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What Are Icons?

A number of independent vendors are supplying custom icons in sizes and resolutions common to certain computer platforms. 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 graphical user interface. Icons are small pictograms of standard 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 standard elements of a user interface are more visually appealing than text, can be recognized faster, and are easier for new computer users.

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

There are multiple image formats for storing icons. The Windows systems use Windows icons in the platform-specific ICO format. Apple Macintosh computers use 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 Mac OS systems, while Unix users can design PNG icons with any image editor.

Generally speaking, icons are square pictures that come in a number of standard sizes and color resolutions. Most platforms use icons of 16x16 to 128x128 pixels, while some platforms 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 platform 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 resolutions of 16x16, 32x32, and 48x48 pixels. Windows Vista defines new standards for Windows icons, including icons in sizes of up to 256x256 pixels in True Color only. Optionally, icons of 128x128 and 512x512 pixels are supported. Interestingly, the higher resolution versions of 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 systems such as Windows Mobile can use standard icons of other sizes, e.g. 24x24 pixels.

Numerous independent vendors are providing custom icons. Aha-Soft offers a variety 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 incorporating icons drawn a common style or theme.

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Classic Hardware Icon Set Hardware Icon Set is a pack of hardware icons in a classical Windows style, distributed in GIF, BMP, PNG and ICO formats and 16x16, 24x24 and 32x32 sizes.

Standard City Icons Design city maps that look flawless on screen and on paper. Standard City Icons are provide in a number of sizes and resolutions and in file formats of BMP, GIF, PNG and ICO.

16x16 Office Toolbar Icons 16 x 16 Office Toolbar Icons collection contains everything you need for your word processing software.

32x32 Free Design Icons 32x32 Free Design Icons pack has all the images you need for your web page or application toolbar.

Security Software Icons Security Software Icons is a set of wonderfully-crafted pre-made icons for use in commercial and private projects, such as software applications, websites and presentations. The icons present a marvelous color palette, smooth and well-rounded edges.