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Save Our Screens 101

Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 6
Column Tag: Programming

Save Our Screens 101

How To Write A Mac OS X Screen Saver, Part 1

by David Hill


Everybody out there who has used a computer for more than a few minutes knows what screen savers are and there have been many screen savers written for the Macintosh and other computers. Some were single-purpose and provided only one animation but did it very well. Many others took a different approach and provided a generic engine that made use of plugin modules. With Mac OS X, Apple has included a Cocoa plugin based engine controlled via a System Preferences pane (Figure 1). The engine provides screen locking, window management, multiple screen support, and other features, freeing up the plugin developer to worry about the part that differentiates their product, the animation. A minimal Mac OS X screen saver module needs to worry about nothing more than drawing the next frame of its animation when requested to by the screen saver engine.

Figure 1. Screen shot of the Panther Screen Saver Preferences pane

Writing screen savers is easier than ever with Mac OS X and in this article I'm going to start by showing you how to write a simple module. We'll begin with the basics of screen saver construction in Xcode and work our way up to handling events, providing a configuration sheet, and changing display resolution. Along the way, we'll talk about different drawing APIs, debugging tips, random numbers, and user preferences. I'll also cover some tips and tricks as well as point out some trouble spots you'll need to watch out for.

For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume that you have Mac OS X and the developer tools installed if you want to follow along. You'll need some development experience and a basic knowledge of C. The interface for the screen saver plugins is in Objective-C but, since Objective-C is a close cousin of C, most C/C++ and Java developers should be able to follow along without too much trouble. For those who would like to learn more about Objective-C, Apple provides some excellent documentation on their web site at I'll also give all of my directions and screen shots with respect to Mac OS X version 10.3 (Panther) and Xcode so those of you running different versions of Mac OS X will need to mentally map from 10.3 to your OS version and development environment.


The ScreenSaver.framework provides two screen saver-specific classes that you'll need (ScreenSaverView and ScreenSaverDefaults) as well as a few utility functions for generating random numbers and centering rectangles. The most important of the two classes is ScreenSaverView, a subclass of NSView. The NSView class is responsible for drawing to the screen and handling user input. The ScreenSaverView class derives from NSView and adds support for animation plus a few other screen saver specific methods.

One part of screen saver development that can be confusing to developers is the question of where to do their drawing. If you look at the ScreenSaverView header, you'll notice that the ScreenSaverView class provides two promising methods: animateOneFrame and drawRect:. If you're familiar with Cocoa's view system, you'll recognize drawRect: as the standard method in which views do their drawing and it turns out that this is best place for your screen saver to do its drawing as well. This is particularly true for more advanced screen savers that make use of subviews to draw with OpenGL or QuickTime and we'll cover subviews in a later section. The reason to draw in drawRect: is that Cocoa will call drawRect: at various points in the life of your screen saver and you must be ready to handle those requests. For that reason, the recommended coding convention is to use animateOneFrame to update your animation state and then tell Cocoa that your view needs redrawing. This redraw request will cause Cocoa to call drawRect: where your screen saver will completely redraw the view to reflect its current state. In most screen savers, the drawRect: method erases the background, filling it with black or a background image, and then draws the objects that appear in the view.

However, there is one type of screen saver that needs to handle drawing slightly differently. Some simple screen savers accumulate content via repeated drawing into the view. By their very nature, they can't redraw the current state of the view because they don't keep track of what they've already drawn. In order to accumulate content, these simple screen savers must only erase the background of the view the first time they're asked to draw. The basic screen saver example I'll be using for the first part of the article falls into this stateless category so I'll cover the extra bits of code you'll need to write an accumulating screen saver as we go along.

A typical screen saver will subclass ScreenSaverView, override a few important methods, add a few more of its own, and let the screen saver framework and engine handle the rest. The Xcode screen saver template provides stub implementations for 7 key methods but for a basic screen saver we'll only need to change the -drawRect: and -animateOneFrame methods, override two other superclass methods, and declare a new member variable. The rest of the stub code will suffice for now.

