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What's New with Windows Vista™ Icons?

This article provides information on the following topics:

Windows Vista™ - A Resolution-Independent User Interface

Windows Vista™ 256x256 PNG Compressed Icons

Compatibility with Windows® XP

Create a Windows Vista™ Compressed Icon with IconWorkshop™

Use of Windows Vista™ Compressed Icons in Software Projects

Create an icon in the style of Windows Vista™ using Axialis Image Object Packs

Windows Vista™, the new version of Windows® released by Microsoft on January 2007, includes many new features and enhancements. The most visible evolution is the new Graphical User Interface (GUI). A first look at Aero™ (the name for the Windows Vista™ user experience) reveals a slicker interface with sharper graphics.

But the changes are not only visual. Aero has been designed to comply with computer technology that will be delivered over the next decade. Many new features have been implemented in Aero to support the hardware changes to come.

Windows Vista™ - A Resolution-Independent User Interface

One of the most important enhancements of Aero is its ability to deal with the high-resolution displays of the future, and that feature a resolution-independent UI. At present, monitors generally have a resolution of 96-DPI (dots/pixels per inch). Simply put, 48x48 icons are displayed on screen in a half-inch square.

Future LCD screens however will support resolutions up to 240/320 DPI. Therefore, to be displayed at the same size without quality loss, icons must include much larger images. That's the reason why Vista introduces a new standard for Windows® icon size: 256x256 pixels.

The screenshot below shows the Vista™ File Explorer displaying icons using the maximum resolution available: 256x256. Of course the result seems a bit "large" on a 96-DPI screen, but keep in mind that this technology has been designed for future screens. The down.ico file has been created from the Realistic Butons Image Object Pack using Axialis IconWorkshop™.


Windows Vista™ displaying 256x256 icons

An additional option will permit you to display icons at smaller sizes more attune to medium-res screens (say 150-DPI) screens. In such cases Aero uses the 256x256 image and shrinks it the desired size without any quality-loss. The result looks really slick with real-time zoom!

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Windows Vista™ 256x256 PNG Compressed Icons

The standard Windows Vista™ icons now include 12 formats as follows:

  256x256 - RGB/A 48x48 - RGB/A 32x32 - RGB/A 16x16 - RGB/A
  256x256 - 256 colors 48x48 - 256 colors 32x32 - 256 colors 16x16 - 256 colors
  256x256 - 16 colors 48x48 - 16 colors 32x32 - 16 colors 16x16 - 16 colors

The problem is that if you simply make an icon and save it in standard Windows® XP ICO format, the resulting file will be around 400Kb on disk. The solution is to compress the images. Only the 256x256 images are compressed. The compression scheme used is PNG (Portable Network Graphic) because it has a good lossless ratio and supports alpha channel (transparency). Based on preliminary tests, the compressed icon sizes are 100Kb to 150Kb.

See below the different formats included in our sample icon down.ico (the 16-color formats are not displayed but are present in the icon):

If you want to download this sample icon right-click and choose "Save Target As..." on this link: down.ico

The PNG compression is embedded in the ICO file for the 256x256 images only. PNG compressed Windows Vista™ icons cannot be read and edited with an XP-only compatible icon editor, nor can you open them with a PNG image editor.

You will require a Windows Vista™ compatible icon editor, like Axialis IconWorkshop™, to edit such icons.

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Compatibility with Windows® XP

Windows Vista™ compressed icons are compatible with Windows® XP. They can be used in XP but only using the standard formats (48x48, 32x32 and 16x16) which will be read and displayed. The 256x256 PNG formats will be ignored.

For example, if you save the down.ico (see link above) on your XP desktop, it will be displayed as 48x48. The most important fact is that Windows® XP won't reject Vista™ icons.

Can we add other formats, such as 128x128, in Vista™ icons?

Yes, all the other formats are supported. 128x128 formats are actually used under Windows® XP Desktop enhancers or Dock-Bar applications. These applications will probably support this icon format when ported under Vista™. One interesing fomat is 96x96 which is the size used natively on the Windows Vista™ desktop. Therefore, we recommend you to add this format in your icons to get best visual results.

How to create 256x256 icons compatible with Windows Vista™ and Windows® XP?

Simply by creating uncompressed versions of the icons. They will work on both Operating Systems. The drawback is the icon file size: 400Kb for an icon! Using Axialis IconWorkshop™ you can easily remove the PNG compression option.

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Create a Windows Vista™ Compressed Icon with IconWorkshop™

Here is a step-by-step tutorial on how to create a Windows Vista™ compressed icon using Axialis IconWorkshop™. You can download a 30-day Tryout version of IconWorkshop™ here.

