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June 30, 1997

Smoke out those mystery activities with free WinTop

One of Windows' endearing little habits is to periodically take over your system for no apparent reason. Seemingly out of the blue, Windows will spin your hard disk, make an odd sound, or generally do something that you're sure you didn't actually command it to do.

Because we're not in Star Trek-land yet, we can't say, "Computer! What did you just do?" We generally have to scratch our heads and try to go on with our work.

But reader Lou Nihoul has taken things one step further. He reports that Windows used to periodically take over his system, accessing the hard drive for a period of 30 seconds to 45 seconds, during which no other activity was allowed.

Nihoul tracked down the cause of this problem with a free little tool called WinTop. Microsoft gives away this handy utility with its Kernel Toys package, which can be downloaded from its Web site. Because WinTop has been added to the package since the last time I wrote about Kernel Toys, it's worth updating that topic.

To get WinTop, point your Web browser to To download WinTop (a 17KB compressed file), click on the link on that page entitled Windows Process Watcher. To download the entire Kernel Toys set (57KB), click on the Kernel Toys link.

Aside from WinTop, the Kernel Toys set contains a tracker for conventional memory usage, a wizard to configure MS-DOS Mode, a keyboard-remapping utility to modify your Ctrl and CapsLock keys, and a Time Zone Editor. I described these utilities in my June 10, 1996, column. (See "Delve into Win95 kernel with team's Kernel Toys toolset".)

Download the files you want into a separate folder on your hard drive. To self-extract the executable file you download, run it once. Then right-click on the WinTop.inf file and click on Install to install WinTop's files. You can now run WinTop by double-clicking on WinTop.exe.

In a sizable window, WinTop reveals the percentage of your CPU time being used by various programs, threads, and processes. WinTop displays the name of each task and updates its usage figures every 2 seconds. (This 2-second interval cannot, unfortunately, be changed in the current version of the software -- an oversight that Microsoft should take steps to correct.)

WinTop is modeled after a Unix utility named Top (whence it obtained its name). WinTop also is very similar to the Processes tab in Windows NT 4.0. One difference is that WinTop doesn't allow you to shut down a rogue process as NT does.

You can keep WinTop's window on top of other applications by clicking View, Always On Top from WinTop's main menu. Then run a few of your applications. You may be surprised at the amount of CPU time some applications consume when they are "doing nothing."

Monitoring WinTop while you aren't exercising any of your applications may be even more enlightening. Processes you didn't even know you were running may "wake up" and take over most or all of your CPU time, causing those apparent lockups that mystify so many Windows users.

WinTop helped Nihoul trace his problem to Office 97's FastFind utility. FastFind defaulted to scanning his hard drive every 2 hours. Reconfiguring this interval allowed Nihoul to avoid the behavior and get back to computing without interruptions.

Brian Livingston is the co-author of Windows 95 Secrets Gold and four other Windows books (IDG Books). Send tips to or fax: (206) 282-1248.

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Copyright © 1997 by InfoWorld Publishing Company


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