Figure 2. Initial screen saver project window

First, bring up Xcode and start a new screen saver project if you haven't already. You'll find the template called Screen Saver in the Standard Apple Plug-ins list. Give the new project a creative name. I've called my project projectName and so Xcode has created a few files for me with appropriate names. See Figure 2 for a look at the initial project. The most important one is called projectNameView.m. From this point on, I'll assume that your project is called projectName so open up your project and follow along as we add some simple drawing code.

1. Declare a new member variable in the projectNameView.h file with this code:

@interface projectNameView: ScreenSaverView {
      // keep track of whether or not drawRect: should erase the background
      BOOL mDrawBackground;

2. Add a new method to projectNameView.m called viewDidMoveToWindow:

   - (void)viewDidMoveToWindow {
      // this NSView method is called when our screen saver view is added to its window
      // we'll use this signal to tell drawRect: to erase the background
      mDrawBackground = YES;

3. Replace the drawRect: method in the projectNameView.m file with this code:

   - (void)drawRect:(NSRect)rect {
      if ( mDrawBackground ) {
         //   draw background after view is installed in a window for the first time
         [[NSColor colorWithDeviceRed: 0.0 green: 0.0
                                          blue: 0.0 alpha: 1.0] set];
         [NSBezierPath fillRect: [self bounds]];
         mDrawBackground = NO;

      NSRect viewBounds = [self bounds];
      float startingX = SSRandomFloatBetween(
               NSMinX( viewBounds ), NSMaxX( viewBounds ) );
      float startingY = SSRandomFloatBetween(
               NSMinY( viewBounds ), NSMaxY( viewBounds ) );
      float width = SSRandomFloatBetween(
               NSWidth(viewBounds)/20, NSWidth(viewBounds)/2);
      float height = SSRandomFloatBetween(
               NSHeight(viewBounds)/20, NSHeight(viewBounds)/2);
      NSRect rectToFill = NSMakeRect( startingX, startingY,
                                                    width, height );

      float red = SSRandomFloatBetween(0.0, 1.0);
      float green = SSRandomFloatBetween(0.0, 1.0);
      float blue = SSRandomFloatBetween(0.0, 1.0);
      float alpha = SSRandomFloatBetween(0.0, 1.0);
      [[NSColor colorWithDeviceRed: red green: green
                     blue: blue alpha: alpha] set];
      [NSBezierPath fillRect: rectToFill];

4. Add a new method to projectNameView.m called isOpaque:

- (BOOL)isOpaque {
      // this keeps Cocoa from unneccessarily redrawing our superview
      return YES;

5. Change the animateOneFrame method in projectNameView.m to look like this:

   - (void)animateOneFrame {
      //   request that our view be redrawn (causes Cocoa to call drawRect:)
      [self setNeedsDisplay: YES];

Build your screen saver and correct any errors that Xcode finds. Once your project has built successfully, you'll find the built version of the screen saver in your project's build directory. Look for the file named projectName.saver.

Now that you've built your screen saver, I need to take a moment to explain how to get the system to recognize and display it. Screen savers must be installed into one of two places on your system in order for the screen saver engine to load and run them. If you'd like to make your screen saver available to all users on your system, use the Finder to copy it into /Library/Screen Savers/ but note that you'll need administrative privileges for the copy operation. If, however, you only want the screen saver to be available to the current user, copy the plugin into ~/Library/Screen Savers/. Once you've placed the screen saver into one of the two directories, open System Preferences and choose the Screen Saver tab within the Desktop and Screen Savers pane. Your new screen saver should show up in the list on the left-hand side. Select it and click the Test button to take your plugin for a spin.

If everything went according to plan (does it ever?), the screen saver engine should take over the display, load your module, and start calling -animateOneFrame periodically to update the screen. If that's not what happened on your machine, here is a checklist of possible trouble spots.

