Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
The system idle process's purpose is to get out of the way to let other processes run. So what does it mean if the SIP has 100% CPU on your slow system?
I understand, Leo, that in your article What is the System Idle Process and why is it using most of the CPU? you are saying the System Idle Process (or SIP) is actually doing nothing. But I, like several others, do find that, while we are using the computer (so it is not idle), all processing slows down and becomes sporadic. When that happens, Task Manager (in XP) shows only SIP using the CPU. If SIP is not causing the slowdown, what is?
I do get a lot of pushback on that article from people who are absolutely convinced the system idle process is somehow evil and must be eradicated simply because their computer is slow and "System Idle Process" is what's at the top of the CPU usage list.
They, of course, are wrong.
System idle is benign. The CPU has to do something 100% of the time, so when it has nothing to do for you or for the system, it's assigned the idle task to while away the time. It's the CPU equivalent of twiddling your thumbs, waiting for something to do.
So why's your system as slow as molasses?
Well, I'll give you one hint: the CPU is not the only thing in your computer that affects its speed.
The CPU or central processing unit is often referred to as the brain of your computer. It runs programs which are sequences of instructions that cause it to perform calculations and just generally tell the rest of the computer what to do.
We often place a lot of importance on the speed of our CPU. A faster CPU can perform those instructions faster and get us faster results. Similarly, if we run too many programs at once that are all making demands on the CPU the system gets slow. The CPU simply can't execute those instructions fast enough to keep up with everything we're asking of it.
That's so common, in fact, that whenever the system slows down people automatically assume that it must be due to the CPU being overloaded - even if the task manager shows that the CPU is actually spending most of it's time doing absolutely nothing:
I'll put it very clearly:
If the CPU is mostly idle - spending the majority of its time in the System Idle Process - then the CPU is not slowing your system down. The System Idle Process is not "hogging" your machine. It just isn't.
Fine, so it's not the System Idle Process... then what the heck is it?
It can be many, many things - almost all of them related to your hardware.
By far the most common is your disk. If your disk drive is continuously active while the CPU is idling, then whatever is using the disk is what is making your system slow.
And the most common cause of that?
Not enough RAM.
Here's how that scenario plays out:
You have some amount of RAM, and you end up running software that requires more RAM than you actually have. It could be running too many programs simultaneously, it could be a program that is requesting a lot of RAM for whatever it's doing, it could even be a program that has a bug that causes it to continually ask for more RAM without reason. Whatever the cause, the net result is that the software or combination of software that you're running needs more memory that you have installed on your system. (And to be clear, I'm talking about having enough RAM memory, which is completely unrelated to your available disk space.)
When a program requests more RAM than you have, the system uses what's called "virtual memory" to satisfy the request. Through a somewhat complex process it uses some space on your hard disk in the form of a "swap" or "paging" file to make it look like you machine has more RAM than it really does.
All that happens transparently - the programs themselves actually don't know that it's going on. To them, it simply appears that the machine has enough memory, but sometimes things take longer than you might expect.
This is where performance enters into the picture.
Virtual memory involves writing to ("swapping out") and reading from ("swapping in") the hard drive. And if the software being run is requesting a lot of additional memory over what the machine really has, it can be a lot of writing to and reading from the hard drive.
As fast as they are, hard disks are very slow compared to RAM. Even the newer solid state flash-based drives are still orders of magnitude slower than actual traditional RAM. That means these disk accesses that are happening to swap memory in and out take time - sometimes noticeable time.
In fact, if there's enough virtual memory activity, your system can slow down to a crawl as all the software attempting to run causes memory to be swapped in and out repeatedly.
While all this is happening, you wait. Your system is slow.
You know what else is waiting?
The computer's CPU.
You might even say that while all this is happening your CPU is ...
Like I said, hard disks are slow. When this type of virtual memory "thrashing" is going on it's not at all uncommon for the system to get into a state where it's spending the majority of its time waiting for the hard drive to read or write the memory being swapped in and out.
The CPU is mostly idle, but your system is slow as molasses because its spending all its time waiting for the hard disk.
The solution depends on your situation, of course.
Don't run so much software at the same time.
Don't run as much software that requires a lot of memory.
Don't perform operations that require a lot of memory - perhaps editing a huge picture or video, for example.
Run the latest versions of the system and your software so as to get fixes for any "memory leaks" that are discovered.
And of course, consider getting more RAM. It's cheap these days.
And while hard disk thrashing is perhaps the most common scenario that can lead to this symptom it's most certainly not the only one.
The bottom line, though, is that you can stop blaming the System Idle Process for hogging your machine - it's not. In fact, if it looks like it is - if the System Idle Process is using lots of CPU while you experience a performance problem - then that's a clear sign to look somewhere else for the source of your computer's troubles.
(I hate to say it, but because I know what'll happen: comments to this article that continue to insist that the SIP is the problem will be deleted. You didn't read the article.)
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