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What Is Activity Monitor? The Mac Equivalent of Task Manager

Learn all about Activity Monitor on your Mac and how to use it to check detailed information about your system.

Activity Monitor is the Mac equivalent to the Windows Task Manager. It displays a variety of resources in use on your system in real time. These include processes, disk activity, memory usage, and more to provide a sort of dashboard into what’s going on in your Mac.

We’ll show you how to read and use Activity Monitor for Mac. You’ll also learn how CPU, RAM, and disk activity can affect your Mac’s performance over time.

How to Open Activity Monitor on a Mac

The Activity Monitor app lives in Applications > Utilities. To open it, press Cmd + Space to launch Spotlight. Then type in the first few letters of the app and press Return when Activity Monitor appears at the top of the list. However, there are various other ways to open and interact with the Mac resource monitor.

In the Activity Monitor, there are five system monitor indicators that give you the real-time stats and graphs of resource usage over time. The data might be useful to troubleshoot problems on your Mac. We’ll detail each of these options below.

1. Monitor the CPU With Activity Monitor

The CPU tab shows how every process uses your computer’s processor. You’ll see what percentage of the total CPU a process is using (% CPU), how long it’s been active (CPU Time), the number of times a process awoke from the sleep state (Idle Wake Ups), and more.

At the bottom of the screen, you’ll also see the percentage and graph of your CPU used by the System (red) and User (blue).

List Processes by %CPU

To see which processes are consuming excessive resources, choose View > All Processes and click on the % CPU column to sort them by usage. Some processes may occasionally display high CPU usage, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem. For example:

  • The mds and mdworker processes associated with Spotlight might show frequent CPU spikes during indexing. This is perfectly normal for a new or recently formatted Mac. The process will end automatically when done.

  • The kernel_task process manages your Mac’s temperature by limiting CPU access to processes that use the CPU intensely. It’s common to see this consume more CPU over time.

  • A web browser may show high CPU usage while rendering too many tabs or displaying multimedia content like video.

  • Cloudd is the daemon process that deals with syncing iCloud data. If you see a spike in CPU usage, this doesn’t indicate a problem. Once the syncing completes, the %CPU should get reduced.

View CPU Usage and History

Click the Window menu to open CPU Usage, CPU History, and GPU History in a separate window. The information will give you insights into your overall CPU utilization. The CPU History window shows user and system load on each core over time.

Quit Rogue Processes

If an app is acting weird, becomes unresponsive, or crashes, then your best option is to force quit it. You’ll see the problematic processes in red text with the phrase Not Responding.

To terminate the process, select the app and choose View > Quit Process. Or click the X button at the top of the toolbar to quit the process.

If Activity Monitor is not working, try these alternative steps:

  • Press and hold Cmd + Option + Esc. Choose the app you want to quit in the Force Quit Applicationsdialog box and click Force Quit.

  • Open the Terminal app.

  • Type the following command: >ps -ax

  • Press Return to list all the running process along with PID (Process Identification) number. To force quit an app, type >kill <PID number>

You should never force quit system processes or ignore processes that run as root. Instead, find out the probable cause by looking at logs or restart your Mac.

2. The Memory Tab in Activity Monitor

The Memory tab displays how much RAM your Mac is using. Along with the CPU, it’s a chief performance indicator of your Mac. At the bottom of the window, you’ll see a real-time memory graph with values that can help you diagnose performance issues.

The Memory Used value is the total amount of memory used by all apps and system processes. It’s divided into the following:

  • Wired Memory: Processes that must stay in memory. They can’t be compressed or paged out.

  • App Memory: Memory allocated to all app processes.

  • Compressed: macOS includes software-based memory compression to increase performance and reduce energy use. Your Mac compresses the content used by less active processes to free up space for more active ones.

Check if Your Mac Needs More RAM

The Memory Pressure graph shows the present state of memory resource usage through different colors. Green means sufficient memory resources are available, while Red means your Mac has run out of memory and needs more RAM to operate efficiently.

