If you’ve ever had problems with your PC’s performance, you may have turned to Task Manager. It’s been in Windows since the NT4.0 days, when developer Dave Plummer came up with a bit of software he was planning to sell, but decided to donate it to his employer instead:
I’m the Microsoft developer that wrote TaskMgr at home in my den in about 1994 and then the NT silverback devs [ie Dave Cutler] let me check it into the main tree even though I was a greenhorn at the time. So that meant I got to bring it into work and polish it up and make it an official part of Windows, where it remains to this day.
He was inspired to apply to Microsoft in 1993 – having read the Hard Drive book (an excellent historical tome, having inspired at least a few great Microsofties to join up), then went on to write various money-saving optimisations for MS-DOS, and ended up in the NT team, leaving the company 10 years later.
Dave also recommends another great history book – Showstopper!
Back to the current era, Task Manager is still a really useful tool when it comes to figuring out issues with your Windows PC. If you think something is wrong (app starts bogging down, feels like the PC is in a bad way), you can quickly start Task Manager with the shortcut CTRL+SHIFT+ESC (easy to hit with one hand…)
In an emergency (if it feels like your laptop it about to blow up, with fan blaring, screen blinking, UI non-responsive etc – maybe joining a Teams call or opening an Excel spreadsheet), it’s usually possible to throw TASKMGR its own special three-fingered-salute, since it isn’t tied to the Windows Shell – you can use even Task Manager to kill or restart the EXPLORER.EXE that sits under the Start menu, task bar etc.
If you can get to Task Manager, you can run a CMD or Powershell prompt, start explorer or msedge etc.
A colleague pleaded recently that he was having a poor experience with Teams, and queried, did he need to upgrade his 150Mbps internet connection?
To check what kind of network performance you’re actually receiving, there are many speed test apps and sites.
If you’re using the new Edge (if not, why not? Don’t use IE – it’s too old; stop using old Edge – it’s obsolete; the new Edge is fast and it’s better than Chrome), and you have Bing as your default search engine, all you need do is enter ? speed test into the address bar and you’ll get a speed test gadget to give you an idea of performance.
If the base speed looks OK, use Task Manager to inspect what’s happening – fire it up in your favoured way (clicky-clicky-menu, right-click the taskbar, CTRL-ALT-DEL > Task Manager, if not CTRL-SHIFT-ESC) and by default you’ll see the near-useless list of what’s running with no other context. Time to show more details…
On the Processes tab, click on the CPU column to sort by what’s using the processor most – its also worth casting an eye on some other resources to make sure they’re not running out of steam; if you see an app consuming a huge amount of memory, it might be leaking, and shutting it down completely could make all the difference.
Task Manager lets you kill processes (“End Task”) too, if the app has hung and won’t close cleanly. In fact, Dave said there should be nothing that Task Manager can’t kill (apart from some critical system processes – TM might have been able to kill them, but will also bluescreen the machine … so some protection has been added to prevent the user from doing something that would be instantly fatal to Windows – though TM is able to kill itself).
Back to the Teams troubleshooting scenario – If you don’t see the PC getting nailed by some process (that isn’t Teams itself), then it’s worth looking at the Performance tab, and leave it running for a short while, paying particular attention to WiFi/Ethernet.
If you see sustained high throughput, then switch back to the Processes tab, sort by Network and you can see what service/app it is that’s hammering the connection. You could fire up Resource Monitor if you want to dig in even further, started from the bottom of the Performance tab. ResMon lets you drill down to see what a single process is doing, what it’s connecting to, how much network traffic is going to and from it, and so on. Useful, if you like that sort of thing.
Finally, your network might perform brilliantly most of the time, but every so often you get a blip that feels like it’s dragging, then it picks up again. This could be spikes in latency, the enemy of anything real-time, like video calls.
Try running the Microsoft Research Speed Test app – the nice thing is that it keeps a history log, so if you ever think your connection is bogging down, try running a realtime test.
The Network delay is actually key here – if you had more than 1Mbps upload and 5Mbps download speed, that should be plenty – but if your network delay is commonly more than ~150ms, it’s going to start causing problems.
If you have a network connection whose latency fluctuates a lot, there are a bunch of things you could do to seek and troubleshoot:
UK telecoms regulator Ofcom recently gave out some warnings about how poor home WiFi could be responsible for users thinking their home internet speeds were bad; a seasonal twist even said it might be your fairy lamps that are causing your network to go south. They also launched an app to help check your WiFi quality, though predictably it’s only available for mainstream devices. Don’t worry, Windows users – it doesn’t do a lot anyway. No great loss.
The Ofcom app is actually developed by Samknows, a very useful website which might help you sort out issues with your line speed more than your WiFi – UK ADSL users can search for the telephone exchange you’re connected to, and see what services are offered – here’s an example – and you’ll see if there are LLU options that maybe would give you better/faster service than the default BT package.