 IMPORTANT: This tutorial requires IconWorkshop™ Corporate Edition v6.0 or more.

1. Create a 256x256 version of your icon image using any image/vector editor. Save your artwork with smooth transparency (32 BPP alpha channel) using a file format that is compatible with IconWorkshop™: BMP, PNG, JP2000, PSD.

You can also transfer your work from Adobe Photoshop using the Axialis transfer plug-in (see this tutorial) or you can create an icon by assembling several image objects (see this tutorial).

In this procedure, we'll use this file: down.png (we recommend you to download it and save it on your disk - use right click and choose "Save Target As").

2. Launch Axialis IconWorkshop™ and open the image file. It is loaded in an image document window, not an icon editor window, as shown below ():

3. If the scale-1:1 preview window is not in 256x256 mode, the preview image will be cropped. It is recommended that you switch to 256x256 preview mode if you want to work with 256x256 Windows Vista™ icons. To switch to this mode, right-click in the preview window, a menu opens. Choose "256x256 Display". The preview window now looks as shown above in floating mode ().

Use the same method to return to the previous state: choose "128x128 Display", remove the "Floating Window" option and use the mouse to dock the window.

4. Select the whole image. Choose Edit/Select All or press Ctrl+A. An animated selection rectangle is now drawn around the image .

5. Choose File/Create Windows® Icon From Selection or press "I". A large dialog box opens. This dialog box will permit you to create all the image formats you want to include in your icon in one simple step:

6. Type the Name of the new icon project (). The root of the image file is proposed by default.

7. Select the images formats to include in the icon () by clicking on the images. To create a Vista™ icon, it is recommended that you follow the Vista™ specifications as specified above. Don't forget to add the 256x256 vista formats in RGB/A (XP), 256 and 16 color modes ().

8. To create a fully-compliant Windows Vista™ icon, you'll need to compress the 256x256 formats in PNG. Select the associated option ().

9. You can also choose to apply the dithering option to the 256/16 color images as well as add a filter effect to smooth/sharpen the resulting images in RGB/A mode (). View the results in the preview images.

10. When done, click OK. A new icon project is created in a document window:

11. The main window with the grid () is the edition area where you can retouch the icon. The gray chessboard-like texture behind the icon is the transparent portion of the icon (the alpha channel info has been preserved). The scale 1:1 preview is displayed in the associated window ().

12. All the available formats are displayed in a list (). You can select them to edit () or preview () them. See the application built-in help (press F1) to learn how to add/remove formats or work with this icon project.

13. The compressed format (only the 256x256 formats can be compressed) are marked with this overlay PNG compression image: . You can add/remove this option by choosing Draw/Compressed Image Format (Vista™) or by pressing "K". You can also use the local toolbar or a right-click menu.

14. When done, save the icon by choosing Edit/Save or pressing Ctrl+S. The resulting icon size is 150Kb.

If you want to download the resulting icon, right-click and choose "Save Target As..." on this link: down.ico

 

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Use of Vista Compressed Icons in Software Projects

We've tested Windows Vista™ compressed icons under Microsoft Visual C++ 6.0, Visual .NET 2003 and Visual Studio 2005. They all reject the icon during the resource compilation:

 Error RC2176: old DIB in res\app.ico; pass it through SDKPAINT

This is unsurprising to us since this new ICO file format introduces a new header which points to raw PNG data. Of course the compiler crashes and returns a false error message. The DIB header is not old, it is PNG. Passing it through SDKPAINT does not help.

Next version of Microsoft Visual Studio (codename "Orcas") will support PNG compressed icons during compilation.

Windows Vista™ compressed icons have also been reported as not functioning in the Delphi programming environment. New components will no doubt be developed in the future that identify these shortfalls.

 

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Create an Icon in the Style of Windows Vista™ using Axialis Image Object Packs

Here is a step-by-step tutorial on how to create a Vista™ compressed icon using Axialis IconWorkshop™ and the Axialis Image Object Packs. This tutorial requires the following items:

Axialis IconWorkshop™ 6.01 or more (Download 30-Day Tryout version)

Axialis "Realistic Buttons" Object Pack (Download Tryout Pack)

The standard Windows Vista™ icons now include 12 formats as follows:

  256x256 - RGB/A 48x48 - RGB/A 32x32 - RGB/A 16x16 - RGB/A
  256x256 - 256 colors 48x48 - 256 colors 32x32 - 256 colors 16x16 - 256 colors
  256x256 - 16 colors 48x48 - 16 colors 32x32 - 16 colors 16x16 - 16 colors

The largest image format is 256x256 XP (ie RGB with alpha channel). To achieve the best results we'll start the project using this new format and work with it to assemble the Objects. When finished, we'll create all the other formats using the resulting 256x256 graphic as a template. Let's create our new icon project:

1. Launch Axialis IconWorkshop™. Choose File/New/Windows® Icon Project or press Ctrl+W. A dialog box opens:

2. Type the name of the project (): "Down".

3. Now specify the format of the first image to add in the project: In Colors, choose "XP with Alpha Channel (RGB/A 32 bits)" (). In Size in Pixels, choose and "256x256 (Vista™)" ().

