Troubleshooting problems in Windows is an unfortunate part of an IT pro's life, and--given the amount of email I receive looking for assistance--a very common part. One thing that I've noticed, however, is that many desktop support personnel overlook a useful tool that's present on every Windows XP and Windows 2000 Professional Edition computer--Performance Monitor.

When I bring up the topic of Performance Monitor in conversations, I often get a dismissive comment in response. Performance Monitor isn't flashy, and it's not automated, so you need to invest considerable time in learning how to use it and in understanding what the various OS hooks can report back to you, but it's worth the effort. Performance Monitor is already installed on most computers, it's free, and you can initiate, monitor, and manage it remotely. Therefore, if you're attempting to diagnose a recurring problem with a user's computer, you can configure Performance Monitor to watch for the conditions associated with the problem, without leaving your desk.

Performance Monitor can also write to a log file so you can examine a system over time, which is important when you need to diagnose a problem that you can't recreate on demand. You can store the logs and play them back when necessary or use them to provide trend-based monitoring data so that you can determine system heuristics for diagnosing fresh sets of problems.

To launch Performance Monitor, simply open Start, Run, and type perfmon. You can also launch it by opening Control Panel, Administrative Tools, then double-clicking Performance.

If you're unfamiliar with how Performance Monitor works or the data that it can monitor and collect, launch the application and click Help. In the left pane, expand Performance Logs and Alerts, and you'll see an entry called Checklist: Monitoring Performance, which is a step-by-step introduction to using tool. The document contains links to detailed instructions for configuring and monitoring the tool, as well as tips and suggestions for using it to solve problems.

After you've mastered using Performance Monitor as a problem-solving tool, you'll probably find that it becomes a key piece of your support toolkit. To make it even more useful, download the Performance Monitor Wizard ( http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=31fccd98-c3a1-4644-9622-faa046d69214&DisplayLang=en ). The wizard can automate Performance Monitor configuration and the creation and maintenance of Performance Monitor log files. It lets you configure Performance Monitor on any machine visible on the network on which you have sufficient access rights to run the tool. From the wizard, you can configure Performance Monitor to determine the sampling interval, collect the data, and store the log files. You can also manage (i.e., start, stop, delete) the monitor directly from the wizard, making it even simpler to use Performance Monitor as part of your daily maintenance activities. If you aren't using the Performance Monitor (which is available on all versions of Windows Server 2003, XP, and Win2K), I hope it means that you have better monitoring tools available. Performance Monitor isn't the perfect monitoring tool, but it can serve you well in many situations.