Remember screensavers? While their original purpose -- to avoid burn-in on monitors from long periods of use -- is no longer an issue, they can still be useful. Here are some screensavers that combine the fun and the functional.
Screensavers have always walked the line between fun and useful. If you use your computer all the time and usually don't leave it idle, you'd never even see a screensaver. However, if you (like me) have more than one computer on your desk (and usually only use one at a time), or your work takes your hands off the keyboard but not away from your desk, try customising your screen with something that's more productive (and more attractive) than a blank screen or a sleeping monitor. Here are a few good ones to get you started.
Keep Up with the News
Sadly, the heyday of RSS-reading screensavers has passed, and many of the best-looking screensavers that would display article headlines and feed text on your screen while you do something else are long gone or no longer support modern operating system. On top of that, Apple pulled OS X's built-in RSS displaying screensaver -- which had been bundled since the early days of OS X -- when Mountain Lion (10.8) launched last year. That doesn't mean you can't get it back or read RSS feeds in your PC's idle time.
On the Windows side, RSSMore is probably your best bet for a fully functional and bug-free RSS screensaver. It's... not the prettiest, so we'd suggest setting a single-colour image as the background (instead of the many images the site uses to show off its transparency) and bright text colours to read your feeds. You'll be able to work with your hands off the keyboard and look up from time to time to see if there's a story that interests you, or you can let an idle computer next to you stream news while you work on another one. If RSSMore doesn't work for you, 2Flyer RSS Screensaver is a solid alternative. It's a bit more attractive, and although it doesn't show quite as much information, the 2Flyer screensaver "builder" tool lets you build the perfect screensaver for you.
On the Mac, if you're running a version of OS X earlier than Mountain Lion (that is, 10.7 or lower), you already have the screensaver built-in. If you're running OS X 10.8 or later, your best bet is to just get an old copy of the old RSS Screensaver from an old computer running an earlier version of OS X, and installing it on your new Mac. If you need a copy (and installation instructions), check out this post in the MacRumors forums, which also has a download link for that old RSS screensaver. If you need another download link, try this one. For a more detailed step-by-step to reinstall it in Mountain Lion, this post at Mac Tuts+ will walk you through it (and goes on to show you how to use other newsworthy RSS feeds, like Twitter feeds, to customise it).
Turn Your Screen into a Weather-Reporting Window
If you work in an office without windows or like to plan ahead, maybe a weather-related screensaver is up your alley. YoWindow is a free weather app and screensaver that's been around for a long time, but has also come a long way since it was introduced. Back then you only had one scene, and while the screensaver animated itself along with the time of day and weather conditions, there wasn't a lot of variety to it. Now, the scene varies based on the city you live in, and you can change and store multiple cities. The sun in the sky and the weather conditions change based on their actual conditions, so the later in the day it is, the lower in the sky the sun gets until it's sunset -- when the sun goes down both outside and on your desktop.
It's pretty, but it's functional too: YoWindow gives you future weather conditions, an hourly forecast, wind speed, chance of precipitation, and more. Its look is a bit dated, but it's a good way to use a large monitor to brighten up a dull grey cubicle. You can check out a video of it in action here.
Clear Day (shown above) is a new, gorgeous weather app for OS X that shows you the current conditions in your location, a full forecast for the day's weather, and also lets you check as many other cities around the globe. You can save as many cities as you want to check, and switching to a new one will toggle an animation that takes you there on the globe you're hovering over, and updates the forecast for that location. You even get animated cloud cover, "feels like" temperature in addition to actual temperature, chance of precipitation, and future forecast information. It's $2, but it's functional and gorgeous.
Keep Track of the Time
If you don't have time to read feeds on your sleeping computer's screen, or you're not a fan of flashy weather apps, maybe a simple clock is what you need. You'll be able to tell what time it is even if you're heads-down working on something in a notebook or on another computer, and if you look up from across the room, you'll be able to tell what time it is. Fliqlo is an oldie but goodie, and it turns your monitor into a huge flip-clock. If you're a fan of the aesthetic, it's a must-download. It's simple, available for OS X and Windows, and it's free.
Polar Clock is a bit more animated. It's free and available for OS X and Windows. It shows you a polar-style clock with the seconds moving in a faster ring around the outside, the minutes one circle in, the hour another circle in, then the day of the week, the date, the month and the year. It's way more than just the time of day, but it also includes the time of day. Since it moves all the time, it's also fun to watch in your idle time, but it's not too distracting.
Help Save Lives or Search the Stars
While these two may not technically fall under the "useful" category when it comes to helping you be productive, check the weather or teach you something new, they're certainly useful in the larger sense. [email protected] is a project that uses your computer's processing power when idle to complete complex mathematical calculations and protein folding simulations. As a result, your idle processing time can help researchers do models and calculations that can show us how future medicines may work and help find treatments for cancer, Alzheimer's, HIV/AIDS and other diseases that are under intense study.
[email protected], which you may already be familiar with, uses your computer's idle time to process signals obtained from telescopes and listening posts around the world that are pointed at the sky. Those signals also take tons of calculations to see if there are any commonalities, algorithms or detectable signals in the data they've received.
In both cases, all of that processing would normally require expensive time or equipment to process adequately. Supercomputers, server clusters and other singularly owned computing networks are usually busy with other tasks or expensive to get time on for even a few calculations. That's why both organisations have turned to the Internet -- the biggest distributed computing network to ever exist -- to help. Even a few minutes of your PC's idle time can help both organisations crunch a lot of data, and leaving either running while you're working on something else, across the room, or asleep in bed can do a world of good. Plus, both come with beautiful screensavers that are fun to watch and show you what exactly your computer is working on at any given moment.
If you're the type who just puts your monitor to sleep or turns it off when you're not using a specific computer, then a screensaver probably isn't for you. However, some of these great utilities can turn a sleeping computer into a useful tool to keep up with the headlines, tell the time or decide whether you need a sweater or an umbrella when you head out for the evening. Alternatively, your computer's spare processing time can do some real good for the scientific community, and you get a pretty screensaver to watch while it works. Give some of them a try.