    1. Screen saver didn't show up in the list verify .saver extension and installation location, relaunch System Preferences

    2. Screen saver shows up in list but doesn't preview verify subview origin (if you're using one) and see debugging tips

    3. Screen saver previews but doesn't test verify subview origin and drawing coordinates

    4. Preview draws in the wrong place verify subview origin

    5. Screen saver crashes check console for OS and ScreenSaverEngine messages and see debugging tips

    6. Weird System Preferences pane behavior check for possible symbol name conflict with another Objective-C bundle

    7. Screen saver repeatedly draws a single random rectangle over a pin-striped background make sure you spelled isOpaque correctly

Did it work? Great! You'll notice that the end result isn't too bad for a few lines of code. The frameworks do quite a bit of work for you. As a quick example of the extra power available to your screen saver, add the following code right before the call to NSBezierPath at the end of drawRect: that fills the random rectangle.

   NSAffineTransform* rotation =
             [NSAffineTransform transform];
   float degrees = SSRandomFloatBetween( 0.0, 360.0 );
   [rotation rotateByDegrees: degrees];
   [rotation concat];

Build your saver, copy it over, and try it out. Did the screen saver behavior change? If not, you've probably forgotten to copy the updated screen saver plugin into the Screen Savers folder. Clearly, having to copy the updated build over every time you make a change will get old during development. The simplest way to fix this is to add a Copy Files build phase to your project that copies the finished screen saver from the build directory to /Library/Screen Savers/ or ~/Library/Screen Savers/ once the build is complete. Open your project window, select your screen saver in the Targets list, and select New Build Phase -> New Copy Files Build Phase from the Project menu. See Figure 3. Once you've added the new build phase, you must set two additional parameters: the source files and the destination path.

Figure 3. Targets list with a Copy Files Build Phase

If the Copy Files Info window isn't already open, select the Copy Files build phase and hit CMD-I to open the Copy Files Info window. Select Absolute Path from the Destination pop up menu and type the path to your desired installation location into the Path edit field. Figure 4 shows the Copy Files Info window with the correct settings. Note: there appears to be a bug (already filed) in the Copy Files build phase that prevents it from resolving the ~ (tilde) character so you can't just type in ~/Library/Screen Savers/ to copy your screen saver into the current user's folder. You'll need to type in the whole, explicit path to the user's Screen Savers directory if you want to install the screen saver for just the current user. If, on the other hand, you want the screen saver installed for all users on the machine, you can type /Library/Screen Savers/ into the Path box and the Copy Files build phase will work just fine. Coupled with a custom executable in Xcode, you'll be able to run and debug your screen saver directly from Xcode. See the debugging section below for more information on adding a custom executable to your project.

Figure 4. Copy Files Info window

To set the files to be copied, click the disclosure triangles to display the contents of both the Products group and the projectName target and then drag the projectName.saver item from the Products group to the Copy Files build phase. If you do it right, you should see a black horizontal line with a circle on the left end that indicates where the dragged item will go when you drop it. Make sure that the line is just under the Copy Files build phase item when you let go of the mouse button. See Figure 5 to see what I mean.

Figure 5. Setting up the Copy Files Build Phase

Another gotcha you may run into is that the Screen Savers preferences pane cannot unload your old saver and load in a new version when you make changes while you have the Screen Saver pane open in the System Preferences application. Either quit the System Preferences application before making changes to your screen saver or, even better, add the Copy Files build phase and custom executable to your Xcode project which will allow you to run your screen saver from Xcode instead of the System Preferences application. Don't worry if you're still having trouble. I'll cover more debugging tips later on. In the next section, we'll take a closer look at the ScreenSaverView class and its methods.

ScreenSaverView Class

As I mentioned earlier, the ScreenSaverView class adds a few screen saver specific methods to the NSView class. Let's take a look at those new methods and see how they work together to save our screens. I've divided the list into two parts: the methods that you'll need to override and the methods that you'll merely need to call.