The gist of the Ofcom advice is that other stuff in your house might be nuking your WiFi, so don’t go blaming rubbish performance on your network provider. That’s quite sensible, to a point – there are lots of domestic devices that might interfere with WiFi, though if you see poor conditions when wired in, it’s a different matter.
In the early days of WiFi networks, there’s a story of one company which was flummoxed by the fact that their network kept blowing up at certain times of the day, until they realised the next door company had a kitchen with a couple of microwave ovens for staff to heat their lunch, on the other side of the party wall… Here’s why.
First thing’s first, if you think you have a problem – check the health of your network connection. ToW #199 gave some ideas a couple of years ago, that still hold true – try the WinMTR tool, and the advice for using Resource Monitor to see what’s using your network in particular.
SkyDrive Pro OneDrive can be a hog these days, especially if it’s uploading a lot of stuff: you might see speed tests where the “ping” is measured nearly in seconds rather than ms, and the download speed will be a fraction of the norm (as the connection is being swamped by uploads).
Windows 10 users can download the excellent Network Speed Test app to get an idea. Try running it on a wired connection if you can, thereby ruling out WiFi as the cause of any gremlins at first. Move your laptop around and try on WiFi – you’ll see a table of the previous results for comparison.
Dude, it’s your neighbo(u)rs
Fact is, though, the guy next door is probably your biggest enemy for home WiFi. If you live in a built-up area with lots of people using networks called NETGEAR3415 or similar, this may tell you that:
- They never bothered to change the default network name. That’s not very good. Have some fun instead?
- They probably haven’t changed their default router password either. That’s very, very bad.
- They almost certainly left the router on its default channel, and that could mean it’s overlapping with yours.
It’s quite easy to get paranoid about home network setup & security (see here, for example) but a few golden rules should be applied – give it a name that neither ties it to your name or address, nor makes it obvious how to break into it. DEFINITELY change the default password, and ideally, the name of the admin account used to configure the router. Modern routers might be able to find a suitable WiFi channel to put themselves on, but the kind of junk you might have got from your company IT department or from your ISP, might not.
The radio spectrum used by WiFi networks is subdivided into 11 or 13/14 channels (depending on where you live) and making sure your router is on the channel that’s furthest apart from the other routers that are physically closest to it, will give you a better chance of avoiding interference from the neighbours.
Channel your strengths
There are tools to scan your network and show you what channels are available – this might then help you set your own router to occupy an appropriate position in the spectrum that’s a bit more in the clear – your results may vary and experimentation (even at different days/times) may be required. Some internet folklore says you should use a channel either slap in the middle or at either end of the range – eg 1, 6 or 11/13.
Ideally, you’d like to see all the nearby networks, and by looking at their signal strength and channel, set your router to use the channel that has the weakest network(s) on it already (or preferably, none at all).
- WiFi Analyser – neat Windows 10 app that displays the basics visually and as a list
- NirSoft WiFiInfoView – pretty sparse but gives you text info and if you know what you’re doing may be all you need
- MetaGeek inSSIDer 18.104.22.168 – free – nice tool that gives you a visual graph of what’s around you and lets you drill into a bit more detail
- MetaGeek inSSIDer v4 – more polished and functional upgrade to the previously-free version, now $20
You might not notice any real difference, but it gives you something to do, doesn’t it?
Following last week’s misty-eyed retrospective on WiFi and Bluetooth, it’s worth pausing a little to pass on a few safety tips too. If you’ve a WiFi network at home which does not have encryption enabled (using a decently strong password – known as a Pre-Shared-Key or PSK – and a modern encryption method, such as WPA2) then you must hang your head in shame immediately, that is, immediately after you go and put a strong password on your WiFi.
What should you call your home WiFi network? Well, if it’s “NETGEAR” or similar, then make sure you call it something else (in case a well-known exploit is found in every NETGEAR router, in which case you’ve just told every kerbside hacker how to break into your network). Also, it’s worth making sure you change the admin password for your router – it’s a piece of cake to find out the default password for well-known routers, such as NETGEAR ones.
How to name your SSID might depend on where you live, if you have any neighbours, if you trust them and so on.
Serial ToW contributor Paul “Woody” Woodman has the mischievous idea of setting his SSID to be something eye-opening – in fact, the WiFi network set up by his phone’s Internet Sharing (as covered in last week’s ToW) has an interesting name…
So, Woody’s on the train, using his phone to connect to the internet, and all the other WiFi users in the same carriage are on their best behaviour…
The Huffington Post wrote about this phenomenon a few years back.
