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What Are Icons?

A number of independent vendors are supplying custom icons in sizes and resolutions common to certain systems. The article explains what icons are, how they are designed and implemented in various platforms, 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 standard sizes that visually represent objects, actions, and symbols. In graphical user interfaces, icons are used as a faster, more intuitive way to communicate with the user. Icons representing common elements of a user interface are better visible than text, can be recognized faster, and are easier for new computer users.

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

There are multiple graphic formats for storing icons. Microsoft Windows systems store Windows icons in the platform-specific ICO format. Mac OS computers 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 Mac OS platforms, while Unix users can design PNG icons with just about any graphic editor.

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

Pixel dimensions of all icons are platform dependent. For example, Windows icons are defined as pictures in 16 and 256-color gammas as well as True Color images with alpha channel. Windows icons are supplied in standard sizes of 16x16, 32x32, and 48x48 pixels. Windows Vista implements new standards for Windows icons, including icons in sizes 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 icons. Other platforms such as Windows Mobile can employ standard icons of other sizes, 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 platforms. The company sells royalty-free icons individually and in matching sets incorporating icons drawn a common style or theme.

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Music Icon Library Music Icon Library will help you illustrate all the musical related objects. Available sizes are 16x16, 24x24, 32x32, and 48x48, the file formats are ICO, PNG, GIF and BMP.

Medical Icons for Vista Medical Icons for Vista has been design to avoid any misconceptions arising while looking at a medical Web site or operating a medical program. The icons are available in various sizes and formats.

Plastic Toolbar Icons Give your database, Web application or software a unique, stylish appearance with a stunning new collection of icons. Plastic Toolbar Icons are professionally designed and hand-crafted in all the available sizes.

24x24 Free Application Icons 24x24 Free Application Icons pack contains everything that are necessery for your web site or application toolbar.

Business Icon Set Business Icon Set. A collection of all-purpose icons with various symbols for the business environment for use with your software or on your website.