How to View Active and Idle Processes in Windows?

Dennis Faas's picture

Infopackets Reader 'mg_barrett' writes:

" Dear Dennis,

Is there a way to show a list of running processes (programs) in Windows? Also, how do I determine if a process is active or not? "

My response:

A process is said to be active if there is CPU or memory activity associated with the process. The opposite is also true; if there is no CPU or memory activity reported by a process, then it is considered to be an idle process. Process activity can be determined using various utilities mentioned below.

How to View Active and Idle Processes in Windows

You can use Windows Task Manager to view all processes running on the system to determine which ones are actively performing tasks.

Task manager can be initiated by pressing CTRL + ALT + DEL on the keyboard, or by running a command prompt ("cmd") and typing in "taskmgr", then press Enter on the keyboard. Once Task Manager is launched, you can use your mouse to click on column headings (to sort columns) by CPU or Memory to see which processes are actively consuming resources. As I stated previously, resources that are actively consumed (or used) by a process means that the process is active. In other words: if the CPU usage is constantly changing (and/or so is the memory), then the process is active.

Process Explorer is another process viewer similar to Task Manager, but provides additional information on process handles and DLLs (dynamic link libraries). This information is particularly useful for system administrators in determining which program has a particular file in use.

How to View Windows Processes using the Command Prompt

If you use the Windows command prompt ("cmd") often, there are command line utilities that perform similar functions to Task Manager, but in a non-graphical user interface (GUI) format.

Pslist is one of the best utilities for this task (in my opinion), and is part of the Windows Sysinternals library. It shows a list of processes that are running on this system, but by default does not output all running tasks continuously in a loop. To loop the output, you need to run the command "pslist -s" (with no quotes). This is similar to how the Linux "top" command operates. You can even use Pslist to view processes on a remote machine via the network.

How to View Windows Processes using the PowerShell

PowerShell is similar to the Windows command prompt, but is often used by professional system administrators on Windows Server machines. That said, PowerShell also works on Pro versions of Windows and higher (I believe). If you run Windows PowerShell, you can emulate the Linux "top" command using the following Windows PowerShell script -- simply run it directly on the PowerShell command line (or in a batch file):

while (1) { ps | sort -desc cpu | select -first 30; sleep -seconds 2; cls }

PowerShell can be initiated via the Start menu or by the command prompt. Via the command prompt, type in "powershell" and press Enter.

Alternative Process Viewers for Windows

There are many freeware Windows process viewers which I have not covered (such as tasklist, for example); you can use Google to search for more. Anyone reading this article is welcome to recommend any freeware programs that are as good or better than the ones I've already mentioned.

About the author: Dennis Faas is the owner and operator of With over 30 years of computing experience, Dennis' areas of expertise are a broad range and include PC hardware, Microsoft Windows, Linux, network administration, and virtualization. Dennis holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science (1999) and has authored 6 books on the topics of MS Windows and PC Security. If you like the advice you received on this page, please up-vote / Like this page and share it with friends. For technical support inquiries, Dennis can be reached via Live chat online this site using the Zopim Chat service (currently located at the bottom left of the screen); optionally, you can contact Dennis through the website contact form.

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blueboxer2's picture

For sheer convenience in seeing what's going on in Windows (9x through 7, maybe 8) I long ago stumbled across the free utility WinPatrol ( It lists active tasks, services, startup tasks, delayed start, hidden files, active-x,registry monitoring, scheduled tasks and more. It doesn't show processes directly but task manager can supply that and WinPatrol lets you manipulate many of the operations. It's got a fine free edition but I have found it so useful over the years that I have chosen to upgrade to the paid edition more recently. It also warns you of changes and has even warned me of malware that slipped right through my anti-virus.