Android Guide: Should I Use a Task Killer

Task killer, one of the most prominent words within the android world. One that causes many arguments and confusion, well today lets see if we can put it all to rest.

I am constantly surprised when talking to new android owners that come to me with questions about their "faulty" phone and "poor-performing" battery, to discover that one of the first apps they installed was a task killer. Even more surprised when I dig deeper and ask why, with one of the top responses being because their "techy" friend said its a vital app. First things first, anything vital will be a core part of the the operating system. If google required that a task killer be a core part of their os, they would have included an easy way to kill apps, end of. Also, if your "techy" friend told you to download an task killer, please, ignore any advice from them in the future, you will regret it if you don't.

So lets get on with this, following the jump I will be doing my best to describe why a task killer is not only not necessary, but BAD for your phone and your experience with the phone. I will also discuss the very few cases where one may be appropriate, and explain best practice in those situations.


Understanding The Android Way

aka 'Android is not your Windows PC'

In order to understand why a task killer is not required with android, we must give an explanation about how android works, how it manages tasks, and indeed what a task actually is.

Android is a multitasking operating system, it was built from the ground up with the ethos of not having to kill tasks ground into its methodology. The designers intentionally left out a task killer and ways to close apps. Just think about this for a second. You gmail app is an app designed by google, but you don't see a close button anywhere do you? In fact I bet a lot of people don't know its even running (we will define "running" later). Google did not want to burden the mobile user with having to close applications when they are "done" with them. They decided to do this on the basis that a mobile user will repeatedly and briefly interact with a wide variety of applications throughout the day.

Think about your own usage for a minute, I know that this stands true for me, as it will 99.9% of you out there. We use our mobiles on and off, jumping from app to app. For instance, send sms, call friend, check facebook, play a game, make a note, check the weather, etc, etc. Sound familiar? It ought to, as mentioned this is how we use mobiles, and the list can literally go on an on and on.

Ok so we now understand why google decided not to include exit options, or task killer applications. But it's going to take more than that to convince you right? Lets drop down a level and discuss what exactly happens when you leave (press home or back) an application. Within android applications, there are two fundamental things you should be aware of, an application, and a process. These two concepts are together what make up an application, and are key to understanding why a task killer is not required.

What Is a Process?

A process is an activity that can be performed by 1 or more applications. When you think of an application actually doing something, for example playing music, posting a message to facebook or syncing your rss feed, these are processes. However, it is important to note that just because a process exists, does not mean it may be actually; doing anything. If you like, it may be easier to say that processes may be in an idle or active state.

What Is an Application?

An application is something that makes use of many different processes to provide you with some wanted functionality. For example, the official facebook or twitter apps. An application may also be idle or active, depending if it has any active processes currently associated with it.

When you leave an application, that application is allowed to keep its process running in the background (true multitasking) allowing it to carry on doing whatever work it needs to do. For example continue to download the rest of a webpage or playing music. However, just because an application leaves processes "running" in the background, does not mean they are actually doing anything at all. They are being kept in memory just in case you are going to use them again soon. Many people cite this as a battery drain, nothing could be further from the truth however. Storing a footprint of an application in memory uses exactly the same amount of battery as it would if that section of memory is free. If you continue to open applications, then more of your memory will be used.

Eventually there will be no memory left, time to use a task killer? No! Android is smart enough to recognise when it is running low on available memory, and will start to close those apps that it deems are low priority. The way it determines priority means that those apps you have used least, and are not core to the phone will be closed down first. This does not include apps that are currently in the foreground, or as mentioned core apps such as the clock alarm. When android does close apps itself to free up memory, it does this in a very clever way in that the next time a closed app is reopened, it will restore it as if it had never been closed in the first place (this is similar to what iOS actually calls it';s main multitasking, laughable I know).

The key point to take from the above is, that task killers are completely not required, and actually interfere with how the android os works under the hood.

Task Killer Misconceptions

So we've explained how android works, what it means by "running" apps, and how it automatically manages its own memory so you can stick to enjoying your phone, lets move onto dispelling some common misconceptions about android and the use of task killers:

"Task killers make my battery last longer" - FALSE!

Task killers actually do the opposite, they make your battery life shorter! Lets look at what exactly you are doing when you kill a task. You are completely removing it from memory. Ok, so compared to leaving it in memory you are expecting to save battery? No, whether or not that bit of memory is used by an app or is free, the same amount of battery is going to be used. You are actually reducing battery life because when you next go to use that app, you have to fully reopen it, this uses more memory than simply bringing it out of memory.

"Task killers make my phone run faster" - FALSE

Task killers cause your phone to become unstable and jerky. Killing processes is bad because a process may be shared between applications. When you kill it, you are causing disruption within the OS, forcing apps to reopen, to reopen a shared process.

"There is no exit button, thats why i use a task killer" - FALSE

There is no exit button because android was designed to never have the need for a user to close apps. If an app needs closing, android will do this itself.

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When Should I Use a Task Killer?

As mentioned, there are some situations where you may need to use a task killer, and this is when you have downloaded a poorly coded application that is causing your phone to be unstable, or hogging resources (commonly known as a memory leak). Firstly, you should understand that this should be a one off case. You should ideally immediately remove the offending app from your phone, and send an email to the developer telling them of your issues so that they may fix it. If they do not fix it, make sure you don't use any other of their apps as they obviously have no idea what they are doing.There really is no excuse for using a poorly coded app, there are plenty more alternatives that have been coded by a developer who understands the platform they are developing for.

So in the above situation I recommend you get yourself an application called SystemPanel.

SystemPanel Lite (market link)
SystemPanel Paid $2.99 (market link)

The main screen of SystemPanel shows you a list of all the running applications and processes. You can then simply click through to force kill the problematic application. If you do not know which is the problem application then you can use SystemPanel to see how much memory is being used by each application, typically the problem app will have a much higher memory usage than others. See the screenshot below of this main screen:



So there we have it, I hope I have been able to explain to you why task killers are bad, and why you should not be using one. There are many misconceptions and misunderstandings out there, many boil down to the fact that people try to be too smart and think they understand android, when in fact they have no clue whatsoever. Do not listen to these people, send them here instead!

Good luck, take care, and above all, enjoy the experience of using your android phone, let android itself worry about everything else.