Last Updated on December 16, 2020 by Dave Farquhar
What is the purpose of a screen saver? Screen savers served both a technical and a marketing purpose. From a technical perspective, the purpose of a screen saver was to keep an image from permanently being engraved in a CRT-based monitor’s phosphors. But it wasn’t long before screen savers started serving a vanity or entertainment purpose.
The purpose of a screen saver: Preventing screen burn
If you displayed the same image on a cathode ray tube nonstop for a long period of time, it damaged the monitor. This problem had a name: screen burn, or CRT burn in.
To keep the image from being permanently etched into the monitor, you needed to change the image from time to time. Usually, 30-60 minutes was often enough, and all you really needed to do was change the colors.
Atari 8-bit computers randomly changed the colors of the display after a period of sitting idle for exactly this reason, to avoid damaging your television.
The first PC screen saver appeared in the December 1983 issue of Softalk magazine. This simple computer program blanked the screen after three minutes of inactivity. That amount of time was more than adequate to prevent damage even on the very cheapest of cheap monochrome monitors.
When televisions and monitors cost hundreds of dollars, you didn’t want to ruin it if you could avoid it. Screensavers were originally designed to solve this problem.
The marketing purpose of a screen saver
As computers gained color graphic capabilities, screen savers became more and more elaborate. It helped them serve a marketing purpose. Part of the reason Windows caught on was the presence of eye-catching screen savers in retail stores.
When I worked in retail selling computers, I noticed a bit of an uptake in foot traffic in my department when the screen savers kicked in. I still think the 3D screen savers included in Windows 95 helped drive sales. The 3D screen savers made the computers look more capable than the 2D screensavers in Windows 3.1.
Screen savers were a cottage industry too. In the early 1990s, stores like Best Buy had a full shelf of screen saver collections, generally priced at around $30. After Dark was the most popular one. Berkeley Systems released After Dark for the Mac in 1989, and followed up with a Windows version in 1991.
It wasn’t long before other companies released screen saver packages with specific themes. During the 1990s, owning a computer that was capable of displaying an elaborate screen saver was something of a status symbol. I think that helped drive the sale of these packages too. People wanted to show off their machines.
Eventually the screen saver fad wore off. Computers powerful enough to run them stopped being exotic, and the graphics and especially sound became distracting. Plus, operating systems came with a fairly heavy selection of them and there were hundreds you could download for free. By the mid to late 90s, computer users laughed at the idea of paying $30 for a screen saver. Berkeley Systems sold out to Sierra On-Line in 1997. By then, it was better known for its You Don’t Know Jack franchise than it was for After Dark.
Problems with screen savers
My beef with elaborate screen savers was that they consumed an inordinate amount of CPU power and RAM for the benefit they provided, and prevented your computer’s energy-saving features from kicking in. Displaying a blank screen is a lot easier on your computer’s resources, saves power, and it’s a lot easier on the monitor too. Displaying moving images was easier on the phosphors than displaying a static image all the time. But a blank screen was easier still. CRT monitors would degrade if they displayed a live image all the time, and you’d have to crank up the brightness to keep them readable.
Once the Internet became ubiquitous, there was always the danger of freebie screensavers people downloaded being laced with malware or spyware. That’s an even bigger concern, and early on, many were. Confining yourself to a screen saver included with your operating system is a good policy from a security and reliability point of view. I lost count of the number of mysterious computer issues I solved in the late 90s just by changing the screen saver to that boring blank screen.
Are screen savers still necessary?
Plasma displays can still burn in, but the effects generally will reverse themselves over time. Some people think LCD screens can burn in, but it takes much longer. I’ve never actually seen a burned-in LCD monitor.
I recommend using the blank screen screensaver. It saves energy and gives your monitor’s backlight a rest, if nothing else. I’m all for saving energy and extending monitor life expectancy. I like reliability. Gratuitous animation and especially sound doesn’t do much to further those goals. If anything, it just creates distraction. At worst, it actually causes damage.
The biggest practical use of a screen saver today is actually security. It makes the computer cover sensitive information while you’re away from it and to require a password when you come back. This password protection is vital in work environments. But literally anything, including the plain boring black screen, can provide this functionality. As long as you run one of the screen savers that come with your operating system, screen savers still provide a necessary security function, even if the need to protect your monitor is less acute today. That way you ensure your screen saver isn’t spying on you itself.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.