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Screen gems

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

This "The Simpsons" screensaver, in which cartoon brat Bart Simpson’s chalkboard pledges unfurl on your monitor, is among the free downloads on the Net (we found it on BBC Online, www.bbc.co.uk/ cult/ simpsons/ screensaver.shtml). SETI@home, left, runs data while your computer otherwise idles. Kailua photographer Heather Titus’ work can be purchased in her "Hawaiian Scenics" screensaver, below.

Photo illustration by Greg Taylor • The Honolulu Advertiser

Screensavers actually used to fulfill the function that their name suggests, though nowadays they seem to save the sanity of the computer slave more than anything else.

Once the "flying toasters" were the quintessential images that floated across idle computer screens, and eventually became a screensaver cliche. Even today, many businesses still favor uniformity, right down to the display on each terminal.

More often, however, the screensaver becomes an individual statement, an expression of personality: in the workplace, if possible, and on home computers, at least.

Your screensaver might depict a "Star Trek" alien, or even be part of the search for real ones (the SETI@home project). Favorite pictures of loved ones or scenes from home can flash in slide-show fashion. Or perhaps you indulge a fascination with some bizarre cartoon character.

The growth and accessibility of the Internet has made such a wide variety of free screensavers available that the market for commercial products has shrunk (see story, page E2, for some leads to screensaver sites). But there still are specialized products offered for sale.

Kailua photographer Heather Titus displays more than 150 of her own landscape and floral images through "Hawaiian Scenics," a CD-ROM organizing the photos in six separate screensavers that run as slide shows on both Windows and Macintosh platforms, priced at $17.95.

Purchasers have included local residents, homesick transplants and perennial Isle visitors, she said.

"Next year I want to add to it and make it a total statement of Hawai‘i, putting in marine life and a few icons of Hawai‘i, like Diamond Head and Lahaina," Titus said.

Screensavers date to the early ’80s when the old cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors were in vogue. Their original purpose was to protect the monitors from "phosphor burn-in." Vintage monitors, particularly the monochrome, or single-color models, used phosphorescent substances to create the display, which would constantly glow for so long that they would actually discolor the glass surface. The discoloration would show faintly as an image overlaying whatever else was displayed.

Many purposes

More recently, improved display technology and the development of energy-saver monitors have eliminated the need, but not the desire, for screensavers.

More commonly, screensavers are installed to achieve other ends:

Screensavers can be set up with password protection so that a passerby lacking the password will be able to see only the automated display and not any sensitive information.

Some companies distribute free screensavers that promote their business or product.

Special-purpose screensavers can provide information, anything from a cycle of trivia questions to stock information pulled periodically from a Web site and then streamed across the screen.

Some of them are programs that actually use the power of your computer to analyze data or perform calculations as part of a larger project. A network of participating computer owners thus pool their computer capacity to handle problems that would otherwise involve a costly supercomputer.

This practice is known as "distributed computing," and some of the available projects include mathematical computing challenges; Distributed.net (www.distributed.net) has been downloading computing screensavers for three years.

The best known of this type is SETI@home (setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu), part of the University of California at Berkley Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project, in which radio transmissions from the far reaches of the universe are analyzed for evidence of intelligence. More than 2 1/2 million users have joined the SETI@home screensaver network.

SETI screensaver

One, Doug White of Kane‘ohe described himself as a ham radio enthusiast who likes high-tech stuff generally. He has the SETI@home screensaver installed on his laptop, which he frequently shuts off, so he hasn’t logged as many screensaver hours as some of the more veteran devotees who’ve been at it a while.

"I liked the movie ‘Contact,’ and it reminded me of having seen the SETI project mentioned in a few of my favorite Web sites," White wrote via e-mail. "So that was my incentive to get involved.

"I think I keep at it just to have a symbolic connection with a group of people who just might find extraterrestrial intelligence . . . someday," he added. "I don't expect to see it anytime soon."

Some places to look for low-cost screensavers

There are screensavers available commercially, but you also have various other low- or no-cost ways to join the ranks of the screensaver aficionados. Here are a few ideas:

Windows machines have screensavers built in. Click Start, then choose Settings and go to Control Panel. When the Control Panel window opens, double-click on the Display icon. This brings up the Display Properties window; select the Screensaver tab for your options.

Download a free or cheap screensaver from the Internet. Sources include Screensaver Heaven (www.galttech.com/ssheaven.shtml); ScreenSaver .com (www.screensaver.com); and the Web guide About.com (shareware.about.com/compute/shareware/cs/screensavers/index.htm)

Use a program that allows you to design your own screensavers. You can find a lot available at ZDNet (www.zdnet.com/downloads/).

The publishers of the how-to book "How Stuff Works" maintain a site (www.howstuffworks.com/screensaver.htm) with a helpful section on screensavers, and a free download of its own.

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