Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
Time consuming? Certainly. Risky? You bet. Done improperly, I believe you can render Windows unbootable. The result would replace a small problem with a huge one.
The good news is that I don't think we need to resort to anything like that at all. In fact, we'll use one of my favorite free tools ... the Swiss Army Knife of diagnostic tools, and see if we can't at least begin to narrow down the possibilities.
But it will take a little investigation by process of elimination.
Go grab a copy of SysInternals Process Explorer. Think of it as Task Manager on steroids. Lots of steroids. If I could have only one diagnostic tool, this would be it.
When you run Process explorer, you'll see that you have a lot of programs running. Probably more than you realized. That's fine, and for the most part normal. In fact, as I type, the list of processes running on my machine is longer than the screen.
What we'll do is examine the processes that are running, rule out the ones we know are not an issue, and see if what remains have windows we can close. For those, we'll close the window, and see if that makes your phantom process go away.
Process Explorer defaults to a "tree" view of processes (click on the Process column header until it shows an indented list. It most likely will show two processes that are on the far left, "System Idle Process", and "explorer". Everything indented underneath the "System Idle Process" is Windows, and is running whether you're logged in or not. Everything underneath "explorer" represents the programs that are running as a result of you're having logged in, including the things that show up in your taskbar ("explorer" is the program that actually displays the task bar.) Here's part of the list from my machine - you can see that there's a lot running:
Now, it's fairly easy to identify what most of those are. Either the icon, the name or the description, if present, will make it fairly clear. But sometimes that's not enough. Take the "rundll32.exe" in the list above - what's that? If I right click on it, select Properties, I get this:
That holds a clue. Rundll32 is a helper application that runs other programs. In this case we can see that the command line says it is to run something called "NvMcTray" - a quick Google of that shows that it's the little control icon for my NVidia graphics card. Mystery solved.
After you've identified most of what's running you'll probably have an item or two left, one of which may be your "phantom".
Right click on one of the remaining unknown items in process explorer, and click Window. If the resulting sub-menu is not gray, the click on "Restore", or "Bring to Front" and see what happens. If nothing happens, then click on "Close" in that sub menu, and see if your phantom disappears.
If the Window sub-menu is grey, then we've only one course left ... right click on the unknown process in process explorer and click on Kill Process, and see if your phantom goes away. If not, you may want to reboot at this point to restore whatever it was we just killed.
The process I've just outlined helps me identify 99% of the processes, windows, taskbar items, or what-have-you that are running on my machine. Hopefully it'll help you identify yours.
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