Methods to Override

-(id)initWithFrame:(NSRect)frame isPreview:(BOOL)isPreview

This is ScreenSaverView's designated initializer.

- subclass initializers must call this method (see references for more information)

The template calls [super initWithFrame:isPreview:] and sets the animation rate.


Use drawRect: to do your drawing.

Call [super drawRect:] to get ScreenSaverView's default black background.


Use animateOneFrame to update any per-frame state and invalidate your view.


This is your chance to set up resources and do any pre-processing necessary for animation.

You must at least call [super startAnimation] as shown in the standard template.


This is your chance to free up any resources allocated in startAnimation.

You must at least call [super stopAnimation] as shown in the standard template.


Tell the engine whether or not you're providing a configure sheet.

YES enables the Options button in the Desktop & Screen Savers System Preferences pane.


If hasConfigureSheet returns YES, return the NSWindow* for your sheet here


Determines how the screen saver engine transitions to your screen saver

- return YES (default) for a gradual fade to black before your screen saver starts
- return NO to have your screen saver start immediately

Methods to Call


timeInterval specifies the desired delay in seconds between frames.

The default time interval is 1/30.0, corresponding to 30 frames per second.

Zero polls as fast as possible while a negative number turns animation off.


Check if your screen saver is currently between startAnimation and stopAnimation.

Useful for pausing calculations you don't want to perform while the screen saver is idle.


Call this method to see if you're being asked to draw the small preview.

Utility Functions in ScreenSaverView.h


Generates a random integer in the closed interval [a,b].

I.E. the value returned will be one of a,a+1,a+2,...,b-1,b.


Generates a random floating point value in the closed interval [a,b]


Picks a point within the rectangle, leaving gaps on the right and bottom edges.


Returns a rectangle the size of the first rectangle but centered within the second rectangle.

Debugging Tips

Whether you're having trouble getting the basic screen saver up and running or you've moved on to more advanced topics and are having problems, there are a number of debugging options and tricks available to help.

1. One of the best ways to improve your ability to debug a screen saver is to add the Copy Files build phase I mentioned above. Not having to copy newly built versions over after every change will drastically speed up your build-run-debug cycle. With the new build automatically available, you can build your screen saver and then immediately invoke it. You'll also want to disable the password protection option on your screen saver so that you don't have to type in your password every time. In Panther, that setting has moved to the Security pane in the System Preferences application.

2. Another good way to debug screen savers is to add a custom executable to your project that invokes the ScreenSaverEngine with the proper -debug and -module arguments. The -debug flag tells the ScreenSaverEngine to draw your screen saver behind all other windows rather than taking over the screen. This will allow you to run or debug your screen saver from within Xcode while still having access to your source files for debugging purposes. Note that unhandled events will still wake up your screen saver so you'll need to override the mouse and keyboard event methods in NSResponder.h and not call the implementation in the superclass. To add a custom executable, bring up your project window and select Custom Executable from the Project menu. In the subsequent Assistant dialog, name the custom executable anything you like and then set the path to /System/Library/Frameworks/ScreenSaver.framework/Versions/A/Resources/ This will add a new entry in the Executables group in your project. See Figure 6 for a look at the custom executable Assistant.

Figure 6. The Custom Executable Assistant window

Select that new entry and open its editor pane (or double click the entry to open the editor in a separate window). Click twice on the small round "plus" button directly below the Arguments section of the editor to add two new entries. Type in -debug for the first value and -module "projectName" (note that there is no ".saver" extension needed) for the second. This will tell the ScreenSaverEngine to run your module in debug mode regardless of the screen saver selected in System Preferences. Figure 7 shows the arguments in the custom executable editor. Build and run your project. Xcode should bring up the Run window and launch the ScreenSaverEngine application which will load and run your screen saver behind all of the other windows.

Figure 7. The Custom Executable editor

While this setup does make debugging much easier, I've run into a few trouble spots while writing this article that you should know about.

