3 Common Scenarios for High CPU

Time seems to go by slowly when staring at a rotating hourglass.

Anyone who’s ever used a Windows-based computer is familiar with that scene. There are several expected reasons for the wait it represents. These include an application spinning up, a program saving changes, or software that requires access to remote servers.

Still, if the hourglass is a frequent visitor that stays for long periods, an investigation may be in order. One place to start is to check what’s using the most CPU utilization.

You can bring up the Windows Task Manager by hitting the proverbial CTRL-ALT-DEL keys on your keyboard. Upon doing so, you’ll note many applications, processes, and threads running. There are various columns of information as well. One of these is the percentage of CPU utilization being used.

Let’s take a look at three different scenarios that can cause high CPU issues. The first can be referenced from the aforementioned Task Manager.

Misbehaving Apps

One usual suspect can be the currently running application(s).

Whether in the foreground or the background, the whole point of your computer is to run some type of software. A lot is going on when an application is running – code is executed, threads are created, memory is allocated, and so on. During this medley of events, things can go wrong.

Perhaps it’s poorly written code. Maybe an update to your operating system makes the environment less friendly to certain software. There could be multiple applications running that don’t play well together – or just too many open at once.

Whatever the cause, restarting the application(s) can alleviate the symptoms. If a program becomes unresponsive, forcing it to close (“end task”) from the Task Manager should work.

You can also check the System Idle Process. As the name implies, this process spins up threads when not much else is going on. It can be a good indicator of how busy the machine is – or isn’t. The fewer programs running, the greater utilization this process will take up.

A sign something is amiss would be that your machine is busy yet large amounts of utilization are still dedicated to this process. When this happens, go back into Task Manager and look for anything that appears to have stopped responding. If you see it, close it.

Ultimately, you can check for updates to any misbehaving actors on your machine.


Malware is short for malicious software and can take many forms. You’ve undoubtedly heard of computer viruses, trojan horses, and worms. You may already know their differences. Regardless, you don’t want any on your computer. 

Aside from the nefarious things this type of code does, it can also cause performance issues on your machine. In fact, if you suddenly find the CPU is spiking and causing poor performance, malware is one possibility.

Having up-to-date anti-virus (AV) software running is a fine idea. There are both paid and free versions, some better than others. Doing the occasional manual scanning of your machine using such tools is also advisable. If anything is found, your AV software will try to eliminate the threat. Sometimes, if the computer’s infection is bad enough, a complete wiping of all data is in order. Just make sure you have good backups.

Even if you don’t have the scarier types of malware, you can still have other forms that are a nuisance – such as adware. Regardless of the type, your computer will be happier without any of it in the background.

Device Drivers

Device drivers, also called hardware drivers, are code written to allow the operating system to communicate with the physical machine’s hardware.

Your Windows-based machine runs a lot of drivers.

Some are provided by the operating system (aka, Windows). These are typically considered generic drivers. Others are written by the manufacturer of the devices attached to your computer. This can range from the mouse to that new graphics card.

Like applications, there are many reasons device drivers can suddenly turn on you. They can go corrupt. A recent update to Windows may cause conflicts. Sometimes they simply go missing. 

Searching for a new driver is as easy as opening the Device Manager, right-clicking on the desired one, and selecting to update it. If you’re on Windows 10 or above, you can find the device manager by using the taskbar’s search box. You may need to manually provide a location if Windows doesn’t find a valid driver on its own.

The Other Suspects

If one of the above-mentioned culprits doesn’t pan out, there are other possibilities. One of your applications may be corrupt and requires reinstalling. Your hard drive might be getting a bit too full. Uninstall unneeded apps, purge that browser cache and remove unnecessary installation files.

Beyond that, your machine may simply be overburdened. If you have 4MB of RAM while trying to run CAD software, better think about upgrading that memory – or the computer itself.

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