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TechAugust 13, 2021

All the classic Windows screensavers, ranked


Don’t move that mouse! Hang around and relive the best of the classic screensavers, ranked from worst to best.

Picture this: You step away from your computer for a few minutes. Maybe you make some lunch, or you spend time looking at your smaller screen, as though the internet’s going to be any different there. Eventually, you come back to your computer. Rather than whatever you’ve named your computer showing up on your screen (mine is called Clarissa), popping up and then fading away, there’s a funky little animation. It is, ladies and gentlemen, a screensaver.

Unfortunately, the heyday of the screensaver is well and truly gone. It’s all lock screens and passcodes now. So right now, just for a few hundred words, let’s go back to a time when a screensaver was just about the most technically advanced thing you could do with a computer, alongside Minesweeper and “launch a nuclear warhead” (provided you have the codes).

It’s all the classic PC screensavers, ranked from worst to best. (If you’re thinking of a logo bouncing around, you’re thinking of a DVD player.)

18. Your photos as a slideshow

This is technically a Windows XP screensaver, but XP probably counts as “classic” now (if we’re using radio’s definition of “classic”), so it’s here. Your photos should not be your screensaver! They’re dumb and distracting.

17. Windows ‘98 wallpaper

Literally just a wallpaper. It’s the default. Do you know what default is French for? “Settles for less than nothing.” (I don’t speak French.)

16. The haunted house

This is just Scooby Doo and/or Hardy Boys concept art, slightly animated. Haunted house? This is barely a slightly disturbed house.

15. The baseball game

Only slightly worse than watching an actual game of baseball, which is only slightly better than watching a game of cricket, which is much better than watching a game of social cricket, which is roughly as good as using Windows 95s through XP.

14. The forest floor

Bugs! Honestly, this mostly just reminds me of that scene in The Lion King where a meerkat and a warthog convince an apex predator to eat bugs rather than them. Geniuses.

13. The Golden Age

Picture this: you come back to your computer after making a warm cup of tea. The only light emanating from your (probably grey, bulky) Window PC are little gadgets from ‘The Golden Age’ floating across your screen.

The scary part? You didn’t even choose this screensaver. It chose itself. 

12. The rainforest/jungle

In 1995, a quite lovely view of what the Amazon might look like.

In 2021, a bleak view of what the Amazon rainforest used to look like. Enjoy!

11. The swirl

Pretty sure this is just Windows Media Player. I’m not mad at it, but call a spade a spade, and call a mid-90s visual music accompaniment just that.

10. Flying logos

Capitalism never looked so dazzling. Was this the 1995 equivalent of the train coming at the screen in the early 20th century?

9. The circuit board

I can say, with no exaggeration or lie, that this is pretty much exactly what I thought the inside of my computer looked like.

8. The astronaut adrift

Did you know the 2013 Sandra Bullock vehicle Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, was loosely adapted from this screensaver? The more you know.

In slight seriousness, this has all the existential terror of well, modern life, with all the creepiness of the Golden Age gadgets. I love it, and never want to see it again.

7. 3D text

The best use of this was to prank your friends. “I know what you did last summer”, “Princess Diana was an inside job”, “your haircut is unflattering”. That sort of thing.

6. Starfield

If you couldn’t afford to rent Star Wars on VHS as a kid, this was the next best thing.

5. The building blocks

Oh, hell yeah. This is the kind of thing that your average film school student would sit in front of, baked out of his mind, and go, “Oh, hell yeah.”

Even now, fully sober, I can watch this and be calmed into a soft state as the computer rearranges my screen into blocks, and slowly, slowly builds them into a meaningless structure. Hey! Sounds a bit like the algorithm. 

4. The morphing cube

In the 90s, this was basically animated TV. If they had an Emmy for Best Animated Series, it would be a tight race between this cube and The Simpsons. 

3. ‘Mystify’

If the swirl is “Windows Media Player”, then Mystify is “Windows Media Player visualisation after a big night out”. This is the swirl when the swirl’s parents are away and the swirl has access to a liquor cabinet.

2. The pipes

What lies within these pipes as they make their infernal way across the screen?

1. The maze

How could it be anything but the maze?

There’s something about the maze that simply elevates it above the rest: a sense of narrative, of progression, like you might actually get the end of it. Of course, you never can, it simply loops and randomly generates. But ultimately, the reason why it takes out the top spot is simple: It was the best damn thing you could do on a computer that ran Windows 95-98.

Peace out, leave that mouse alone and let the screen take over.

Keep going!