First, as with any code, if Xcode doesn't stop at your breakpoints make sure you're building and debugging your screen saver using the Development build style. The alternative, Deployment, strips the debugging symbols that the debugger needs to find its way around your code.

Second, your screen saver will be fighting Xcode for events and this can cause some confusion. When the screen saver first starts up, it will have the event focus and receive keyboard events. However, if you click in any of Xcode's windows, the screen saver will lose focus and keyboard events will start going to Xcode instead. If you were debugging a normal application, you'd simply click in one of its windows to restore keyboard focus to the application but screen savers aren't normal applications. The screen saver engine uses mouse and keyboard events as a signal to disengage the screen saver so even moving the mouse out of the debugger window into the screen saver window will cause the screen saver engine to shut down the screen saver and exit. The way around this problem is to override a few more event handlers from NSResponder.h. At a minimum, you'll need to override mouseDown:, mouseUp:, mouseEntered:, and mouseExited: to do nothing so that you can move the mouse into the screen saver window and click to restore the keyboard focus without waking the screen saver. Don't forget to leave yourself some way of stopping the screen saver short of force quitting Xcode.

Third, even with the above code in place, you can run into areas where your screen saver state will get out of sync with the keyboard state. In particular, if you have breakpoints set on event handling methods like mouseDown:, keyDown:, or flagsChanged: you're going to have a bit of trouble because the Xcode debugger will eat the corresponding "up" events when you hit those breakpoints. If your screen saver uses these events to toggle state like I'll show later on in the event handling example, you will need to either toggle the state variable in the debugger or disable the breakpoint, switch the keyboard focus back over to the screen saver window, and give it another down/up pair so that it catches the up event and restores the proper state.

4. In order to debug truly complicated event handling code, you may need to resort to debugging the screen saver remotely using gdb or just logging state and calling sequence information to stdout using NSLog or printf.

5. Cocoa has a rule that messages to nil do nothing and return nil. While this does help keep broken code limping along, it can make debugging particularly frustrating, especially when compounded by the fact that Cocoa lends itself to long lines of code with no intermediate variables. To see what I mean, take a look at this snippet of code from a section later in this article.

This code to load an image:

NSBundle* saverBundle = [NSBundle bundleForClass:
                                 [self class]];
      NSString* imagePath = [saverBundle pathForResource:
                                 @"test image" ofType: @"JPG"];
      NSImage* image = [[NSImage alloc]
                                 initWithContentsOfFile: imagePath];

could also be written like this:

NSImage* image = [[NSImage alloc] initWithContentsOfFile:
                           [[NSBundle bundleForClass: [self class]]
                           pathForResource: @"test image"
                           ofType: @"JPG"]];

Although you'll often see code like the latter snippet, code written in this style can be very difficult to understand and debug. For your own sanity and that of anybody who has to read your code, please try to err on the side of the first snippet. It will make code much easier to read and debug, and the compiler should optimize out any intermediate variables so there's no penalty for using them.

6. Once you've got your screen saver up and running and you're just fine-tuning your graphics algorithms, you can build debugging help directly into the screen saver. Instead of relying on symbolic debugging in Xcode or postmortem debugging via NSLog and the console.log file, add some code at the end of your drawRect: method to display the current state of your screen saver. Use NSString and the drawing functions in NSStringDrawing.h to draw status messages over the top of your animated content.


Now that we've worked through the creation of a simple screen saver, taken a closer look at the ScreenSaverView class and its methods, and covered some debugging tips, this is probably a good place to stop and take a break. In the next article, we'll look into some more interesting topics such as adding a simple configuration sheet, saving and loading those configuration options using ScreenSaverDefaults, and basic event handling. We'll also see how to use other drawing APIs within a screen saver.

David Hill is a freelance writer living in College Station, Texas. In a former life, he worked in Apple's Developer Technical Support group helping developers print, draw, and write games. In his free time he dabbles in screen savers and other esoteric topics.


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