Beautiful Windows Vista icons a double-edged sword

I admit it. I'm an iconphile. Back in the Windows 3.0 days, I used to go and change all my Windows icons by hand. I thought this was pretty impressive. Admittedly, it didn't help me pick up women for some reason.

Since then, icons have come a very long way. A VERY long way. With Windows Vista, the end-user icon experience out of the box is beautiful. But from an icon creator's point of view, the lack of backward compatibility and effort to support has gone up tremendously. As a result, we've seen a lot fewer custom icons made for Windows Vista than one might have expected.

Microsoft made three decisions with Windows Vista that will forever affect the way we look at icon making on Windows.

Microsoft Decision #1: 256x256 icons
First, Microsoft created a new icon size -- 256x256. For users, that's great. Having icons that are 256 pixels by 256 pixels means you will have beautiful icons that are incredibly detailed. But from an artist's point of view, it means that each and every icon is basically a work of art.

Years ago, I used to make icons. At 32x32 for the "big" icons and 16x16 for the "small", even someone with only moderate art skills could make pretty decent looking icons. Today, not only does such high resolution icons mean that only talented artists can make them, it takes talented artists with a lot of time to dedicate to them.

A full set of icons for Windows Vista is around 120 icons. You can get away with as "few" as 40 icons for most casual users but someone who wants a complete desktop makeover needs well over 100 icons. that's a serious amount of time and effort.

Microsoft Decision #2: No Desktop Scaling
The second decision Microsoft made that has affected icon creation is the decision to have programs displayed with either a down-scaled 256x256 icon or an un-scaled 48x48 icon. This decision is baffling for many reasons.

Check out this screenshot. See how the Windows Vista icons are noticeably bigger than the third-party icons? That's because the third-party icons don't supply a 256x256 icon. But here's the kicker -- the "large" icons are only displayed at 96x96 and will use the 48x48 icon size even if a 128x128 icon is available.

For instance, see the Galactic Civilizations II icon? You can see how it's smaller than the new Vista icons. This inconsistency is visually maddening to me. But what is even worse is that the GalCiv II icon has a 128x128 alpha blended icon in it. They could have used the 128x128 icon! In Windows XP, Microsoft encouraged ISVs to use the "new" 128x128 icon size. Many did. And in Windows Vista, they've been orphaned. They're not used.

Would it have really been difficult for Microsoft to downscale 128x128 icons like they do 256x256 ones? As a result, every single program will need an updated icon and every icon made will need an updated version or face being displayed as a stunted looking icon.

It gets even more obnoxious: Even though the icons on your screen are displayed at 96x96 pixels when you choose "large icons" on Windows Vista, it will not use the 96x96 icon that is in there. See here for what I mean.

To sum this up: Windows Vista will display either a down-sized 256x256 icon if you have large icons or it will simply display a 48x48 icon (or 32x32) inside of a box. It will do this even if the icon in question has an exact match for the display size.

Microsoft Decision #3: "Live Folders"
One of the coolest visual parts of Windows Vista in my opinion are the Live Folder Previews. When I look at a selection of folders, I can see some of the files that are inside. It looks really cool.

But on the other hand, it also makes changing folder icons impossible without third-party software if you want to keep the live previews and still change the folder.

Since the Windows 3.0 days, I've liked changing my folder icons. Sometimes I did it for purely cosmetic reasons, other times I did it because I wanted a particular folder to stand out. But on Vista, you lose those live previews.

On Windows Vista, you can change folder icons as follows by right clicking on folder, choose customize and press the change icon button. See here for what I mean.

Now, if you can find a stand-alone icon (because Windows Vista breaks Windows XP .ICL files) you will lose the customization and have an icon that is probably smaller than your other icons.

The Impact
There's no denying that aesthetically, Windows Vista is light-years ahead of Windows XP in the icon department. The icons that come with it are beautiful. And by forcing developers and others to make 256x256 sized icon or have their icons displayed in second class citizen mode will likely result in a much more visually impressive Windows experience for end-users -- eventually.

