Unlocking the Bubbles screen saver's hidden settings in Vista

If you miss having a fun, customizable screen saver in Vista, Greg Shultz has a treat for you. Here's how to set up the Bubbles screen saver using an HTML application.

As you may recall, Microsoft first introduced OpenGL screen savers in Windows NT 3.x. At that time, my favorite screen saver quickly became 3D Pipes. Not only did this screen saver provide truly spectacular graphics due to the powerful nature of the OpenGL technology, it also offered multiple configuration settings with which to customize the display.

I had always hoped that Microsoft would add other OpenGL screen savers in subsequent versions of Windows, but they never did; the same OpenGL screen savers appeared in every version of Windows after that point. If you wanted additional screen savers, you had to purchase the Plus! packs.

So when I began experimenting with Windows Vista, I was excited about the new batch of screen savers: Aurora, Bubbles, Ribbons, Windows Energy, Windows Logo, and a revamped version of an old standard, Mystify. However, I was disappointed when I clicked the Settings button in the Screen Saver Settings dialog box (Figure A) and encountered the message shown in Figure B that the screen saver lacks customizable options. I quickly discovered that none of the new screen savers provided any configuration settings with which you could customize the display. I eventually moved on and shifted my focus to other features in the operating system.

Figure A

Figure A

In the past, clicking the Settings button allowed you to change the screen saver's appearance.

Figure B

Figure B

In Vista, there are no options that you can configure for the new screen savers.
However, I recently stumbled on an article on Long Zheng's Web site istartedsomething that I had not seen before: Registry hacks for the Windows Vista screensavers. In this article, Zheng tells of an interview he conducted with Stephen Coy, the designer of Vista's new screen savers, in which he learned that the configuration settings for Vista's screen saver were primed and ready to go but not fully implemented in the final release — thus the alert in Figure B.

Zheng explains that the registry keys necessary to configure the screen savers in Vista exist, but are empty. He then provides several registry hacks in the form of downloadable REG files that you can use to configure several of the new screen savers.

While these registry hacks work perfectly, they offer a limited number of choices. Since I saw the potential for other interesting combinations and I'm partial to using a GUI to tweak screen saver settings, I figured that there must be a better way. I then created an HTML application (HTA) to provide a simple user interface for configuring Vista's screen savers.

In this edition of the Windows Vista Report, I'll focus on the Bubbles screen saver. As I do, I'll describe the hidden settings that you can use to configure this new screen saver. I'll then show you how you can download and use my HTML application to tweak the Bubbles screen saver.

The Bubbles screen saver

The Bubbles screen saver provides a very pleasing display of transparent bubbles that gently float across your desktop (Figure C). As they do, the bubbles change colors and bump into the edge of the screen and bounce in the opposite direction. However, that's not all they can do.

Figure C

Figure C

In the Bubbles screen saver's default configuration, transparent bubbles float over your desktop.

The hidden settings

The Bubbles screensaver has four settings that you can use to manipulate the appearance of the Bubbles screen saver. These settings correspond to four keys that you can add to the Windows Vista registry (HKCU\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Screensavers\Bubbles)

  • The MaterialGlass registry key allows you to change the surface style of the bubbles. With a value of 1, the bubbles will appear as transparent, glass-like orbs. With a value of 0 the bubbles will appear as solid, metallic balls.
  • The ShowBubbles registry key allows you determine the background over which the bubbles float. With value of 1, the bubbles will float over the desktop. With a value of 0, the bubbles will float over a solid black background.
  • The ShowShadows registry key allows you to determine whether the bubbles show shadows on the desktop as they float across it. With a value of 1, shadows will appear below the bubbles while a value of 0 will disable the shadows.
  • The Radius registry key allows you to change the size of the bubbles. There are four settings here that range from small to huge. A value of 1100000000 gives you Small bubbles, 1110000000 gives you Medium bubbles, 11200000000 gives you Large bubbles, and 1130000000 gives you even larger, or Huge, bubbles. The smaller the size, the more bubbles there are.

The Bubbles Settings HTA

As you may know, an HTA, or a HTML Application, is an application that you can easily create using a combination of HTML, Windows Script Host, and VBScript or Jscript. The Bubbles Settings HTA uses Windows Script Host and VBScript to create the interface and automate the editing of the registry. Furthermore, since HTA apps are trusted and run via Internet Explorer, there isn't a UAC associated with running them.

After you download the Bubbles Settings package (, you can extract the file and copy it to any folder you want. Then, simply double-click the Bubbles.hta file. When you do, you'll see the main screen (Figure D).

Figure D

Figure D

The Bubbles Settings HTA allows you to alter the screen saver's display configuration.
  • In the Surface Style section, which corresponds to the MaterialGlass registry key, you can select either Transparent bubbles or Solid bubbles. (The Transparent option is the same as the screen saver's default configuration.)
  • In the Background section, which corresponds to the ShowBubbles registry key, you can select either a Transparent or Black background. (The Transparent option is the screen saver's default configuration.)
  • In the Shadows section, which corresponds to the ShowShadows registry key, you can either enable or disable shadows. Keep in mind that if you choose a Black background, you won't see shadows at all. (The Shadows option is the default configuration.)
  • In the Size section, which corresponds to the Radius registry key, you can choose between Small, Medium, Large, and Huge bubbles. Keep in mind that if you select the Small option, your screen will eventually fill up with hundreds of small bubbles. On the other hand, if you select Huge, there may be as few as two bubbles on the screen. Now, if you have multiple monitors, the Huge option will display more bubbles because there is more screen real estate to accommodate them. (The Large option is the default configuration.)

Once you make your selections, click OK. You can then test the Bubbles screen saver settings by returning to the Screen Saver Settings dialog box, selecting Bubbles in the Screen saver drop-down, and then clicking the Preview button to see what screen saver looks like. Alternately, you can simplify the testing procedure by creating a shortcut to the screen saver file (C:\Windows\Bubbles.scr) in the same folder in which you placed the Bubbles.hta file. Then, simply double-click the Bubbles.scr file to test your settings.

If you wish to return the Bubbles screen saver to its original configuration, click the Reset button.

Fun with screen savers

Microsoft had originally planned for Vista's screen savers to have settings that you could use to adjust the display, but they never fully implemented them. Using my Bubbles Settings HTA, you can now tweak the Bubbles screen saver. Would you like to see HTAs for Vista's other screen savers? Please drop by the discussion area and let us know.

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Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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