The borderline Yellow is a warning sign. Check to see if an app is using up memory and causing the memory pressure to increase. If that’s the case, quit the app.

View Cached Files Memory Usage

Cached Files is another useful parameter. This tells you how much memory is presently used by apps, but is still available for other apps to take. For example, if you quit Apple Mail after using it for a while, its data will become part of the memory used by cached files.

If you re-launch the Mail app, it’ll launch faster. But if another app needs RAM, macOS will dynamically remove cached data and allocate it to other apps.

If Cached Files is consuming a lot of memory, don’t fret about it. As long as memory pressure is green, it shouldn’t be a concern. Since Apple silicon Macs have an integrated system on a chip, your only option is to quit the app.

The Swap Used and Compression Entries

These two parameters tell you how much active process data was swapped out to the startup drive or compressed to save space. Compression is preferred to swapping because it makes more room for memory and doesn’t slow down your Mac.

A low number for Swap Used is acceptable, but a high number indicates that your Mac doesn’t have enough real memory to meet the application demands.

Catching App Memory Leaks

Memory leaks happen when an app doesn’t release the allocated memory for reuse. Over time, the leak accumulates and the problematic app comes to a grinding halt. You can easily identify these leaks through Activity Monitor.

3. Review Energy Usage With Activity Monitor

Every MacBook user is likely to have a valid concern about battery life; you probably want your laptop to run for as long as possible. The Energy pane of Activity Monitor is your Mac’s resource monitor. It shows overall energy use and power used by each app.

You’ll see the Energy Impact of running apps, along with the Avg Energy Impact of each app over the last 12 hours or since your Mac booted up, whichever is shorter. The App Nap feature allows your Mac to put inactive apps to sleep. This field tells you which apps support this and whether it is preventing your Mac from going to sleep or not.

Implications of Energy Usage

The more energy a particular app uses, the shorter your battery life becomes. You should check the Avg Energy Impact column to see which apps use the most energy over time. Quit those apps if you don’t need them.

For web browsers, you don’t have to quit the entire app. Click the triangle next to the browser to expand the list of child processes. Find the one with the highest energy impact, then force-quit that process.

Generally, those are tabs or plugins that consume significant energy.

4. Activity Monitor’s Disk Panel

The Disk pane shows the amount of data each process has read from or written to the disk. It denotes the number of times your Mac accessed the drive to read (read IO) and write (write IO) data. Blue shows the number of reads per second while red indicates the number of writes per second.

Implications of Disk Activity

Having enough RAM is essential for performance, but free space on your startup drive is critical for system stability. Pay close attention to the number of reads or writes and observe how your system accesses the read or write data.

If disk activity is high, does it correlate with the CPU usage? Some apps or processes can cause both heavy disk activity and CPU usage, like when you convert video or edit RAW photos. And if your Mac is short on RAM, you’ll see frequent spikes in disk activity due to swapping.

5. Using the Network Tab in Activity Monitor

The Network pane shows how much data your Mac is sending or receiving over your network. At the bottom, you’ll see network usage in packets and the amount transferred (in red) and received (in blue).

Implications of Network Activity

Some processes naturally generate a lot of network activity, but others using the network a lot might not make much sense. Determining which external resource each process is connecting to is a huge pain.

If you’re curious to see what data packets are passing through which processes, use the Little Snitch app to monitor network traffic on a per-app basis.

Generate a System Diagnostics Report

Activity Monitor can also help you generate a report about the status of your Mac. You can save the report and send it to a friend or Apple support for troubleshooting purposes.

To do this, choose View > System Diagnostics. You may need to wait a while for this to complete.

Tune Up Your Mac for the Best Performance

Activity Monitor is the stock macOS task manager. By running this tool and following the advice we’ve covered here, you can work out why your Mac is slow and what each parameter means to your overall system health.

Once you catch the source of the problem, try some tips to tune-up your Mac and make it run faster and smoother.

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