But during the transition, it means we'll be seeing an awful lot of stunted looking icons on our desktops that, to me, seems completely unnecessary. Ignoring 128x128 icons entirely seems to be a big missed opportunity. The difficulty for users to create and use customized icons on Windows Vista has meant a slow-down in the number of customize Windows icons.

Hardly the end of the world but for those of us who like pretty, consistent icons, it's a bummer at how it was implemented. What's your take? Icons schmicons or do you too like changing your icons around?

Editorial #2. You can see Editorial #1 here. Next Time: Fun with DirectX 10.

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rm20010 said,
Vista is the first Windows revision that finally offers independent icon size settings for the desktop and Explorer icons. For XP and below it was stuck at either 48x48 or 32x32 and often you get programs that display clipped off icons, i.e. the icon in the Autoplay dialog.

That to me is a good improvement, which unfortunately is dumbed down by the stupid bug in Explorer that likes to change my Control Panel icons to 256x256 without my permission.

yeah i like this post..
oyun | zeka oyunları | araba oyunları | çocuk oyunları

I am a graphic designer and a very visual person. I use custom icons on folders so I can quickly distinguish one folder from another (current jobs, downloads, music, movies, pictures, archive, logos, templates, etc.)
I really don't understand Microsoft's thinking on custom icons (some folders can have them, some can't....). I haven't used Vista, and was hoping it would have better, more consistent/logical custom icon support, but this article shows me that Microsoft has again included another feature that could be cool, but has only been implemented in a half-assed way, and works illogically (such not using exisiting icons when they exist at their native size).

It tickles my fancy, to ever think that there are days that I would come to the side of agreeing with Brad, seeing as on certain topics, the man and I have agreed to disagree.

However, Vista icons....are just the tip of a much bigger story that those of you shooting down the idea of "skinning" them, or even bothering to open your eyes to the issue being presented here... is yet just another excuse for basement rants..... as the movie Hackers quotes "keyboard cowboys". No fish is bigger than another on the net.

The point everyone on the opposing side of the issue is simple. You simply do not understand what artists/enthusiasts are all about.

Icons are an integral part of theming your computer system. "Uber" geeks as some have put it, have spent thousands of dollars on bleeding edge technology to run the operating systems, or their games.... as would a car enthusiast spending all their time remodeling an old 55 Chevy BelAir. You don't just get to a point and say "ok, it's all good..... we don't need to do the interior since 99% of the people driving these days don't give a rat's ass about the seats".

Us "ubers" like to see the system shine on the inside, as well as on the outside, and I for one appreciate the time that Stardock has taken to investigate the intricate details of just how much a pain in the ass Vista is even from a skinners perspective.

Windows Ultimate Extras should release new icons. I am starting to feel ripped off by the Ultimate edition of Vista. I mean.... $400 for Hold 'Em poker and DreamScene? I don't use either one!

Vistas icons are very nice, but they aren't that high res. Leopard uses icons at sizes of 512x512, so Mac icons will still be more detailed, but its about damn time.

It's absurd to use a icon bigger that 256x256, cause those "big icons" must be rescalated to be used (and losing quality in the process).

About the only thing really improved (and that's DEFINITELY not the correct wording) upon was the eye candy.

I'd be careful to say that the appearance of the shell is the only improvement (albeit objective) in Windows Vista. I've worked with the OS and read enough to know that really the true improvements are under the hood, in the kernel, and how the OS uses memory, graphics memory, and is more secure and stable.

You may think like many people that Vista just looks better and that doesn't matter a rat's a**, which maybe you're right in thinking. But there are plenty of other significant improvements in Vista beyond how it just looks.

