The Mac Task Manager: Your Guide to Activity Monitor

January 30, 2024 • April Miller

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Task Manager is the ultimate Plan B for a Windows user when things aren’t working as they should. You may know nothing else about computers but still know Ctrl + Alt + Delete, but what about Macs? What’s the Mac Task Manager shortcut?

Technically, Task Manager is a Windows program, so Macs don’t have it. However, Apple does have a similar program — Activity Monitor. 

Activity Monitor: Mac’s Task Manager

For all intents and purposes, Activity Monitor is the Mac Task Manager. It may have a different name and shortcut, but it performs many of the same tasks. The most familiar is force-quitting a program when it’s not responding.

Activity Monitor also shows which programs are running, even in the background. That can be helpful when your computer’s being slower than it should be. Programs like Chrome may not respond when running in the background, but Task Manager and Activity Monitor can pull them up so you can control them.

Like Task Manager, Activity Monitor also shows the resources each process is currently using. The Mac version of the program is even more in-depth and organized than the Windows alternative. Many users may overlook this feature, but it’s a huge help in optimizing your Mac’s performance.

Making Sense of Activity Monitor

When you first open this Mac Task Manager, you’ll see five sections — CPU, Memory, Energy, Disk and Network. Under each is a list of processes and a lot of numbers. All this information can be intimidating at first, so here’s how to make sense of it.

CPU

The CPU tab shows how much processing power various processes are taking up. Newer Macs have a whopping 10 cores or more, so you have a lot of CPU power to play around with. Still, high CPU usage will mean higher temperatures and shorter battery life, so it’s good to keep an eye on.

Most of the sections in this tab show processing power as a percentage. That number represents how much of your CPU’s total capacity a given process is using. All open apps and their processes fall under “User,” while “System” covers macOS background processes.

“Idle” tells you how much unused CPU capacity you have left, and “CPU Load” shows the overall amount of power you’re using. “Threads” and “Processes” don’t show a percentage but refer to how many of each of those are running at once. 

Memory

The next tab in the Mac Task Manager shows how much memory (RAM) each process is taking up. Some sections under this tab are straightforward enough, but others are a bit more complex, so here’s a rundown of what they mean:

  • Memory Pressure: How efficiently your RAM is working between different processes, in graph form
  • Physical Memory: How much RAM you have installed
  • Memory Used: How much RAM you’re currently using
  • App Memory: RAM used by programs
  • Wired Memory: RAM required to run your OS, making it unavailable for other uses
  • Compressed: RAM compressed to leave more for other processes
  • Cached Files: The size of files the system has cached to leave more memory
  • Swap Used: How much space your startup disk is using to swap files to and from RAM

Energy

The Energy tab is a little easier to understand. You’ll see a list of running apps and how much energy they’re consuming at the moment. The lower the “Energy Impact” number, the less power it’s using.

You should note a couple of specific, practical sections under this tab. First, “Time Remaining” estimates how much time your battery has left before it dies. If your computer’s plugged in, “Time Until Full” shows how long you must charge it to reach full capacity.

Other helpful sections include “Time on AC,” which is how long you’ve had your computer plugged in, and “Time on Battery,” which tells how long it hasn’t. If you need to conserve some battery life, consider switching to Dark Mode, which requires less brightness.

Disk

Activity Monitor’s Disk tab reveals information about your Mac’s solid-state drive (SSD). The two big sections to note here are “reads in” and “writes out.” The former is how often your system is reading data from your SSD, and the latter is how often it’s writing new data on it. Higher numbers in either area can lead to slower performance.

Network

The last section gives some insight into your Mac’s internet usage. Here, you’ll see how much data processes send and receive over your network in bytes and packets.

You don’t need to know much about networks to understand this tab. More packets or bytes represent higher network usage. Using more bandwidth will lower your internet speeds, so you’ll want to keep these numbers low if possible.

Mac Task Manager Shortcuts and Tips

The fastest way to access all of this is with a shortcut. The Mac Task Manager shortcut is Command (⌘) + Option + Esc. It’s remarkably similar to Ctrl + Alt + Delete, which is helpful if you’re used to using a Windows PC.

If you don’t remember that shortcut, you can also pull up Activity Monitor using Spotlight. Simply click the magnifying glass icon in your screen’s top-right corner, type “Activity Monitor,” and it should pop up. You can also open Spotlight by holding Command and pressing the space bar.

If none of those options work, open Finder. Click “Applications” in the sidebar and then click “Utilities.” Activity Monitor will be under that tab.

When to Use Activity Monitor

Now you know all the ins and outs of Activity Monitor, but when should you apply them? Like the Windows version, the most helpful time to use the Mac Task Manager is when a program isn’t responding. You can force-quit apps on Activity Monitor to free up processing space and boost your performance.

Activity Monitor is also helpful if you’re low on battery life, experiencing slow internet speeds or seeing any related performance issues. Looking at these different stats makes it easy to see which programs are causing trouble.

Know the Mac Task Manager Inside and Out

Activity Monitor is just as, if not more, helpful than its Windows counterpart. Learning the Mac Task Manager shortcut and uses helps you make the most of your computer. Whether you’re coming from a Windows device or just want to know more about your Mac, it’s a handy program to use.



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