Screen savers a great way to waste time

November 12, 2001|By Mike Himowitz

APC is a wonderful productivity tool. It can also be a marvelous time-waster. In this column I normally try to concentrate on the former, but this week I fell off the wagon. The proximate cause was a package called Screen Creator Deluxe, which arrived in the mail and propelled me into an "investigation" of that most useless and beloved of utility programs, the screen saver.

A screen saver jumps to attention when your computer has been idle for a predetermined amount of time.

The simplest version simply blanks your monitor, but most display a changing image - a clever animation or a series of photos that you enjoy - flying toasters, fish tanks, family photos, swimsuit models or whatever. When you press a key or move the mouse, the screen saver disappears, restoring the original display.

In ancient times, screen-savers served a real purpose. The cathode-ray tubes in early PCs used long-persistence phosphors that could burn a ghost image into the screen if you left your computer running for long periods. Screen savers kept that from happening.

Although monitors don't need that protection today, screen savers are more popular than ever.

They've become fashion accessories and personal statements. Companies use them to promote their products. They allow you to "decorate" your computer the way you decorate your home or office (or in ways that you'd never decorate your home or office).

A screen saver does provide a measure of privacy, hiding whatever you're doing from casual snoops when you're away. Windows also lets you attach a password to your screen saver, but it's not that hard to get around - don't rely on it for real security.

The problem is that a fancy screen saver can actually wear out your monitor prematurely if you leave your computer running 24 hours a day.

A complex screen saver that eats system resources can also gum up the works if it kicks in while you're downloading a file, receiving a fax or burning a CD. So don't say I didn't warn you.

If you haven't fooled around with your screen saver before, it's easy. Just right-click on an empty spot on your Windows desktop and select Properties from the pop-up menu. This calls up a box that allows you to change a variety of display settings. Click on the Screen Saver tab.

You'll see a list of the savers installed on your system, and near the top you'll find one called Blank Screen. Use it if you really want to save your monitor. It turns off the electron gun and gives the phosphors a rest. But it's no fun.

You'll also see a Settings button, which allows you to adjust the complexity and timing of fancy screen savers, along with a Preview button, which shows you what the full screen saver looks like. Beneath that you can set how much idle time to allow before the screen saver starts.

Before you try downloading a screen saver or making your own, check the screen savers packaged with Windows, such as the 3D Maze, Pipes, or the Scrolling Marquee (which displays a message you enter).

Then look around the Web; you'll find hundreds of them for free or as shareware for a few dollars. You can choose from 500 screen savers at download.com alone, and you'll find links to thousands if you go to Google.com and type free screen savers in the search box.

Most screen savers take the form of executable installation files. Once you download a file, double-click it to make it part of Windows. Just make sure you have an anti-virus program running before you click on any download.

If you're bored with pre-built screen savers on the Web, you can happily waste hours creating your own. The simplest tool I've found is Webshots, free to download from www.webshots.com, a photo sharing site operated by Excite@home.

Webshots lets you browse through your digital photos and create "albums" (such as family, vacations, scenery, etc.) from your collection or from Webshot's library of thousands of images uploaded by other users. To add an image from your drive, all you have to do is click on its icon and drag it into an album page, which contains thumbnail shots of the photos you've selected.

Once you've chosen your photos, Webshots lets you choose the type and timing of transitions between images (wipes, fades, dissolves and so forth). That's all there is to it.

Webshots even offers a photo-of-the-day service that provides a constant supply of updated images for your screen saver or Windows wallpaper.

If you want others to share your screen savers, they'll have to download Webshot but that shouldn't be a problem because the program is free, fast, easy to use and doesn't interfere with other screen savers on your system.

Screen Creator Deluxe from Individual Software (www.individualsoftware.com) is another animal entirely. It's a powerful editor, which allows you to mix photos, graphics, videos, animation and music. In fact, it works like a video editor, with a storyboard that divides your screen saver into timed segments, each with its own images, animations and text.

None of this requires true programming, but you'll spend a lot of time twiddling dozens of settings for motion, rotation, transitions, timing and so forth.

There's a good tutorial, a solid manual and a variety of Wizards to walk you through complex projects. The CD contains hundreds of templates, images, animations and other goodies to get you started. My favorite puts six of your favorite pictures on a cube that rotates across your screen.

When you're satisfied with your handiwork, SCD will install the screen saver on your system or create a self-executing installation package that you can e-mail to others or transfer via floppy disk. The $30 home version authorizes you to give your screen savers away to anyone, but if you want to sell them, you'll have to buy a $270 professional license. If you get good enough to need it, you've wasted a lot of time indeed.

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