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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