What's My Computer Doing?

Don't look so smug. Do you honestly know everything that is going on under the hood of your perhaps not-so-smoothly running computer?

At the end of a sweltering wedding season, many of us may be familiar with that drunken guest who falls asleep at dinner and is startled awake later, exclaiming "What's going on? Where am I? ... Where are the cookies?"

Those hazy, existential queries of the inappropriately inebriated aren't much different than the plaintive cries of modern PC users. Amid a shifting landscape of services, processes, modules, add-ons, plug-ins, drivers, BHOs, and DLLs--new Windows and Mac users trying to learn what the operating system is actually doing as their boxes suddenly whir can often feel overwhelmed. Here are a handful of free diagnostic utilities that provide some answers to the existential PC questions of Who? What? Where? and Why?

"What's going on?"

What's My Computer Doing for Windows is a fairly recent add to the Download.com catalog--its no-nonsense approach and interface earn points, but some of the additional functionality stumbles. The standalone app essentially shows users in real-time what programs are actively hitting the CPU and disk. Since the processes come and go quickly, you'll probably need to "freeze" the results, then select a program to see the available detailed information.

Links to online security scans seem like a nice touch, but the concept is better than the execution. The "Program properties" opens up the default Windows properties dialog, and aside from letting you browse to the directory of the program, all What's My Computer Doing really does is let you see running processes and terminate them as you wish.

There are better options among existing diagnostic freeware, namely ...

What's Running for Windows has been on the site for several years now, and there are two flavors to choose from--the stable release is 2.2, while a 3.0 beta 9 release seems to be the only version in active development (and the beta installer offers user details from the 2.2 release notes, so take all these freeware apps "as-is").

What's Running's advanced controls lie hidden within an outdated interface. (Credit: Screenshot by Peter Butler)

Don't be misled by the comic sans "WR" icon--this diagnostic tool provides a huge cache of info on all those confusing terms above (processes, services, drivers, etc.), as well as the ability to manage your startup items.

The long-running favorite freeware Windows system-diagnostic tool for Download.com staff through the years has always been Mark Russinovich's Process Explorer, now released by Microsoft itself. The sturdy and reliable app packs all sorts of system data inside a logically oriented interface.

Process Explorer packs a bevy of features into a compact UI. (Credit: Screenshot by Peter Butler)

The main meat of the standalone app is the double-pane process display, which shows a sortable and customizable list of running Windows processes in the top half, then detailed information about any selected process in the lower window. Right-clicking on any process lets you kill, suspend, or restart it; raise or lower its priority; or open a Properties window that will even let you control the various Windows services that are controlled by that process.

Plus ... real-time CPU, memory usage, system commit, I/O, network, and disk graphs! It's hard to beat Process Explorer for a one-size-fits-all system diagnostic.

For Mac OS X users, the built-in Activity Monitor (usually available via the "Utilities" folder within "Applications") is your best first bet for learning about the running process on your computer, but if you are looking for something a bit snazzier, try out the free utility AtMonitor that runs on OS X 10.5 and up. It displays system activity with real-time visualizations, and lets you purge RAM and monitor CPU.

"Where am I?"

Hooray, a softball! In a twist, you don't need any software to tell you your Internet location, most commonly referred to as IP (Internet Protocol) address. There are scads of free (ad-supported) Web tools that will tell you your IP address, but it's right there in your PC anyway.

For Windows XP through 8, the fastest method is to hit the Windows Start button + R and enter "cmd," which will open a command prompt. Then simply enter "ipconfig" to see the details about the IP address and any related subnetwork information.

For the more recent versions of Mac OS X, the easiest way to find your designated IP address is to select "System Preferences" (located in the Apple menu and likely your dock as well), then select "Network," then select the Internet port through which you are connected. You'll see your IP information listed under the "Status" header.

"Where are the cookies?!"

The last and most important question is always about the food. Well, not really. If you are a Web addict, there are already a lot of companies who are tracking your online behavior, at the least anonymously, but also more directly through Web-based e-mail and social-networking accounts for which users have little choice but to opt-in to ever-shifting privacy terms (or avoid the services altogether.)

Who's tracking you and what can you do? See for yourself, with Ghostery (for Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera, and Safari, as well as iOS), a free browser add-on that displays all of the trackers on any Web page and lets you opt in and/or out of tracking.

The Ghostery add-on (pictured here in Chrome for Mac) displays trackers in the top-right corner of your interface. (Credit: Screenshot by Peter Butler)

Your existing browser cookies can be managed fairly easily via the browser in which they live. There is usually a link to display or delete your Web cookies in the Preferences or Settings area. If you're looking for a little help handling large numbers of cookies (and don't want to delete everything every time you close your browser), there are several software solutions.

For Windows, I recommend at least starting with CCleaner. There is a reason why it's so popular. It works quickly and effectively, letting you identify all of the junk files (not only cookies) that you don't need and lets you dump them easily without worrying about deleting anything important.

For Mac, a popular solution named Onyx for Mountain Lion (also for older OS X versions Lion and Snow Leopard) gives users the ability to monitor all sorts of hidden settings and parameters in OS X as well as verify the integrity of the startup disk and system files. (The Mac version of CCleaner is pretty good too.)

Watch a screencast of Onyx in action:

About Peter Butler

Peter has been working at Download.com since 2003, when trialware was shareware and toolbars were those large metal rods for smashing car windows. Currently, he wrangles the reviews, videos, newsletter, blog, and special collections for Download.com, as well as managing the program data throughout the software directory.