Why does Windows wait longer than my screen saver idle timeout before starting the screen saver?

You may find yourself in a situation where Windows takes longer than your specified screen saver idle timeout to start the screen saver.

First of all, there are ways for programs to block the screen saver entirely. Calling SetThreadExecutionState(ES_DISPLAY_REQUIRED), is how a program says, "Even though there is no mouse or keyboard input, the screen is indeed in use, so don't blank it or start the screen saver." Media playback programs use this so the screen saver doesn't kick in while you're watching a movie on your DVD, and presentation programs use it so the screen saver doesn't start in the middle of your multi-million-dollar proposal.

But even if no program has marked the screen as busy, Windows itself will delay activating the screen saver if it detects that you would prefer that it not run for a while.

If you repeatedly dismiss the screen saver less than one minute after it starts on Windows Vista or later, the operating system says, "Oh, sorry. I thought there was nobody there, but obviously there is. You're probably reading an information-dense document or using your laptop as a flashlight or clock, and you want the screen to stay on even though you aren't generating any input. I'll hold off the screen saver for a little while for you."

After the second time you do a "fast dismiss" of the screen saver, the screen saver idle time is temporarily incremented by its nominal value. For example, if you set your screen saver timeout to two minutes, then starting with the second fast dismiss, Windows will wait an additional two minutes before trying the screen saver again. Here's a timeline for people who like timelines:

  • At T = 0, you stop generating input.
  • At T = 2m, the screen saver starts. You dismiss it immediately.
  • At T = 4m, the screen saver starts. You dismiss it immediately. This is your second consecutive fast dismiss, so the screen saver timeout is temporarily increased to 4 minutes.
  • At T = 8m, the screen saver starts. You dismiss it immediately. This is your third consecutive fast dismiss, so the screen saver timeout is temporarily increased to 6 minutes.
  • At T = 14m, the screen saver starts. You dismiss it immediately. This is your fourth consecutive fast dismiss, so the screen saver timeout is temporarily increased to 8 minutes.

As long as you keep fast-dismissing, the delay will increase. Of course, the delay won't grow indefinitely, because you'll eventually hit some other idle timeout, like the system sleep timeout, and then the system will sleep before it gets a chance to run the screen saver.

If this feature offends you, then you can disable it by setting Adaptive Display to off in the Advanced Power Settings. There are also Group Policies for controlling this feature.

Comments (32)
  1. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    I wonder if there is any rational explanation to why:

    1. XP in FUS mode doesn’t seem to go to monitor power saving mode, if a last user was not an administrator, and administrator never logged in. Need admin login to read and load power policies?
    2. After switching to a different user from FUS screen (which being idle for long time) the new session goes immediately to monitor power off (or screen saver), unless you move the mouse.

    Does that mean the idle state and timeouts is tracked separately in the sessions? Sometimes, when I start a Task Manager with Run As Admin, I see a screen saver running in a disconnected session.

    Again, that all is for XP.

  2. @Maurits says:

    > ++features_to_turn_off_every_time_i_install_windows

    exactly.. WHY does this annoy you ?!

    seems to me a great feature (apart from the fact that I don’t use a screen saver at all).

  3. Frank says:

    MSDN on "SetThreadExecutionState"

    "This function does not stop the screen saver from executing."

  4. nathan_works says:

    linear back off for the screen saver dismissal, rather than exponential ? hey, if exponential back off is good enough for ethernet, it should be good enough for windows..

  5. Doug says:

    > ++features_to_turn_off_every_time_i_install_windows

    The reasoning behind this seems quite acceptable.  As with any Logic – Human interaction, without telepathy available, there are many tradeoffs.  And no one will be "happy" with every choice.

    I don’t like a lot of the default config settings myself.  But as a computing professional, I know I’m not in the target audience.  The target audience doesn’t know how to change settings….

