Windows Vista Changes How Icon Customization Works
Windows Vista has a lot of little visual tweaks and changes versus it's older sibling, Windows XP. Where XP's icons are simple and straight-forward in their design and presentation, Vista's icons require more design work, and have a bit of technical flash to make them fit in with the rest of the improved visuals of the recently-released operating system.
In Windows XP, icons are typically a maximum of 128x128 pixels, with most people viewing them at 32x32 size on their desktop. If you wanted to change the size of your icons, you had to dig through preference windows and dialogs to try and manually set the sizing. Sure, there were a few preset views (large icons, small icons) but those didn't give you a great deal of choice when tweaking your display. There's also no dynamic scaling. So you can't easily/quickly test icon sizes on your screen to see how they look. Add to this the fact that many applications don't necessarily have high-quality larger icons defined in their .ico file (this is especially typical of shareware type software, or older apps from the Win9x/2k days) so if you run with higher icon sizes, some icons look gritty, pixelated and down-right ugly. Woe to the person who has a very large monitor or poor eyesight.
Of course, there's a certain benefit to how icons work in XP, you have a few preset sizes you have to worry about, anything else is something strange only a handful of users would every try anyway. So as an icon artist, your life is just a little bit easier. 16x16, 32x32, 64x64 and 128x128 are all you need to hit 99% of what users will try/see.
Now there's Windows Vista. Vista not only takes icons up to 256x256, it does dynamic icon scaling, adds dozens of new system icons for icon package artists to design for when creating new themes, and adds a completely new type of icon; the Live Icon. These changes present a completely new set of challenges to artists trying to make complete system icon packs, or for ones looking to update their XP pack for Vista. First, lets look at the dynamic scaling. While there are still a few presets for users to click through, there's also a convenient slider in the view menu that will, in real-time, alter the sizing of any icons on your screen.
Icon scaling is a nice feature that will make life much easier for those of us with either poor eyesight, or impossibly huge monitors. Vista's icon scaling also is done per-window, instead of across-the-board like in XP. In XP, you set the icon size once, and that was the size across every single window you opened. In Vista, you set icon size independently in every window you open, and even on the desktop. This level of built-in choice is nice for users who only have a few very important icons on their desktop, and for usability purposes want those to be large and easy to spot, while keeping other icons on their system small and neat,
Possibly the coolest icon change in Windows Vista is its support for the display of "Live Icons" when browsing through folders. If your files have an appropriate thumbnail handler, you'll be able to see a richer preview of the file in question as opposed to just a static icon set by type.
This support is also present when viewing subfolders in an Explorer window. For instance, if you have a subfolder filled with images, the Live Icon support will attempt to show the first couple as part of the folder icon to give you an idea of the folder contents.
On top of scaling icons and live icons, Windows Vista throws a lot of new items into the mix that you now have to build new icons for. Artists who tried to theme out even the Control Panel icons for XP will find that not only have many of those Control Panel items changed, but there are also more than a handful of completely new ones to make icons for now. Windows XP has roughly 30 Control Panel icons on a default install. Windows Vista Ultimate? 53.
With this brave new icon world stretching off into the distance, there comes the question of tools for both the artist and the user. Customization junkies that are making the leap to Vista no doubt are looking for the same level of control they enjoyed with Windows XP. For artists, the world of tools is much like it was just a few short months ago. Tools such as Eclipsit's Microangelo Toolset 6, Stardock's IconDeveloper, and IconWorkshop from Axialis still exist and work just fine for creating all the new icons needed for Windows Vista.
On the user end, it's a little more difficult to find software that lets you switch out your icons for something newer and cooler looking. By default in Vista, users technically have the ability to change every icon they use by selecting them individually, digging through their properties and changing them one by one. A step up from that comes with tools like Microangelo Librarian which let you change them out with simpler to follow menus. However, if you want to completely switch out your icons and replace them with completely new Windows Vista icons, your only option on the market is Stardock IconPackager, which added full support for Windows Vista and Live Folders in version 3.2. IconPackager lets artists bundle their icon sets into one easy to use file, and users can substitute in that entire set, replacing all of their main Vista icons with just a few simple clicks.
Live Icons, real-time scaling of icons on the desktop, and numerous altogether new icons make Windows Vista a new and interesting challenge for both artists and users. Just another example of some of the cool new opportunities presented by Vista.
If you're interested in seeing how the Live Folder Icons go together, we have a set of template images for you to take a look at when building your own icons for Windows Vista. Grab the example files here.