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Screen Saver raves

After the days of flying toasters, screen savers didn’t get much notice. Get ready to pay attention again. From animated pets to vacation photos, here are some ways to personalize your screen.

Screen savers. You don’t often think about them, but almost everyone has one. Some folks choose to use one of the generic Microsoft screen savers that came with Windows, while others go with something a bit more interesting (and expensive). Whatever your taste, there’s a screen saver out there designed with you in mind, ready to keep your Windows PC screen safe.

In this edition of Windows Advisor, we’ll take a look at a program that serves as super screen savers of sorts–a suite that you can use to design your very own screen savers for fun or profit. We’ll also review a Web site that serves as a huge repository for hundreds of different screen savers from all over the world.

Entry level

MyCorkboard is much more than just a screen saver; it’s a virtual corkboard for your Windows PC that, when activated, turns your screen into a fully functional corkboard. At your discretion, the program can even serve as a second desktop in addition to a screen saver. You can pick from literally hundreds of different drag-and-drop items to create your own design on your corkboard, including calendars, clocks, sticky notes, to do lists, name plates, phone dialers, animated pets, and strange mechanical gizmos.

All of the items can be moved, removed, arranged, and even resized. Adding or editing anything on the corkboard is easy: Right-click and select options from a pop-up menu. Various decorative objects are provided–including a grandfather clock–and you can post your own photos onto the board as well. And if you don’t like one of the screen saver options in MyCorkboard, you can set the program to pass through to another screen saver installed on your PC and just use it for notes, reminders, and photos.

A neat bonus to the program is that, if you’re on a network, you can send “pranks” to other users who have MyCorkboard installed. Throw a water balloon on a colleague, for example, or lob a rotten tomato at your boss. The pranks get old fast, but they’re fun for a few chuckles and certainly help to break up the day.

So how much does all this cost? Absolutely nothing–it’s completely, 100 percent free. Of course, there is a catch. If you want to download premium content (an animated parrot, world-famous paintings, holiday images, new gizmos, etc.) you have to subscribe, which costs $15 for a year. If you can do without the add-ons, the program will work just fine and won’t cost you even one thin dime. But once you start playing with adding clocks, changing frame styles on photos, and activating gizmos, you’ll probably end up wanting to subscribe so you can add more bells and whistles to your corkboard.

When not in use, MyCorkboard hides in the System Tray and is easily restored by double-clicking on its icon. The program runs under all versions of Windows.

The ultimate screen saver

There are several software suites that allow you to create your own screen savers, but none are better–and easier to use–than Stardust Software’s Screen Saver Toolkit 2003. First introduced in 1995, the toolkit has evolved over the years into a complete and comprehensive package that will allow you to quickly and easily create the screen saver of your dreams.

An easy-to-use Wizard guides you through the process of using your images, sounds, animations, photos, and videos to create professional-quality, self-installing royalty-free screen savers that you can then distribute to your friends or co-workers, or even sell.

The program supports the following file formats: images (BMP, PNG, GIF, JPG, JPEG2000), videos (AVI, MPEG, WMV, ASX), animations (SWF), and audio (WAV, MP3, MP2, OGG, MID, RMI, SGT, AIFF, WMA, ASF). If you happen to have a file in a format that isn’t supported by the toolkit, chances are you can convert it to one that is via your graphics program or image viewer.

Some of the features of the Screen Saver Toolkit include the ability to produce random as well as ordered slideshows, interactive Flash animations, and even screen savers that expire after a trial period or are unlockable via a serial number. Options available when creating your perfect screen saver include transition effects, wallpaper support, image enhancement, and background audio. You can even attach captions, sounds, and Internet links to individual images, helping you to fully customize your screen saver for your own needs or geared toward your target audience.

While testing the software, I was able to put together a screen saver containing photos of my 19-month-old son in less than 30 minutes. I didn’t add Web links, audio, or any of the other extra options, but doing so didn’t look at all difficult, and you can always go back and add more options later. In fact, the whole process was amazingly simple and very intuitive. Best of all, after I was finished the program gave me the option or writing the finished product to a single Internet-style executable, a CD-ROM, a set of floppy disks, or all three. I chose the CD-ROM and have since sent copies to both of my son’s grandparents.

Powerful yet easy to use, Screen Saver Toolkit 2003 will help you create professional-quality screen savers without even breaking a sweat. The program works with all flavors of Windows and costs $149. You can download a 10-day trial version to see how it works from Stardust’s Web site.

The screen saver site

Rhode Island Soft Systems’ (RISS) ScreenSaver.com offers literally hundreds of screen savers in just about every category you could think of, including topics as diverse as life in America circa the nineteenth century, sport fishing, and haunted houses.

Some of the screen savers are free while others cost a small amount, but all of them can be downloaded and tried out free of charge. The free versions never expire so there’s no pressure to buy if you’re not ready, but when you do register you’ll get access to new scenes and animations.

Many of the available screen savers were created by RISS but most are from other sources, all of which have agreed to sell or give away their screen savers through the Web site. My current favorite is the Living Rainforest Screen Saver, which features all sorts of animated wildlife including birds, frogs, monkeys, and dragonflies, set against various photo-realistic jungle backgrounds. The program costs just $15 to register, something I’ll be sure to do just as soon as I wrap up this column.

For true screen saver aficionados, there’s even a club that you can join. Members get at least eight new club screen savers a year, get access to a members-only section on the Web site, and a CD-ROM full of various images. The club costs $35 for a year, and for an additional $15 you can become a “Gold Member” (insert your own obligatory Austin Powers joke here, please) and get a CD full of registered versions of the site’s most popular screen savers. If you enjoy screen savers and are tired of your old favorites you should give this site a try.

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