  6. I’m curious how someone actually discovered this ‘feature’.  Is there really someone sitting there with a stop watch making sure the screen locks in exactly T-seconds?

    I am really impressed by this.  This is an example of the computer Doing The Right Thing without any additional input.  I never would have known this existed, even if it was actively helping me day after day.

  7. Falcon says:

    @Michael Dwyer:

    Maybe they just noticed it casually – if you have a 5 minute timeout, walk away from the computer, return in almost 20 and see that there’s no screen saver, it might make you wonder what’s going on.

    There’s no indication in Raymond’s post that this was intended to be a complaint – it could have been simple curiosity. On the other hand, admins in a corporate setting might want to ensure that the screen saver starts after a set idle period and locks the workstation.

  8. Neil (SM) says:


    I think at least with Windows 7 (not sure about earlier versions) the screensaver is off by default anyway.  Screensavers are sooooo 1990’s.

  9. Gotcha says:


    Screensaver is indeed disabled by default in Windows 7. But when I’m correctly informed, the "dim the display after X minutes" (on notebooks) powersaving feature has the same adaptive behaviour (and will probably stop doing so if you disable it for the screensaver).

  10. OK, I see the "adaptive display" setting in the "Power Options | Advanced settings" – but only in Vista, not in Windows 7.

    I see the group policy on both. Curious.

    The "explain" text on the group policy seems to contradict the name of the policy though.  The name of the policy is "Turn Off Adaptive Display Timeout…", and the explanatory text says "When this policy is enabled, Windows automatically adjusts the setting based on what users do with their keyboard or mouse to keep the display on…"

    So at least two bugs here.  I’ll have to experiment to see whether the feature works in Windows 7.

  11. *sigh*


  12. Out of curiousity, how quickly do you have to dismiss the screensaver for it to qualify as "immediately" for the purposes of adaptive back-off?

  13. Mike says:

    He says in the article: "less than a minute"

  14. Jonathan Wilson says:

    I fail to see the utility of screensavers anymore. Its better to just have the system go into monitor power save mode.

  15. Adam V says:


    Look five paragraphs up on that same page.

    "Calling SetThreadExecutionState without ES_CONTINUOUS simply resets the idle timer; to keep the display or system in the working state, the thread must call SetThreadExecutionState periodically."

    True, the screen saver is not *stopped* from executing. It is merely periodically delayed.

  16. For the record:

    Experiments seem to show that, though the "advanced power settings" option is no longer there in Windows 7, the "dim the screen" feature does react to the Group Policy setting.

  17. Leo Davidson says:

    @Jonathan Wilson:

    Screensavers are still useful.

    LCD screens get image retention — retention, not burn-in, but it’s still annoying — if you leave the same thing on-screen whenever they are on. A good screensaver will undo that build-up.

    For example, a few months ago I found that when I was viewing images full-screen on a grey background, I could still see the outline of parts of my taskbar and some windows which were almost always on screen in the same place.

    After that I set the ribbons screensaver to run for 10 mins prior to monitor power-down and the retention has gone away.

    This isn’t to mention that some PCs are attached to plasma screens which get proper burn-in. (Alas, screensavers trigger bugs in Windows Media Center — video unpauses/restarts when it loses focus sometimes — which is likely used on most plasma-attached PCs, but the actual video content they tend to play is a good screensaver by itself. :))

  18. Jolyon Smith says:


    "video content … is a good screensaver"

    I dunno, I watch a lot of widescreen, letter-boxed movies and those black bars are starting to burn-in and get very annoying.


  19. someone else says:

    @Jonathan Wilson

    That would be true if power-saving mode (i.e. turn off the screen) would lock the workstation. Starting Blank Screen Saver simultaneously works well.

  20. Mark Jonson says:

    This may be my second favorite new feature of Windows Vista, aside from the Start Menu search.

  21. Miral says:

    Good to know; this sounds like a very useful feature.

