Tutorial Thursday

One of the things that I thought was pretty cool with my Mac was that it lets you rotate your desktop backgrounds at set intervals using images on your computer. That got me wondering what kind of solutions are available for Windows users that do something similar, and what I happened to stumble upon is a real gem.

John’s Background Switcher is a free application that does exactly what you would expect it to, but likely goes a step further than anything you’ve seen before. It’s not only capable of grabbing images directly from your computer, but it can also interact with multiple online services including Flickr, Phanfare, SmugMug, Picasa, and Yahoo. What’s really nice is that it even supports retrieval of your private images for nearly all of the online services either through authorization or by providing your username/password. Heck, you can even mix and match the sources you want to pull images from. Neato!

Need a calendar on your desktop? No problem! Background Switcher has an option to display a monthly calendar directly on your wallpaper, and it will highlight the current day. Now how convenient is that?

Oh, right, but you use multiple monitors. Yeah, it supports that, too. You can have it show the same picture on each monitor, one picture for the entire desktop, different pictures on each monitor, or only show one picture on the main monitor. I think you get the point… this is a very full-featured background rotation utility.

background switcher.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

One thing that I do want to point out is that you can obviously specify the interval that the backgrounds will rotate, but it can also be done manually. To do that just double-click on the System Tray icon, and it will immediately begin processing a new background to use.

–Very Impressive Layouts–

Not only can this flip through your images, but it can also take multiple photos and lay them out in a way that is sure to make your friends go “wow.” Take the “Snapshot Scrapbook” mode for example, which takes a handful of your photos and lays them out in a polaroid fashion. It also takes one image and converts it to black and white to be used as the background. The number of images shown on the screen at any given time are dependent on your monitor’s resolution, and here’s what it looks like using images tagged as “flowers” from Flickr:

Note: The application does place some text in the upper-right corner of the background with the program’s name. I didn’t see any option to eliminate this.

snapshot scrapbook-2.jpg

If you want to see more images at a time just switch over to the mosaic mode where it will grab a lot of thumbnails, and then tile them on your desktop. Here’s what that looks like once again using images tagged as “flowers” from Flickr:

mosiac background.jpg


One of the questions that I frequently get asked when writing about apps like this is what kind of performance hit a PC will take for running this. As you can see above there are a handful of multi-image layouts that you can choose from, and Background Switcher has to generate the background each time the wallpaper is switched out.

On my Vista machine the memory usage for the app sat around 13MB when idle, and 21MB when hard at work. The processor usage obviously spiked while putting together the background, but the highest I saw it go was 65% (it only did that for a split second, too). That’s not all bad for what the program accomplishes.

The nice thing is that Background Switcher is actually a performance-conscious app, and offers several different settings to make sure it doesn’t interrupt your work. Here are some of the things you customize:

  • On start up don’t switch the wallpaper for a specified number of seconds. This gives the rest of your apps a chance to finish loading before it starts working on the background.
  • Stop switching the background when the screensaver is running.
  • Stop switching when running over terminal services (ex. remote desktop).
  • Only switch when the system has been idle for at least 15 seconds.
  • Stop switching if any programs you specify are running. Great for games or applications that require extensive use of your computers resources.


To be honest I haven’t gotten this excited about an application in a long time. The interface is very intuitive and simple, but at the same time there are tons of things you can customize. And the fact that it supports so many online photos services is astounding. Plus it’s free! The developer is even very active in the support forum in case you need help using it, or just have a feature request. It’s not often that you see an application and developer of this caliber that doesn’t charge a dime.

Get John’s Background Switcher