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What Are Icons?

Many independent vendors are offering 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 are defined for Windows icons, Mac icons, and PNG icons.

Computer icons are incorporated into any modern GUI. Icons are small pictograms of standard resolutions that depict objects, actions, and other concepts. 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 certainly easier on the eyes.

Originally introduced in 1970 by the Xerox Research Center and widely deployed by the Mac OS 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 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. Microsoft Windows systems use Windows icons in the platform-dependent ICO format. Mac OS computers store Mac icons in their specific formats, while Unix-based systems employ PNG icons for most applications. As such, icon software is generally available for the Windows and Mac OS systems, while Unix users can create PNG icons with just about any image editor.

Generally speaking, icons are square pictures that come in a variety 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 resolutions 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 pictures 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, 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 previous versions of Windows and for lower resolution icons. Other systems such as Windows Mobile can employ standard icons of other resolutions, e.g. 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 standard 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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16x16 Office Toolbar Icons 16 x 16 Office Toolbar Icons collection has everything that are necessery for your word processing software.

24x24 Free Toolbar Icons 24x24 Free Toolbar Icons set contains everything that are necessery for your web page or application toolbar.

Plastic Toolbar Icons Give your software, database or Web application an exclusive, stylish look with a shiny new collection of icons. Plastic Toolbar Icons are professionally developed and hand-crafted in each of the provided sizes.

16x16 Free Application Icons 16x16 Free Application Icons library has everything you need for your web project or application toolbar.

16x16 Pixel Toolbar Icons 16 x 16 Pixel Toolbar Icons set has all the images you need for your web project or application toolbar.