A glib definition of Process Explorer is that it's Task Manager on steroids. But that doesn't do it justice. I prefer to compare it to the dashboard of a car. A Windows computer without Process Explorer running in the background is like a car without a dashboard. The engine may be running, but the driver has no clue what's going on under the hood.
Process Explorer may be my favorite Windows application, and I'm a very tough critic. Not only is it free, but it comes from a trusted source, Mark Russinovich. While he now works for Microsoft, Russinovich originally developed the program when he was working for himself and Microsoft has allowed him to continue development. Lucky for us.
There is so much to Process Explorer that no single article, or series of articles, can do it justice. I skimmed the surface with a couple blog postings in 2008 (Using Process Explorer to tame svchost.exe and Process Explorer, Part 2) and won't attempt to sell you on the software here. Rather, this article walks you through the installation and some initial tweaking to get you started with Process Explorer.
The current version, 12.03, runs on Windows XP and higher. Older versions supported Windows 9x and 2000, but I date myself.
You can download Process Explorer from Microsoft here. The download is a small (less than 2 megabytes) zip file. Unzip the file into any folder. There are three files, the main one is procexp.exe.
I have installed Process Explorer hundreds of times (been a fan of it for years). The only time I ever had a problem, was just now, when I ran through the paces for this blog. I was logged on to Windows 7 as a standard user and suffered the error below.
Don't ask me why, but Windows 7 restricts the copying of .chm and .exe files out of a zip file.
Following the link in the error window just resulted in a "topic not found" error. I thought this might be an IE security zone thing (as per my recent blog postings), but it happens with the Internet zone set at the default value. No wonder Macs are so popular.
Switching to a userid with administrator privileges got around the problem.
Once the zip file is unpacked, Process Explorer is usable; just run the .exe. I suggest doing so at this point because you need to agree to licensing terms the first time it runs.
RUN AT SYSTEM STARTUP
My first suggested tweak it to have Process Explorer run automatically at system startup. To do this, make a shortcut to the procexp.exe file and rename the shortcut to something user friendly. Then get the properties of the shortcut and set it to run minimized rather than as a normal window. Finally, cut or copy the shortcut to the startup folder.
There is a startup folder per user and one for all users of the system. I put the shortcut in the all users startup folder (you need to an administrator for this).
A standard Windows 7 user, should click the Start button, then All Programs, then right click on the Startup folder, select Open and drop the shortcut to procexp.exe into the folder that opens. A Windows 7 administrator can autorun Process Explorer for all users by dropping the shortcut into
C:\Users\All users\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup
Windows XP limited users should right click on the Sart button and select Open. Then paste the shortcut into the folder that opens up, which should be something like
C:\Documents and Settings\youruserid\Start Menu
Windows XP administrators should right click on the Start button and select Open All Users, then paste the shortcut into the folder that opens up.
If Process Explorer is running at this point, shut it down. Then test the new auto-starting by clicking on Start -> All Programs -> Startup folder.
It should run minimized, but appear on the task bar. To make it into a system tray only thing, bring up the main window, click on the Options menu and turn on the "Hide When Minimized" option. While there, I suggest also enabling the "Allow Only One Instance" option.
One advantage to kicking off Process Explorer this way is that Xing out of the application does not shut it down, it merely closes the visible window. The program will continue running in the background and be visible in the system tray (a.k.a. notification area). This would be a great time to test this.
Of course, the icons that Windows chooses to display in the system tray vary. You can force the Process Explorer icon to always be visible by right clicking on the taskbar, getting the properties, then clicking on the Customize... button. This works in both Windows 7 and XP, the Windows 7 Notification Area configuration window is shown below.
Out of the box, the main Process Explorer window leaves something to be desired. Next time, suggested tweaks to the user interface.