4. As we want the 256x256 format to be used under Windows Vista™, we will choose to compress it as a special PNG file: Click the option "Compress 256x256 Vista™ format" ().

5. When done, click OK. A new icon project window is created ():

6. If the scale-1:1 preview window is not in 256x256 mode, the preview image will be cropped. We recommend that you switch to 256x256 preview mode to work with 256x256 Windows Vista™ icons. To switch to this mode, right-click inside the preview window and a menu will open. Choose "256x256 Display". The preview window now looks as shown above in "floating mode" ().

Use the same method to return to the previous state: choose "128x128 Display", remove the "Floating Window" option and use the mouse to dock the window. The time has come to be creative which you'll find easy and a lot of fun with IconWorkshop™. Before we start, don't forget that each step of the creation can be undone/redone up to 16 steps (Ctrl+Z/Ctrl+Y).

7. In the Librarian window (choose View/Librarian if it is not visible), select the "Objects/Pack 2 - Realistic Buttons/Circle" folder (). If the pack is not yet installed download and install it from this page. A list of available Object are displayed in the contents window below (). Find the "Background - Green.png" file and select it ().

8. When done, use a mouse Drag-and-Drop to add it into the project as shown above (). The Object is added to the project as a floating selection (). Take a look at the quality of the artwork in the Scale 1:1 window ().

Congratulations, you've just added your first Image Object to your project! As you can see it's very intuitive. Now let's continue and add other objects to build the icon.

IMPORTANT

To follow the next steps, the "Preserve Transparency" option must be set (press "T" or select Draw/Preserve Transparency). If this option is not set, the transparency will not be kept each time you add a new image object and the objects already added will be fully replaced.

9. From the librarian, select the file "Inner Glow 2 - Black.png" and add it to the project using the same method. The resulting image now includes a red light effect as shown below:

10. From the librarian, add the file "Border 01.png" to the project:

11. Let's add the arrow. Select the folder "Objects/Pack 2 - Realistic Buttons/Symbols" and add the file "Arrow Down.png" to the project:

12. A good idea is to add a glossy effect to increase the realism of the icon. From the librarian, select the folder "Objects/Pack 2 - Realistic Buttons/Circle" and add the file "Glossy 04 .png" to the project. Here is the result:

13. The final touch is the shadow under the icon. Let's add the "Shadow Bottom 01 - Black.png". The image object is placed by default in foreground by IconWorkshop™. In our case, the shadow should be placed behind the icon. A feature permits to do this in IconWorkshop™: Press the End key on the keyboard. The shadow is now placed in background.

You're done! The resulting image should look like this:

Now that the largest image is complete (256x256 RGB/A), we'll create all the other formats of the icons from this one. This is done in one step with Axialis IconWorkshop™ Corporate Edition. Using the Personal Edition, you need to create each format manually (see the product help file for more info).

14. Choose Draw/Add Several Image Formats from This Image or press "V". A dialog box opens:

15. Select the images formats to include in the icon ( / ) by clicking on the associated check boxes. Follow the specifications as we defined them above for Windows Vista™ icons. Don't forget to compress the 256x256 image formats ()

16. You can also choose to apply the dithering option to the 256/16 color images as well as adding a filter effect to smooth/sharpen the resulting images in RGB/A mode (). View the results in the preview images.

17. When done, click OK. The new formats are automatically created and added to the project ():

18. Take a moment to admire your work :) Click on the various formats () and see the resulting icon at scale 1:1 in the preview window (). You can change the background lightness of the Scale 1:1 window simply by clicking in it using the left button of the mouse. This will allow you to see how the icon is displayed on different backgrounds with different lightness settings.

19. Save your icon: Choose File/Save or press Ctrl+S. It will be saved as Windows® ICO format.

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Conclusion

Windows Vista™ icons deliver a new framework of icon presentation for high definition monitors and operating systems while remaining compatible with Windows® XP and lower definition screens. The larger 256x256 icon format provides additional opportunities for icon designers to explore more subtle and detailed development in their aim to create visual symbols that aid the user in their use of the computer environment.

 

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Article revised by Mike de Sousa, AbleStable, on Friday, October 07, 2005.

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Article written by Axialis Software Team on October 06, 2005, revised on May 21st, 2007.

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