And if people want to customize the icons on their desktops for programs, it doesn't mean they have the most boring life in the world, no more so than someone who enjoys putting up artwork in their house or painting the walls a certain color and coordinating that with their furniture and having nice looking dishes, glasses and silverware for their dining room. We don't call those people as not having a life simply because such things aren't necessary to live. It's called aesthetics. And it's not really a bad thing, whether you apply to your home, your car, or in this case, to your computer.

Just my 2 cents...

Who really gives a rats a** about how pretty the icons are? Sheesh, if that's all somebody has to worry about, they just set a record for the most boring life in the history of people!

That's half the problem with Vista. About the only thing really improved (and that's DEFINITELY not the correct wording) upon was the eye candy.

when I looked at that screenshot, my first thought was "Why is the welcome center icon using a different perspective" Seriously, that is really bugging me now. must have vertical lines...

OS X has had 256*256 for ages now and the developers all jumped in...
my icons all look stunning, i love it.
32*32 lovers: why dont you keep developing such icons, or if you really want em not to look bad, then its prolly no hassle for you to start photoshop, gimp, whatever instead of paint and make some love with lady art...
if you dont want to, dont complain...
things develop, thats the life of technologies

for the consumer side of view:
32*32 icons streched on your desktop? dont like it? well, set the icon view size to 32 then

Glassed Silver:mac

But the world "developers" is quite limited in OSX rather in Windows and they are more pushed to obey that Windows.

So having nice icons is now a disadvantage because they make the other icons look bad? ("oh noes, it takes too much time to make 256 x 256 icons! to heck with you Microsoft!!")

"Next Time: Fun with DirectX 10."
I don't know if I like reading 'fun' in the sense of an editorial.

Vista is the first Windows revision that finally offers independent icon size settings for the desktop and Explorer icons. For XP and below it was stuck at either 48x48 or 32x32 and often you get programs that display clipped off icons, i.e. the icon in the Autoplay dialog.

That to me is a good improvement, which unfortunately is dumbed down by the stupid bug in Explorer that likes to change my Control Panel icons to 256x256 without my permission.

Because it has nothing to do with icon creation and if anything, only amplifies the problem presented (only icons with 256x256 versions will be zoomed).

The icon previews for office documents, videos, pictures and websites are all enlarged when using ctrl+mousescroll, which I find is pretty neat.

Slimy said,
The icon previews for office documents, videos, pictures and websites are all enlarged when using ctrl+mousescroll, which I find is pretty neat.

i didn't know that! cool, thanks

Frogboy said,
Because it has nothing to do with icon creation and if anything, only amplifies the problem presented (only icons with 256x256 versions will be zoomed).

Which is the reason for 256x256 icons, because you can zoom it to that resolution. 128x128 zoomed does not look that good.

What's frustrating is that this feature was not left out, it was removed.

I think this was because of so many newbies accidentally corrupting their filetypes. I would at least like a hidden option somewhere in the registry or group policy editor that would allow us to bring File Types back.

Yeah, most users don't really care about changing their icons - that's mostly the "uber" geek dudes that care about that stuff. I actually like the new Vista icons - they look very pretty. And while I agree that it's much harder to make new style icons, if you've managed to release some quality software or game, you can't tell me that you can't manage to have a nice freaking icon made for your app or game. I can see mostly the free/low budget/open source apps suffering from low quality icons in the future but such apps usually suffer severely in the user interface department in general - an icon is not gonna save them.

Issue #1 should only affect those that are totally bitmap-based. Someone creating an icon set (all the different types, and scaled for different sizes) would either be using a vector-based drawing package (best option), or start with a huge drawing and scale down.

Using the worst case of bitmapped art, and using a 256x256 icon as a start point, there really isn't that much extra work for the artist.

I agree.
For digital artists its a lot better to work on a big image that they can scale down later to use on different things than to actually create the image already scaled down.

For 99%+ of the users, it really does not matter. Most people dont care or even have the time to change the icons anyways.

If you actually have the time to change the icons on your computer, why not use it better.