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We usually demand a lot from our computers and expect them to handle everything we throw at them, so it’s frustrating when things start to get slow. Everyone knows loud noises and excessive heat are bad signs, but sometimes identifying the problem can be trickier than just placing your hand on your machine.

Fortunately, modern-day operating systems come with a number of handy diagnostic tools that can give you more insight into how well (or how badly) your laptop or desktop is managing the strain.

These can help you work out the root cause of a problem, warn you of potential issues, let you manage system resources more effectively, and even assist as you decide if it’s time to trade in your machine for a newer model.

Windows

When it comes to diagnostics on Windows, Task Manager should be your first port of call. You can bring it up by right-clicking on the taskbar and choosing Task Manager, or by hitting Ctrl+Alt+Delete on your keyboard and picking Task Manager from the list.

You’ll see all the applications currently running on your machine, together with the demands they’re putting on your system. If you can’t see this data, click More details.

Some programs have multiple entries—tabs for browsers and windows for File Explorer, for example—which you can see by clicking the small arrows on the left. You’ll also see a list of background processes underneath your applications, which are smaller utilities that run whenever your PC is on and typically handle lower-level tasks like scanning for viruses and connecting external devices.

Window's Task Manager
If only there was a Ctrl+Alt+Del for life. David Nield

You don’t need an information technology degree to interpret the Task Manager window—higher numbers mean a program is more demanding. The CPU column shows the amount of resources an app is using—calculating video compression, resizing images, and running games push this right up. Then there’s Memory, which basically shows how many balls a program is juggling at once. For example, all those tabs you’ve been accumulating in your browser use memory, so if your computer is running slower, you already know who’s the most likely culprit.

The entries in the Disk column can ramp up if a program is opening a large file or trying to save one to the hard drive. If high numbers persist for more than a few minutes, there might be a problem with the application or your hard drive. Try restarting the program to see if the issue goes away.

Defining whether or not a certain app is putting too much strain on your system is complicated, since it depends on the program, the task, and the particular characteristics of your machine. But if you find this is the case, first try reducing the number of files (or tabs) you have open in that program at one time, if possible.

As a second resort, try checking for updates that include improved optimizations for the problematic app. In extreme cases, completely uninstalling and reinstalling a program can sometimes fix bugs resulting in excessive use of system resources, too.

If an app continues to misbehave even after you’ve reinstalled it, there’s not much you can do aside from never using it again or finding an alternative. Make sure to report the problem to the developer—they can often provide guidance or take your experience into account for the next update.

If you’re struggling to get any program at all running smoothly on Windows, a broader problem might be the cause—or maybe it’s simply time to retire your old machine. Besides taking it to the local repair shop or running a fresh install of Windows, there are a couple extra diagnostic tools that can be helpful.

The first is the Windows Memory Diagnostic app—search for it in the box on the taskbar to launch it. After rebooting your machine, it will scan the system memory for problems. There’s also a disk checking program: Open File Explorer and select This PC, then right-click on your main drive and choose Properties, Tools, and Check to look for errors on your hard drive.

macOS

Apple computers have a tool just like Windows’ Task Manager: Activity Monitor. Access it by going to Finder, clicking on Applications, and opening the Utilities folder, or by launching Spotlight (Cmd+Space) and searching for it there.

All open processes will be listed together—including smaller utilities running in the background—but you should be able to easily spot the most demanding programs.

The opening tab, CPU, shows the stress that different programs are putting on the brains of your Mac. You can expect high CPU numbers for apps that need to work through a lot of math, like video and image editors.

Activity Monitor on macOS
Programs like Photoshop and a heavy, tab-loaded Google Chrome session will likely be on the top of the Activity Monitor list. David Nield

Switch over to the Memory tab to see how much of your computer’s RAM each process is using up. This is more about the volume of information that your computer is trying to keep tabs on at once, rather than how quickly it’s actually working through tasks. So, just as with Windows, a lot of open images or browser tabs can rapidly push up memory usage.

The Disk tab shows the demands on your computer’s hard drive and can be a good way of spotting troublesome programs. Look for applications that score high in the Bytes Written and Bytes Read columns even when they’re not actively opening or saving files.

You should now have a much better idea of where all your computer’s system resources are going. If certain programs are taking up more than their fair share, your options are the same as they are on Windows. First, make sure you’re running the latest versions of your chosen software. If that is the case and you suspect a program might have become bloated or buggy, uninstalling and reinstalling it should help. And if everything fails, simply stop using the problematic application and switch to a more lightweight alternative.

Apple also provides a separate tool called Disk Utility, which you can find in the same Utilities folder under the Applications tab in Finder. It won’t give you much in the way of diagnostics information, but it can check your hard drive for errors if you’ve noticed your computer has begun slowing down or is crashing more than normal. With your main drive selected on the left, click First Aid to check for problems.

Finally, you should consider if your computer is actually able to handle the programs you’re using. It’d be unsurprising to have a few problems if you’re trying to run demanding programs—such as high-end video rendering software—on an old, budget laptop, for example. Using these built-in tools can help you figure out where the pressure points are, and may help you decide whether or not a new laptop is in order.

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