Simple Questions: Why are they called Screen Savers?

Have you ever wondered why do we call them screen savers? Do they really save our screens? We’ve done a bit of research and found out that, due to changes in monitor technology, the term screen saver has become a misnomer in recent years. Let’s see why.

Why were they originally called screen savers?

As a kid, one of the first fun programs I convinced my father to buy for our Macintosh was the After Dark screen saver program. This was partially because the young me had done his research, and understood that the monitor could be damaged by burn-in; a condition that could permanently burn an image into an older monitor’s screen. But, I can admit now that another big reason I pushed this program on my father was because I was in love with the flying toasters featured in the original After Dark screen saver. This screen saver was actually one of the first created for personal computers in the early 1980s by Berkeley Systems. It’s been a cult icon for computer users ever since.

After Dark Screen Saver

Image credited to roclar.net.

So, we can say the reason for having screen savers was originally two-fold. Officially, people wanted them to protect the family computer’s monitor from burn-in. But secondarily, people just liked to use them because they’re fun!

What is (was) burn-in?

The old monitors of the 1980s used cathode ray tubes (CRTs) to function. CRTs expose burning phosphor to the other side of a screen to project an image, and gradually the burn will work it’s way into the backside of a screen permanently. Leaving a still image in place on the screen, will allow burn-in to set in much more quickly. This is what causes the ghost image to appear on older TVs and ATM monitors, as well as old PC monitors. Plasma screens were also mildly vulnerable to phosphor burn-in. However, newer monitor screens like LCDs and LEDs are almost completely immune to burn-in.

Burn-in
Image credited to Yoshi Art.

Why is burn-in not such a large risk anymore?

Eventually, CRTs were at a smaller risk for burn-in than older models due to advances in the coating technology used to protect the screen from the phosphor burn. Additionally, the colors used on CRT monitors today are typically less harsh and bright than the stark monotones used in the past, so the risk for burn-in is greatly decreased.

Apple 2 Screenshot
Image credit to Apple 2 History.

Despite this, it’s going to be rare for you to find a CRT monitor for sale in a computer shop anymore. They do still exist, but you’ll likely have to make a special order to get a hold of a new one. So, burn-in is not a large risk because, quite simply, most current PC monitors use LCD screens.

What’s the deal with LCD screens?

Quite simply, LCD screens do not use phosphor to project their image, so there is no risk of something getting burned onto the screen. However, leaving an LCD monitor powered on for long periods of time can actually wear out the fluorescent back-light, which will cause an LCD screen to gradually become dimmer over time. Note that it is possible for an LCD screen to suffer from something called image persistence, in which an image temporarely gets stuck on an LCD screen. However, one simple way to correct this is by simply turning off the LCD monitor for a day or so to allow it to rest, or setting your background images to rotate routinely. But ideally, you’ll already be powering down your LCD monitor every night and this won’t become an issue.

Can using a Screen Saver be harmful to an LCD screen?

They can be. Even with normal usage, most LCD screens’ brightness will decrease greatly over time, and leaving the monitor on with a screen saver only speeds up this process. The fluorescent back-light is usually an essential part of the assembly of an LCD monitor. Once it becomes too weak, the best thing to do is often to simply replace the entire monitor unit. To be clear, if you leave your LCD monitor on overnight repeatedly, you will be shelling out for a new one much sooner. Because of this, it’s advisable to use screen savers primarily for entertainment purposes. With our current technology they don’t actually “save" much. It’s more efficient to have an LCD monitor set to power itself down when it is left idle for too long.

If you want to learn how to turn off your screen saver, read our guide on How to Customize Windows 7 Themes. To make sure your LCD screen doesn’t remain turned on in a wasteful way, even when you don’t use it, you should also adjust your Windows power plan, so that the display is turned off sooner rather than later. Check out this tutorial for details: How to Tweak the Advanced Settings of a Power Plan in Windows 7.

Conclusion

Due to changes in monitor technology, the term “screen saver" has become a modern misnomer. Screen savers still have applications as either entertainment or for various utility purposes such as running anti-virus software, but anyone using a modern LCD monitor will be saving their investment more by simply having it power down when idle. So, while they originally were used for purposes both practical and fun, now they should mostly only be used for fun.