The central processing unit (CPU) is a PC’s brain. All of the system’s major components, like the graphics card and RAM, rely on the CPU’s instructions. This makes a properly functioning processor a critical part of every gaming PC.
When a game stutters or crashes, open applications stop reacting to new inputs, or programs open at a snail’s pace, abnormally high CPU usage can be the cause. Let’s go over the steps on how to fix high CPU usage in Windows* 10.
First step: save your work and restart your PC. “Turn it off and on again” is classic troubleshooting advice for a reason. This may resolve the issue, especially if it’s been a long time since you last restarted — a reboot can clear out temporary files and potentially resolve slowdown in long-running processes.
2. End or Restart Processes
Open the Task Manager (CTRL+SHIFT+ESCAPE). If a program has started climbing in CPU use again even after a restart, Task Manager provides one of the easiest methods for tracking it.
Note that full-screen programs like games will sometimes take focus away from the Task Manager (hiding it behind their own window). To prevent this, click “Options” in the top menu bar, then select “Always On Top”. If you have a second monitor, you can also just drag the Task Manager window over there.
Once you’re in the Task Manager, click the Processes tab at the top. Click “More details” at the bottom of this tab to reveal background Windows processes. Look for the “CPU” column near the top of the Processes tab and click it to order by CPU usage:
You can expect high CPU utilization when playing some games, running a video-editing or streaming application, performing an antivirus scan, or juggling many browser tabs. If you’re dealing with this kind of everyday high-CPU usage situation, you should close all background programs and tabs you aren’t using, then return to Task Manager and see if the situation has changed.
It’s important to remember that high CPU usage while multitasking can be normal. Modern CPUs handle multitasking situations by splitting processes between multiple processor cores, which work through different sets of instructions simultaneously. Intel® Hyper-Threading Technology (Intel® HT Technology) takes it a step further, creating multiple “threads” of execution in each core, each of which handles different processes. If the CPU usage of a heavy-duty program like Adobe Premiere is high, it may just be efficiently using the CPU cores available to it.
Intel® Turbo Boost Technology can also help processing of heavy workloads by dynamically increasing the frequency of your CPU. Intel® Core™ X-series processor family have another tool to help avoid slowdowns, as their Intel® Turbo Boost Max Technology 3.0 automatically assigns the biggest tasks to your fastest processor cores, as well as boosting the frequency of those cores.
These processor technologies can greatly increase the speed of multitasking and using demanding programs, but abnormal CPU usage situations can still arise. If you see a background process with a name like Runtime Broker, Windows Session Manager, or Cortana at the top of the CPU column when you hit 100% CPU usage, then you have an issue.
These Windows processes are designed to use very little of your processing power or memory under ordinary circumstances — you’ll often see them using 0% or 1% in Task Manager. When your PC is idle, all of these processes together will usually use less than 10% of your CPU capacity. However, buggy or unexpected behavior — for example, one Windows process trying and retrying to perform a search action that has been disabled elsewhere — can sometimes cause a process to eat up nearly all of your system’s resources.
After you’ve opened Task Manager and found the process unexpectedly using up a chunk of your CPU, search online to identify it. You don’t want to stop a process like explorer.exe (which manages many graphical elements like the desktop and Start menu) or winlogon.exe (startup tasks and the CTRL+ALT+DEL screen), unless you have a good reason.
Once you’ve identified the process as non-critical (and, again, checked that you’ve saved whatever you were working on), click on the process to select it, then click End Process at the bottom right of Task Manager. End Process will cause the program to terminate without saving.
3. Update Drivers
If a process is still using too much CPU, try updating your drivers. Drivers are programs that control particular devices connected to your motherboard. Updating your drivers may eliminate compatibility issues or bugs that cause increased CPU usage.
Open the Start menu, then Settings. Click Updates & Security, then the “Check for Updates” button. This will update critical drivers. Graphics card manufacturers also provide utilities (such as NVIDIA GeForce Experience for GPUs) which may improve overall performance when playing games.
Some rare bugs may also be fixed by updating your BIOS version. The BIOS (Basic Input Output System) is firmware installed on the motherboard that issues instructions to the computer’s other components during start-up. Because updating the BIOS usually doesn’t lead to performance improvements (and can introduce new issues), only do this if you’ve identified the bug causing high CPU usage and found a BIOS update that directly addresses it.
You can update the BIOS automatically with a utility provided by the motherboard manufacturer, or manually, by navigating to the manufacturer’s web page. First look up your motherboard model and BIOS version number, then head to the manufacturer’s website, click on “Support”, then click “BIOS” to find relevant updates.
Not sure what motherboard you have? Click the Start button, then type “System Information” and click on this program when it appears.
