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November 30, 2010
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Curse you, cruel screen saver!

Is there any way to keep these annoying lockups from happening when we don’t want them to?

I’ll bet one — if not both — of these two scenarios happened to you:

1.) You’re working on your computer and the phone rings, or someone stops to talk to you, or something else temporarily draws your attention away. When you come back, you have to enter a password because your screen saver kicked in or the screen was locked.
2.) You’re in a training session, either sitting in class or as the presenter. The presenter gets involved in a discussion and the display on the screen shifts from their PowerPoint slide to a screen saver or a locked display.

In both situations, the computer went into a form of “standby” because there wasn’t any keyboard or mouse activity for a preset span of time. Even if you know how (and you are permitted) to change the wait time, you might not want to. Is there any way to keep these annoying lockups from happening when we don’t want them to?

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Flying Toasters 
Screen savers made their first appearance when computer displays were monochrome, e.g. black or green and white. Almost all of the information displayed was text, and if the text was left on the display too long, it would burn the phosphors and create a ghost image that would persist for the life of the display. At first, the screen savers would just blank the display. Later on, as monochrome displays gave way to color and graphics became more sophisticated, screen saver software similar to what we have today became available. Either on command or after a preset interval, the display would change to show a series of pictures, text that moved around the screen, or some animated display of infinite pipes or colored blocks — remember the flying toasters?

The screen savers had two functions. The first was to keep the display from “burning in.” The second was to keep the casual passer-by from reading whatever happened to be on the display, or to use the computer without authorization, as the screen saver required a password to clear it. Most computer displays refresh often enough that burn-in is no longer an issue, and the LCD flat-panel displays most of us are using aren’t capable of burn-in.

But the security issue remains, and having some security is a good idea. Law enforcement computers carry all sorts of confidential information, and cops are notorious pranksters. If your computer is unprotected, it won’t be long before someone comes along and sends out a department-wide email from your account, attesting to a police executive’s unusual fondness for livestock.

Mouse Jigglers
Still, there are times when you don’t want your computer to lock up until you tell it to. For those times, I offer two solutions. Both work on the same principle, but one is software-based, where the other is hardware-based. They even have the same name: Mouse Jiggler.

You can keep your computer from locking down by moving the mouse now and again. Each time the mouse moves, even by one pixel, the lockdown clock starts over. Mouse Jiggler software moves your cursor a tiny bit every few seconds, fooling the computer into thinking someone has moved the mouse. During a PowerPoint presentation, you’ll actually see the cursor move slightly, which might be distracting. For that situation, check the “Zen” option, which is less obvious. The software is free.

If the software solution doesn’t appeal to you or your computer is set up so you can’t install your own software, there is an alternative, albeit not a free one. Cyberguys, one of my favorite computer gadget retailers, offers a hardware model of Mouse Jiggler for $21. Their jiggler looks and works like a USB flash drive. You plug it into any USB port, and it moves the cursor one pixel every 20 seconds. You’ll probably never see it happen. When you want security to kick in again, remove the jiggler from the USB port. You could even attach it to a lanyard, so it will pull out every time you move away from the computer.

I was at a trade show where we were using a company computer to run a PowerPoint stack. The company machines were all set to lock up after five minutes of inactivity, and we couldn’t install any software on them. The screen was going blank every five minutes. The hardware Mouse Jiggler saved the day. Maybe it will save you some grief, too.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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