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What Are Windows Icons?

Computer icons are an integral part of any graphical user interface. Icons are small pictures of standard 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 representing standard elements of a user interface are better visible than text, can be recognized faster, and are easier for new computer users.

Originally developed in 1970 by the Xerox Research Center and widely popularized by the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows platforms, icons make new users feel more comfortable with operating 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 image formats for storing icons. Microsoft Windows systems store Windows icons in the platform-specific ICO format. Mac OS systems use Mac icons in their specific formats, while Unix-based systems use PNG icons for most applications. As such, icon editing software is generally available for the Windows and Mac OS systems, while Unix users can create PNG icons with any graphic editor.

As a rule of thumb, icons are square pictures that come in a number of standard sizes and color resolutions. Most systems support icon sizes 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 resolutions of all icons are operating system dependent. For example, Windows icons are defined as images 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 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 previous versions of Windows and for lower resolution images. Other platforms such as Windows Mobile can employ standard icons of other resolutions, such as 24x24 pixels.

Numerous independent vendors are offering custom icons. Aha-Soft offers a wide selection of Windows icons, Mac icons, and PNG icons in all sizes and resolutions standard 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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