Improve Your Mac (Part 9) - Understand Activity Monitor

11/29/2012 5:29:26 PM

Troubleshoot or understand your Mac better with this invaluable companion

Skill Level: Could be tricky

It will take: Five minutes

You’ll need: Mac OS X 10.6 or higher

Apple introduced the Activity Monitor app in OS X 10.3, and it can still be found in the same location on your Mac inside the Applications > Utilities folder.

All sorts of complex things go on behind the scenes of OS X, and its slick and friendly interface masks a highly technical set of processes and hardware/software interactions that make everything run smoothly. The average user might ordinarily have no need to uncover these kinds of things, but for any kind of troubleshooting, being able to see what’s happening under the hood is useful. Even if there’s nothing wrong, understanding the way your Mac works can help you to head off potential problems, or see what kinds of upgrades you need to make.

Activity Monitor lets you view various statistics about your Mac. The CPU usage viewer is handy because it lets you see what is using processing power and therefore what may need to be quit or force-quit in the event of your Mac struggling. Similarly, viewing System Memory stats helps you to understand what’s sucking up RAM and if you may need to fit more. Disk Activity can reveal issues about over-active apps, and Disk Usage shows how much space is left. Finally, Network is great for viewing network speeds and activity, which is crucial for network troubleshooting. You can sort processes by type, to view, for example, only the apps you are running. and hierarchically to see what’s using the most resources. All in all, it’s a quietly brilliant little app, and one that you should know about.

Description: Apple introduced the Activity Monitor app in OS X 10.3, and it can still be found in the same location on your Mac inside the Applications > Utilities folder.

Apple introduced the Activity Monitor app in OS X 10.3, and it can still be found in the same location on your Mac inside the Applications > Utilities folder.

Where to head to first

1.    CPU section

The CPU section will show you how many processor cores your system has. A floating CPU window can be left on-screen even when the main window is hidden, and the CPU History window helps you to see how your computer has been loaded over time. If your fans are running a lot and your Mac seems unresponsive, use this section to see what’s eating CPU power.

2.    System Memory

The System Memory section helps you to understand how RAM is being used. We can see a list of processes and the ‘Real Mem’ column has been ticked to sort the list based on the amount of memory being used. At the bottom you can see a pie chart with the total installed RAM, and then coloured sections displaying how much is currently in use, free and reserved.

3.    Inspect button

By using the Inspect button at the top of Activity Monitor’s window you can get more information on running processes. Here, for example, the Finder is using different amounts of RAM and only a small amount of CPU. The other tabs can show information about any open files associated with an application or process, and you can also quit a process from this window.

Understanding activity monitor

Description: Understanding activity monitor

Understanding activity monitor

1.    Process name

The name of a process usually gives you a pretty good idea of what it is. Certainly in the case of apps like iTunes, Word or Photoshop, you’ll be able to tell at a glance. The Process II) is also useful to know if you ever have to force terminate a process using the Terminal, but that’s for more advanced users. The more esoteric process names are for system level stuff, and generally shouldn’t be messed with.

2.    User name

OS X supports various types of users and also multiple users logged in at the same time, although not actually interacting physically with the system at the same time. The root user is the system itself and this is listed as being the instigator of the various core system processes like running the kernel and low-level security processes. There are two users logged in here, and they are both running processes, though one is only logged in in the background.

3.    Memory and kind

OS X 10.8 is a fully M-bit system, but capable of running 32-bit apps for reasons of compatibility. You can see from this list that al system level processes are Intel M-bit and a couple of third-party apps and drivers are not. If you need to know if a process is 32 or 64 bit, this is where to find out. You can also see the list is sorted hierarchically by how much memory is in use, which is also useful.

4.    Process sorting

OS X runs various types of processes, and you can choose to filter them by type. There are active and inactive processes, system and user processes, and Windowed processes, meaning apps that are currently displayed in a window in the Finder. It’s useful to be able to sort the list to show only the processes you have initiated, as this won’t display all the core OS X stuff.

5.    Filter processes

If you need to quickly find a process to determine how it is behaving or misbehaving as the case may be, it can be a good idea to simply type its name into the search field here. This saves you sorting the list and then sorting through the results and depends only on your having a decent idea of what the name of the process might be. In the case of apps its usually enough to type the name of the app, and everything relevant should show up.

6.    Viewing tabs

View performance and operation stats using the tabs at the base of the window. CPU and Memory will help diagnose performance problems, and Disk Activity and Usage will alert you if your drive is getting full or writing too much data, which can be a sign of problems. Finally, Network can display how much data has flowed in and out of your system as well as current and peak speeds.

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