written by: John Lister•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 9/19/2008
Screensavers were very popular in the 1990s, but today they have few upsides. We explain why you don't need them, how they waste your money, and the security risks they pose.
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Solving an outdated problem
Screensavers were originally designed to prevent static images being burned into screens, which was a real possibility with the old-style cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors. Most modern CRT monitors don’t suffer from that problem, and LCD screens work in a different way so screen-burn isn’t an issue. Today screensavers are generally used as a novelty rather than having any practical purpose.
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A powerful argument
It’s worth remembering that running a screensaver means you are still consuming power. Depending on your set-up, an LCD monitor uses about 20% of your total computing energy, so going by a Microsoft study, leaving a monitor in screensaver mode when you aren’t using your computer would waste about $11 a year. That’s not a huge sum, but think of it this way: would you pay an $11 annual subscription to use a screensaver?
In some cases, a computer may be set-up such that running a screensaver is enough activity in itself to prevent it automatically going into a low-power mode such as Hibernation. In this situation, you could be wasting even more energy.
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A host for parasites
Historically screensavers were the source of many viruses. That’s because a screensaver file (suffix .srx) is an executable file: it effectively runs as a program itself rather than being used by another piece of software. Older versions of Windows automatically ran a screensaver file that was attached to an e-mail when it was opened. This was an ideal way of distributing an effective virus, particularly when combined with a worm, where a message automatically copied itself to everyone in the recipient’s address book.
Today Windows asks for the user’s permission before running a screensaver file, so it’s less of a problem. However, like any executable file, you should take great care with a screensaver file that someone has sent you – even if you know the sender – and always run it through a virus scan before opening or using it.
There is still one serious security risk involving screensavers today, and that’s the websites which offer them for download. While many are perfectly legitimate, one study found “free screensavers” is actually the most dangerous term to search for. That’s because just under two-thirds of the sites which came up in the results for this phrase posed a security risk such as spyware.
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But it's not always as bad as it seems
Back in 1996, the Anheuser-Busch brewery released a popular screensaver to promote their ad campaign featuring the Budweiser Frogs. Even as recently as 2005, there were still chain e-mails circulating claiming that running the screensaver would delete the entire contents of your hard drive. This is a long-running urban myth and there’s no evidence that the screensaver poses any risk. While you should, of course, follow security guidelines, the biggest danger from installing this particular screensaver is that you’ll appear wildly out of touch with modern culture.