To get a more reliable connection, it’s worth setting your WiFi channel to be something that interleaves well with your neighbours, so you’re not both trying to blast out on Channel 6 – as a guide, check here. Try using a bit of software called inSSIDer to sniff your neighbourhood, see what their networks are called and what channel they’re on, then set yours to something complementary, if you can.
Stay Safe Online
Yvonne Puley made a suggestion about checking what WiFi networks you connect to, after reading a report on the BBC website and seeing an article on the BBC’s Click programme. The gist of the piece is that public WiFi networks – a hotspot set up by your local coffee shop, or even well-known WiFi networks provided by telco’s and the like – are not necessarily all they seem. A simple scam could be for a ne’er-do-well to set up a spoof WiFi network on their own laptop, and the unsuspecting browsers could connect to it and all their online movements could be recorded and tracked. Other hackers could stage a “man in the middle” attack using software that intercepts traffic on legitimate networks and can even decrypt supposedly secured SSL traffic.
In short, there’s no way for you to guarantee that what you do on any public WiFi network is safe from prying eyes. Europol (not to be confused with Interplod, as Arthur Daley might have ventured) says, basically, don’t use public WiFi networks for anything private, like online banking. If you want to scare yourself silly, then watch this Click clip.
Anything that goes over VPN or DirectAccess should be OK, as the encryption mechanisms used are less susceptible to having a breaker on the side. Even when connected back to base using a more secure connection, though, ordinary web surfing and background updating of apps will typically go out via the public WiFi network. It’s worth also making sure you don’t give too much away – like when you first connect to the network, unless you control it, then you don’t want to “find PCs, devices and content” etc.
For more info on this setting, see here. Looking in the PC’s settings at the connection properties (as described in that article) also lets you see what kind of encryption you have running on the network. If you’re connecting to a WEP network (the traditional method for putting a password on a wireless connection), then think twice about trusting it – Wired Equivalent Privacy is anything but, and can be relatively easily cracked.
It’s amazing how quickly technology goes from an expensive frippery to a cost-insignificant near-essential. It’s not so many years ago that WiFi and Bluetooth first arrived (remember the Ericsson T29 or T68, the latter of which not only had a COLOUR screen but came with Bluetooth support – all you’d need is a £100 “Socket” Compact Flash card†, and your iPAQ could be GPRS enabled).
Bluetooth went from a travelling salesman’s “look at me” blinking earpiece, to wirelessly enabling things that don’t really need to be wirelessly enabled (and the seller’s earpiece is now pretty-much the territory only of airport taxi drivers). WiFi was developing in parallel.
Here’s a photo from 13 years ago, where the serving UK Prime Minister was entertained by a demo in the Microsoft TVP atrium, of a mobile app (equipped with smoke & mirrors) which used a WiFi network – but it pre-dated the Microsoft rollout of WiFi, necessitating about £500 worth of kit just to allow the hand-held device to talk to the network.
Nowadays, we’d rock up at an airport and be disappointed not only if there wasn’t WiFi, but there wasn’t some kind of freely available service. Buses have free WiFi. Often you can price-check online as you’re walking around the department store. We expect WiFi to connect our phones without racking up 4G charges. Time marches on.
It was 1999 (with the adoption of the 802.11b standard) before wireless networks (becoming known as WiFi or Wi-Fi depending on your degree of pedantry) started reliably working with kit between different vendors. This opened the door to successful adoption and eventual embedding in all sorts of devices. Bluetooth also developed apace, and has now carved out a niche (especially with Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE) for data comms over relatively short-range and comparatively low-power (against WiFi’s longer range, with higher power drain).
Although both standards offered options for peer-peer communications and operating in an “infrastructure” mode where there was an established network to connect to, Bluetooth only ever took off as a means of linking devices directly, and the vast majority of WiFi is deployed as a network of base stations.
Windows Phone 8 GDR3 and Windows 8.1
One neat function that was included in the latest major update to Windows Phone 8 (released under the “Lumia Black” moniker for Nokia handsets), turns your phone into a WiFi hotspot that can be remotely controlled by Windows 8.1. If you go into settings -> internet sharing on the phone, and set up internet sharing for the first time, it’ll give you a broadcast name and a numeric password.
You can now connect from some other device to the phone over WiFi, and use its data connection to get on the internet. Once you’ve set the connection up for the first time, with your laptop or tablet is running Windows 8.1, you can establish the connection any time without even needing to get your phone of the pocket – just swipe from the right, look under the network settings and tap to connect.
† Whilst on the topic of old networking kit, here are some old Bluetooth bits that I found in my Man Drawer. The PCMCIA wireless cards have all gone the way of the Dodo – these ones evaded the net on the basis of their size and the amount of money they costs to procure in the first place.
How can you throw something away that cost hundreds of pounds in its day and is now worthless for any reason other than as a curio?
Might as well keep them and maybe someday they’ll be worth something as a museum piece…