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Managing desktop processes with Mac Activity Monitor

Desktop admins can use the Mac Activity Monitor to filter views of system activity and diagnose performance problems, similar to Windows Task Manager.

The Task Manager is the first place to go when things go wrong in Windows, but what about the Mac? Yes, things can go wrong on Macs, despite what the platform's fan base may like to think. Apple's operating system does have something similar to the Windows Task Manager: the Mac Activity Monitor utility. It lets you track various aspects of a system's performance and spot processes and applications that could be running amok and hogging memory, drive access or network bandwidth.

It's worth noting that one thing you don't need the Activity Monitor for is quickly killing an application. Just hold down the Command and Option keys and press Escape, the Mac OS equivalent of a Windows three-finger salute. This will bring up a Force Quit window showing all the running applications. Often, the problem child will be displayed in red and marked as "not responding." Just select it, click Force Quit, and you'll be all set.

Problematic Mac applications would be shown in red
Activity Monitor shows all active processes in Mac OS.

Choose your view

The Mac Activity Monitor lives in the Applications/Utilities folder. The Finder shortcut Cmd-Shift-U will take you directly there. The program will open to display the process list, showing by default the user's running processes. The View menu will let you choose your own system's processes, find other user's processes, or filter the list in a variety of ways.

Across the top of the process window, you'll be able to select whether the window displays CPU, memory, disk or network usage. The Mavericks OS (10.9.x) added a helpful Energy tab that shows which process are consuming the most power. This can be useful for diagnosing battery life issues on laptops. The bottom of each display has graphs as well as statistical data.

You can diagnose laptop battery problems with the Energy tab
The Mac Activity Monitor can display energy usage over time.

Though not nearly as detailed or complete as the Windows Performance Monitor, the Activity Monitor can open windows displaying CPU activity, both real-time and historical. Like Windows, there's a separate display for each CPU or core, telling you if an application is efficiently distributing its load.

A Mac windows provides an overview of CPU use
Activity Monitor can display past or present CPU activity.

If you're running Yosemite, Apple's latest OS, you can call up these useful windows directly from the Activity Monitor icon in the Dock. Just click, hold down the mouse button and choose "Monitors." The chosen monitor will display the selected system activity even when the app isn't running.

Digging deeper

Some of the Mac Activity Monitor's most useful features are lurking a layer or two below the surface. The utility can display far more information in the main window than you see by default -- the View menu is your friend here. Columns will let you choose from nearly two-dozen options. You can also easily select what categories of applications and process appear.

Filter what applications and data are displayed with the View menu
Customize what you see with the Activity Monitor View menu.

Double-clicking on any item in the process list will, as you expect, open a new window revealing detailed usage information and statistics about it. But as an added bonus, the Open Files and Ports tab will list every file and network port the process or application has open. There may be a lot to sift through, but it's a good way to find out about things that are going on behind the scenes that perhaps shouldn't be.

One of the Activity Monitor's more useful tricks is also one of its least obvious. Safari will display the content of each of its open tabs rather anonymously as "Safari Web Content." However, hovering your cursor over any one of them will display the URL, making it easy to spot which site is hogging all those resources.

Hover over Safari Web Content to see which site is hogging resources.
Hover to determine which Safari process is slowing a Mac system down.

The Mac Activity Monitor may not be as fully featured as its Windows counterpart, but it is an essential troubleshooting tool. It pays to understand some of its less obvious nooks and crannies. In addition, Apple's support site has a handy overview.

Next Steps

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This was last published in January 2015

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Do you have any Mac Activity Monitor tips to share, or are there any you'd like to know more about?
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The Mac Activity Monitor is a often overlooked utility. We use the Mac Activity Monitor to locate sources of machine slow-down, which then allows us to go in and restructure the software and code to bring the machines back up to operating speed. By double clicking the Activity Monitor in the utility folder it opens. Here, look for the software numbers which show what apps are slowing down the machine. Remove software as needed.
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Force quit can also be launched from the menu bar vis vi the apple icon in the far left. It isn't as detailed as the activity monitor, but often a quick down and fast way to end the endless spinning beach ball...
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