There are a few typical questions usually asked by developers. Where should I use 32-bit icons with alpha-channel, and why choose them over traditional 8-bit images? What development environment support 32-bit graphics, and what file formats should be used? Finally, which versions of stock icons to use for the many Windows control elements? Let’s clear these questions one by one.
Picking 32-bit icons over their 8-bit counterparts is natural. 32-bit icons feature an extra layer describing a translucency mask. This layer is called alpha channel. Thanks to the alpha channel, icons with 32-bit color depth can integrate nicely with any background, featuring smooth edges and looking in place even if your background has a busy color, gradient, or shows an image or pattern. In addition, the alpha channel can make shadows and reflections appear semi-transparent, making them appear natural and overall rendering extremely realistic.
So, 32-bit icons are just the right type to use. The real question is if you will be able to use them in your project. In reality, 32-bit icons can be used in most situations – and cannot be used in others. If you’re designing a Web site, then chances are that your target audience already has compatible Web browsers that can show 32-bit icons with full semi-translucency support. Exceptions are far and between, and include Internet Explorer 6 and earlier versions, ancient builds of Mozilla, and a few resource-limited mobile browsers (although most mobile browsers can still display 32-bit images).
For Web use, you would use 32-bit icons in PNG format wherever possible. If maintaining support for really old browsers is important, you can fall back to 24-bit PNG icons, converting the original 32-bit images with an icon editing tool such as IconLover. 8-bit GIF files can be used for producing light Web sites to be used with the slowest mobile platforms. Note that GIF files don’t include a full alpha-channel support; instead, they offer a single-bit transparency mask. Again, you can render your 8-bit icons from 32-bit originals with IconLover, or use pre-rendered icons supplied with your icon set. The GIF icons supplied will look fine on any background, but you can produce your own versions if you have a bright, colourful background and want your icons blend with it smoothly.
Windows programs can normally only use a single kind of file depending on what exactly you’re going to use it for. For example, ICO files are normally used as application icons. ICO files include the same image (or, rarely, different images) in a number of sizes and color depths within a single file. The system will automatically pick the right size and color depth depending on the user’s display settings and the location of the icon. It’s best to assemble all standard sizes and color resolutions in a single ICO file. Our stock icons already include all standard resolutions and color versions stored in the ICO files; if you want to build your own ICO files, you can use IconLover.
There are dozens of other things we’d love to tell you about using your newly purchased graphics. You can access an extended version of this article covering the many Windows controls and development environments such as Java, C#, .NET and Visual Studio, at http://www.aha-soft.com/faq/integrating-icons-development-environments.htm. You can always get the right icons for your programs or Web sites at www.aha-soft.com.