Look at the “System Manufacturer”, “System Model”, and “BIOS Version/Date” fields in the System Information window to find your motherboard. (For example, a Z170X board from GIGABYTE).
Double-check the version number to ensure you’re not already up to date. If you’re not, download and install the new BIOS version, reboot, and check Task Manager again to see if the issue persists.
4. Scan for Malware
If the issue persists, there’s a possibility it’s caused by malware disguising itself as a normal Windows process. Some malicious programs use up CPU and GPU bandwidth for different purposes (for example, mining cryptocurrency) while appearing in Task Manager under a familiar name like “Cortana.exe” or “Runtime Broker”.
Run a full scan with your virus program of choice to check for this. The offline security scan provided free by Windows Security (running in your taskbar or Windows settings) is one good option.
5. Power Options
Some power settings can throttle the speed of your CPU whether you’re on a laptop or desktop. Check your Power Options by clicking the start menu and typing “Edit Power Plan”. Once open, click “Power Options” in the address bar at the top of the window. You should see this screen:
Click “Show additional plans”, then enable a non-power saver plan.
Now open Task Manager again to see if CPU usage returns to normal.
6. Find Specific Guidance Online
Many different processes can be responsible for high CPU usage, and there’s no one-size-fits-all fix. To find specific advice, get the name of the process from the Processes or Details (a more specific view) tab of Task Manager, then search online for support threads on the topic.
If you don’t see results from your initial query, add in any specific information that might help, such as the model of your processor (listed next to “Processor” in System Information), and the names of other programs that seem to cause the issue. It’s rare to find a bug that hasn’t already been discussed in hardware and gaming forums, so take the time to try a few variations on your search.
You may find online recommendations to disable services using the Windows Registry database. This is often more of a temporary workaround, but it can be worth trying in situations where a permanent fix isn’t available. Read on if you’re considering this route.
Before making any changes to the registry, it’s vital to create a restore point. This will save your computer’s current systems settings and allow you to restore them if your Registry edits unintentionally impact system stability. To create a restore point, click Start, then type “Create a restore point”. You’ll then need to select your hard drive and click “Configure”.
Select “Turn on system protection” within the System Protection screen and choose how much disk space you’d like to allocate. System Restore must use at least 1GB, but can be set to use as little as 1% of larger drives. However, allocating more disk space lets Windows create more restore points before deleting old ones.
After you click Apply, return to the previous screen and press the “Create” button to set a restore point.
The following steps will vary depending on the affected process, but just remember that if you’re making any major changes to Windows based on online advice, you should create a restore point as a fallback option.
7. Reinstalling Windows
If you happen to have a restore point from before the time your CPU issues began, try using it. But because Windows turns System Protection off by default, most of us don’t.
In that case, your last resort may be to reinstall Windows. This can be a long process, but can also potentially resolve CPU usage issues caused by software.
Windows 10’s “Reset this PC” will uninstall all of your programs, but leave your personal files alone. Afterward, you’ll have to reinstall all of the non-Windows programs you use, and your settings in these will be lost unless you save and back them up. Just in case, back up all of your personal files as well — either on an external drive or through cloud storage services.
When you’re ready to begin, click the Start button and type “Reset this PC”. Then click “Get Started”.
The process may take an hour or more. When it finishes, you will need to reinstall the programs you use.
CPU-Z is a reliable tool for checking general information about your CPU and motherboard. After installing and opening it, you’ll see the exact model numbers of your CPU and motherboard listed, as well as some performance information. Use those model numbers to search online for support threads related to CPU usage.
Task Manager isn’t the only way to see what background processes are doing. Process Monitor logs not just CPU usage, but also registry, file system, and network activity. Check network activity using this tool if you suspect that a process could be malware.
Similarly, Performance Monitor is a built-in Windows tool that gives you a more detailed view of a process’s CPU usage over time. To open it, use the Windows Key + R, then type “perfmon”.
Performance Monitor has too many advanced features to describe here, but in short, it makes it easy to break CPU usage into multiple categories per process and track it over time for advanced troubleshooting.
Find More Ways to Boost Your CPU
CPUs are designed to run safely at 100% CPU utilization. However, you’ll want to avoid these situations whenever they cause perceptible slowness in games. The steps above should teach you how to fix high CPU usage and hopefully solve the issues that have an outsize impact on your CPU usage and gameplay.
However, not all CPU issues are solvable with software fixes. If your CPU simply can’t keep up with the games or programs you’re asking it to run, it may be time for an upgrade. The latest Intel® CPUs deliver performance boosts for multitaskers and players who want to step up their game. Check out the feature sets for the latest Intel gaming laptop and gaming desktop CPUs to see the upgrades available.