Windows Screensavers Explained
This article will give you some background information about screensavers and their history. You will also learn how Windows screensavers differ from other programs and how you can use it to your own advantage. Also there are some tips for users owning laptops, notebooks or CD-burning devices.
Have you ever asked yourself a question like "What is a screensaver actually?"
I did. And now I will gladly share the results of my investigation. As you can
see easily, splitting the word "screensaver" into two words will give us the
phrase "screen saver". This isn't a rocket science and it's clear that the
phrase suggests our subject somehow saving the screen. So the word
"screensaver" can be applied to some sort of good things that save the screen
of our so much beloved baby-computer. But what does it mean exactly? Who is
going to harm our computer screen? Who could be such a bad person? The
answer lies in the exact definition of screensavers.
If you are a meticulous person then you can search the Internet and come up
with some of the existing definitions. But don't hurry. I will list some of
the most often found. Here they are:
- A moving picture or pattern that appears on your screen when you have
not moved the mouse or pressed a key on the computer for a specified period
of time. Screensavers prevent screen damage that is caused when the same
areas of light and dark are displayed for long periods of time.
- A program that "wakes up" after a certain amount of time has elapsed
with no keyboard or mouse activity and blanks the screen or displays various
moving objects across the screen; these are used to prevent your screen from
getting "burn in".
- An animated picture or graphic that can be programmed through the
Display control panel to come on the computer screen after so much
inactivity time has elapsed. The main reason for a screensaver is to reduce
wear and tear on the CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) inside the monitor that can burn
out or become etched if the same window is left on for extended periods of
The picture is getting clearer, isn't it? Let's make it plain. The "burn in"
or "damage" used in these definitions refer us to the time before 90-ies. At
that time many cathode ray tubes in TVs, computer monitors or elsewhere were
prone to be damaged if the same pattern (e.g., the WordPerfect status line;
the Pong score readout; or a TV channel-number display) was shown at the same
position on the screen for very long periods of time. The phosphor on the
screen would "fatigue" and that part of the screen would seem grayed out, even
when the CRT was off.
Tip: Be careful when using a screensaver on a computer with an LCD
screen (most laptops and notebooks). A pixel on an LCD screen is on when it's
dark; therefore, blacking the screen as some screensavers do would cause more
Eventually CRTs which were resistant to burn-in (and which sometimes went
into sleep mode after a period of inactivity) were developed. But in the
meantime, solution was found: home video game systems of the era (e.g.,
Atari 2600s) would, when not being played, change the screen every few
seconds, to avoid burn-in; and computer screensaver programs were developed.
The first screensavers were simple screen blankers - they just set the screen
to all black, but, in the best case of creeping featurism ever recorded, these
tiny (often under 1K long) programs grew without regard to efficiency or even
basic usefulness. At first, small, innocuous display hacks (generally on an
almost-black screen) were added. Later, more complex effects appeared,
including animations (often with sound effects!) of arbitrary length and
And now we live in the world full of fun and entertaining screensavers.
Many of them produce amazing and very attractive effects. You can find a
screensaver on any theme you like, download it, install and enjoy.
That means a typical screensaver is a program. And it really is. But
isn't there something different? Is there something that distinguishes a
program running as screensaver from other typical programs? You're right,
there is a bit of mystery. In order to demystify it we should plunge deeper
into screensaver mechanics. But don't be afraid. It isn't complicated at
First, as you already know, screensavers are launched automatically by
the operating system.
Tip: Be careful if you use CD-Burning devices regularly and your system is
configured to launch screensaver after some period of inactivity. Some
screensavers produce very sophisticated effects but for the price of intensive
CPU load. If you leave your computer while CD-Burning software is working,
screensaver will be launched. This can sometimes lead to the CD-R/RW disks
During their installation process screensavers are copied to the system
directory (years ago users had even to copy screensavers by themselves). Once
they are there, Windows finds them and puts in the list of available
screensavers. You can see this list in the Display Properties dialog. But how
does the system know that the program in its system directory is a
screensaver? The answer is simple. Any screensaver program has a name ending
with the ".SCR" extension, while a typical program has the ".EXE" extension at the
end. That's the first difference.
Second, almost every screensaver has a bunch of settings allowing you to
change its appearance in many ways. Not a big difference because many typical
programs have options and settings too. The main distinction lies in the way
the user invokes configuration dialogs. Windows provides the only way to do
it. It's the Display Properties dialog mentioned above. Other programs usually
have their own buttons or menus to do that. Why are we talking about it? It's
simple. The whole process means the system has a way of communicating
with screensavers: launching them, previewing, and configuring them on your
demand. Other typical programs don't have it. Usually they are simply launched
and that's all. That's the second difference.
So what? How can we use it to our own advantage? Imagine yourself
downloading a new screensaver, running it and finding it rather amazing. The
screensaver can be so amazing and entertaining, that you would like to show it
running on your screen to the friend of yours. But wait. How do you do that?
What if your system is configured to launch the screensaver after 5 minutes of
inactivity only? Or after 10 minutes or even more? Will you wait for this
eternity? You can say that there is always a way to launch the screensaver
from the Dialog Properties. But in order to do that you should launch the
dialog, find the Screen Savers tab and click the Preview button. Quite a lot
of things to do. And if you are willing to demonstrate two or even more
screensavers the things get complicated even more. And what if the screensaver
you've found looks best when the whole desktop wallpaper is seen on the
screen? The Display Properties dialog will simply destroy this unique beauty
you were willing to share.
Now imagine that double-clicking an icon on your desktop could do all this.
Simple action, no unnecessary dialogs. Sure, some preparation steps are
needed. But they are done once. After that you can enjoy launching
screensavers using icons as many times as you wish. Is it worth doing? Try it,
the result can be very effective. Once you manage the process, you can proudly
call yourself a "Professional Screensaver User". If you like the idea then
there's the way to achieve it:
- 1) Use Windows explorer to navigate to your system directory. Usually
it is C:\Windows or C:\Windows\System if you are using Windows XP/Me/98/95.
If you are using Windows 2000/NT, then you should look in C:\WINNT or
- Look through the list of programs there. It can be quite large, but you
can easily find the name of the screensaver you are looking for.
Alternatively you can use the "Find Files or Folders" facility.
- Once you've found it, use the right mouse button to drag the file onto
the desktop. After releasing the mouse select "Create Shortcut Here" from
the popup menu. The icon for the screensaver should appear on your desktop.
Now you can launch the screensaver at any time. Simply double-click the
created icon. Enjoy! I will be glad if you feel a bit more control over the
About the author. Roman Kramar is a software developer who enjoys writing screensavers as
his time permits. Visit his site at www.elasticsystems.com to find out more about
screensavers and his work.