogs). For Windows 8 Microsoft has revamped the humble Task Manager to cater to both advanced and beginner users. For one the use of Metro will clearly be predominant on tablets and other mobile devices so a simple interface is needed that can be operated by touch to end processes if need be. At the same time Microsoft didn’t want to abandon advanced users who like fine-grained control and information and in this regard the new Task Manager is leagues above its predecessor too. In fact one of the drivers for tailoring the new Task Manager for advanced users was looking at why these users preferred other tools such as Process Explorer and integrating these features in Task Manager to bring it up to speed.

The new Task Manager default view. Made for Metro users.

First and foremost Microsoft looked at how people use the current Task Manager in Windows 7 and discovered that 85% of all usage is in just two tabs: Applications and Processes (probably comes as no surprise!). The other sections — Services Performance Networking and Users while useful rarely get a look in.

Between Applications and Processes usage was pretty much evenly split and within this Processes was being used to find programs or services that weren’t showing up for Applications. Why? Because the most common task above all else issued with the Task Manager was to end a process.

As a result the default view of the new Task Manager is a single window with no tabs a single column listing currently running user-initiated programs and a single button — End Task. If that’s all you want to do you can quickly find a program and end it. And for tablet users the simplified interface should make it easier for fingers though note that Microsoft doesn’t want you ending any process. This is why there’s no Metro-themed equivalent of the Task Manager. With Metro programs are supposed to hibernate in the background but obviously there may be times when you really want to make a sure a program is unloaded.

Clicking ‘More details’ reveals the advanced user’s Task Manager but it bears little resemblance to the Windows 7 one. The first tab is Processes which lists running processes on the system but instead of displaying the sometimes cryptic .exe names it lists the plain English descriptions. So in place of ‘msmpeng.exe’ you see ‘Microsoft Antimalware Service’. Additionally processes are grouped such that if a program spawns threads or services these will be listed under the parent process de-cluttering the processes view. Then further processes are grouped by type — for example Applications Background processes and Windows processes which should help when it comes to asking the question “Can I kill this process and not blue-screen my system?”

However for those times when you really have no idea what a program is the new Task Manager takes this into account too with a simple ‘Search the Web’ option when you right-click on a process name. It works really well not surprisingly and thankfully this starts the desktop IE browser to view results instead of the Metro IE browser.

Another piece of useful research Microsoft gathered was that when users were going into the old Processes tab they were often sorting by CPU or memory usage to find resource hogs. The new Task Manager now integrates a heat map across all the columns of CPU Memory Disk and Network so you can see at a glance what processes are consuming the most resources without the need to sort the columns at all. This highlights another change — previously you needed to jump into the more complicated and sometimes overwhelming interface of the Resource Monitor to track disk and network usage but these are now integrated into the Processes display. According to Microsoft not only is this easier to use it’s all but an essential change when you consider that multiple applications competing for disk throughput is one of the root causes of performance issues.

Speaking of performance the next tab looks similar to the old Windows 7 Performance tab but Metro-ised in style. It’s definitely a good look. And following this tab comes another new addition: App History. Here all the applications you’ve run are listed along with their total CPU time network bandwidth and ‘Tiles’ memory usage. There’s just one exception: it applies only to Metro apps. This would be a brilliant addition for all processes but unfortunately that’s not the case.

These are probably the most useful sections of the new Task Manager but like those old Demtel ads — wait there’s more! Also integrated is a new Startup tab which thankfully makes it easy to see which horrible applications automatically add unnecessary programs to your startup (here’s looking at you Adobe and Apple). At a glance you can see what’s being loaded and disable it with the click of a button. It’s the same information you used to find buried in msconfig.exe but a whole lot more accessible. And if you’re not sure what impact such programs have on your system Windows 8 will even tell you: a ‘Startup impact’ column estimates the load the program places on your system so you can feel good at ruthlessly culling anything that shouldn’t be there.

Rounding off the tabs are Users Details and Services the only vestiges from the old Windows 7 Task Manager. Users is essentially just the Processes list but displaying only those linked to the user login (basically the programs you start). Details and Services provide the functionality of the old Processes and Services tabs.

It’s fantastic Microsoft has focused on the mobile space because not only does it means the OS should run well on lower-resourced mobile devices but it means it will run even better on desktops and laptops. And who doesn’t want a faster smoother experience? There’s still some way to go by Microsoft’s own admission but when it comes to memory and performance monitoring Windows 8 is looking good.