    Incidentally, I’ve encountered quite a few games (and web video players) that will let the screensaver interrupt them even in full-screen mode, which is really annoying.  (It’s only typically a problem with games when using gamepad input only, since otherwise the mouse/keyboard use will prevent it.)

  22. Worf says:

    Yeah, this is a nice quiet feature – very useful in utility since you could be doing something just an itty bit longer than the screensaver timeout.

    As for "fast dismiss", when the screensaver kicks in, there’s a brief period where the system will act like it never kicked in. This is most obvious when "require password" is set on the screensaver. Within the fast dismiss period, you can get back without logging in again (the PC won’t lock), but after that, you’ll have to log in again.

    Me, I disable it, usually. I’m typically good at locking my PC when I step away. Others, I treat it as an auto-lock.

  23. Jolyon Smith says:


    I don’t find it a particularly annoying "feature", but I do find the implementation annoying.

    Over here in what we shall call area "A", we have the "Screen saver timeout" setting.

    Then somewhere other THERE, which we shall call area B, and THERE – area C – is another setting which alters the actual behaviour that we thought we were controlling with the settings in area A.

    Area A gives no indication that my input settings are (potentially) subject to variations based on my input settings in areas B or C, or indeed that areas B and C even exist and may be relevant to the setting I am putting in area A.

    So when decided my personal screen saver timeout, I think:

    Hmmm, sometimes I read documents that take about 10-15 minutes to properly digest the information, so I’ll make 20 minutes my screen saver timeout for those rare occasions, rather then the 5 minutes I might otherwise choose (obviously the thinking isn’t quite this specific or clarified, but you get my point).

    When what I *could* have done, and probably *would* have done, had I known about ALL the controls available to me in this area, and what they meant ("Adaptive"?  WTF is adapative?  HOW does it adapt?  … I know, RTFM or F1 … but I digress) then I could more intelligently configure my system to suit me.

  24. suryp says:

    I’m sorry for off topic but I don’t know where is the right place for it:

    The Search on the main page doesn’t work.

    Can you check it, please?

  25. Neil says:

    I’ve seen two oddities related to the screen saver and display power saving timeouts.

    The first was on Windows 95 with display power saving (but no screen saver) – if you move the mouse just as it turns the screen off then it resets the idle time without restoring display power so you then have to wait for the timeout to expire again before retrying.

    The second is on Windows XP whereby if you leave the system idle with an application crash dialog displayed for longer than the screen save timeout then dismissing the dialog allows the screensaver to start even though you’re obviously no longer idle.

  26. cthulhu says:

    This is not particularly effective, intuitive or visible solution to the problem

  27. Marc says:

    I think this is a classic case of over-engineering a problem. If the user quickly cancels the screen saver, say, twice – then just disable it for 60 minutes. No need to have a relationship between the number of times cancelled and the length of time before it activates again, in my opinion anyway.

    [What if the original screen saver timeout was 60 minutes? -Raymond]
  28. Marc says:

    Good point :) Though seems like it would be unusual for a screen saver to activate and the user still be there after all that time, so they can deactivate it quickly enough.

    Unlikely, but I fear someone somewhere will prove me wrong :)

    [Like, say, somebody watching a movie on Hulu? -Raymond]
  29. Alex says:

    Once I had a crash of a screensaver. I think it was in Vista beta. The funny thing is, there is a "The Screensaver has crashed" Screensaver.

  30. rp says:

    "Adaptive Display" is a terrible name for this feature.  I would have no idea what that means.  It should have a checkbox on the screen saver tab that says "try not to bother me".

  31. xp 4-ever says:

    Another reason for upgrading to XP.

  32. John Muller says:

    I’m pissed off… not at Raymond, or MS… this article just reminded me of it… I have a 24 inch 1920×1200 pixel LCD monitor… that burns in if I play a game with a static image as part of the UI.

    Maybe the screen saver defaulting to off in Windows 7 is too soon, as long as some manufacturers are making junk.

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