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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 time.

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 damage.

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 complexity.

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 all.

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 burned improperly.

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. 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 C:\WINNT\System32.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 system.


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.
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