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What Are Icons?

Numerous independent vendors are providing custom icons in sizes and resolutions common to certain systems. The article explains what icons are, how they are used and implemented in various systems, and what standards exist for Windows icons, Mac icons, and PNG icons.

Computer icons are incorporated into any modern GUI. Icons are small pictograms of standardized resolutions that visually represent objects, actions, and other concepts. In graphical user interfaces, icons are used as a quicker, more intuitive way to communicate with the user. Icons depicting standard 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 work more efficiently. Icons can be employed to replace or supplement text messages. Commonly used in menus, toolbars, on buttons and in the latest ribbon-type user interfaces, icons have come a long way from the original concept.

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

As a rule of thumb, icons are square images that come in a variety of standard sizes and color resolutions. Most systems use icon sizes of 16x16 to 128x128 pixels, while some platforms readily accept icon images as large as 512x512 pixels. The big 512x512 pixel icons were first used in Mac OS Leopard.

Pixel dimensions of all icons are operating system dependent. For example, Windows icons are defined as pictures in 16 and 256-color gammas as well as True Color pictures with alpha channel. Windows icons come in standard sizes of 16x16, 32x32, and 48x48 pixels. Windows Vista implements new standards for Windows icons, including icons in resolutions of up to 256x256 pixels in True Color only. Optionally, images 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 older versions of Windows and for lower resolution images. Other platforms such as Windows Mobile can use standard icons of other resolutions, such as 24x24 pixels.

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

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Free Business Desktop Icons Free Business Desktop Icons is a collection of 10 ready icons for use in commercial and personal projects, such as software, webpages, blogs, and presentations. The images are free for personal, frequent and commercial use.

Large Money Icons Large Money Icons is a set of carefully made icons for use in any spftware or Web products, including software applications, websites, blogs and presentations. The icons present a bright color palette, and smooth edges.

Science Icon Set Science Icon Set offers you all the graphics, that are needed to create a laboratory software or scientific Web project. This set contains mathematics, chemical and biology icons.

E-mail Icon Set E-Mail Icon Set is a collection of professionally created stock graphics for use in business and personal products, such as software, websites, blogs and presentations.

Program Toolbar Icons Add professionally designed toolbar icons to your recent projects. Program Toolbar Icons are readily available, royalty-free images of items, actions and symbols that are commonly used in software toolbars.