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What Are Icons?

Computer icons are an integral part of any graphical user interface. Icons are small pictograms of standardized sizes that depict objects, actions, and symbols. In graphical user interfaces, icons are used as a faster, more intuitive way to communicate with the user. Icons depicting typical elements of a user interface are more visually appealing than text, can be recognized faster, and are certainly easier on the eyes.

Originally introduced in 1970 by the Xerox Research Center and widely deployed by the Mac OS and Microsoft Windows platforms, icons make new users feel more comfortable with computer systems, learn quicker and interact more efficiently. Icons can be used to replace or supplement text commands. Widely used in menus, toolbars, on buttons and in the latest ribbon-style user interfaces, icons have come a long way from the original concept.

There are multiple file formats for storing icons. The Windows systems use Windows icons in the platform-dependent ICO format. Apple Macintosh systems store Mac icons in their specific formats, while Unix-based systems use PNG icons for most applications. As such, icon software is generally available for the Windows and Apple systems, while Unix users can design their icons with just about any graphic editor.

Generally speaking, icons are square pictures that come in a number of standard sizes and color resolutions. Most systems use icons of 16x16 to 128x128 pixels, while some systems readily accept icons as large as 512x512 pixels. The high-resolution 512x512 pixel icons were first used in Mac OS Leopard.

Pixel dimensions of all icons are operating system dependent. For example, Windows icons are specified as pictures in 16 and 256-color gammas as well as True Color images with alpha channel. Windows icons come in standard sizes of 16x16, 32x32, and 48x48 pixels. Windows Vista defines new standards for Windows icons, including icons in resolutions of up to 256x256 pixels in True Color only. Optionally, icons of 128x128 and 512x512 pixels are supported. Interestingly, the high-resolution Windows Vista icons are stored in compressed PNG format instead of Windows ICO used in previous versions of Windows and for lower resolution icons. Other platforms such as Windows Mobile can use standard icons of other resolutions, such as 24x24 pixels.

Many independent vendors are offering custom icons. Aha-Soft offers a variety of Windows icons, Mac icons, and PNG icons in all sizes and resolutions common to those platforms. The company provides royalty-free icons individually and in matching sets that include icons drawn a common style or theme.

Icon Articles

Popular Icon editors
Icon ArtIcons Pro is popular Windows icon editor. It enables professional and amateur artists to design and edit all kinds of icons. It supports ICO, BMP, PNG, GIF, ICPR, PSD, XPM, XBM, WBMP, CUR, ANI formats. German interface is available.

Icon IconLover allows you to design and edit all kinds of graphics required in the software development cycle, including icons, static and animated cursors and interface elements - all these kinds of graphics can now be designed in a single application.

Icon ArtCursors allows you to find, create, edit, import and export cursors and manage cursor libraries. It supports static and animated cursors.

Icon Any to Icon converts icons and cursors into BMP, JPG, PNG, GIF, ICO, CUR and other formats. This wizard can find icons and make images for use on Web pages.