There are several typical questions usually asked by developers. Where would I use 32-bit icons with alpha-channel, and why pick them over traditional 256-color images? What development environment support translucent graphics, and what file formats should be used? Finally, which versions of stock icons to use for the various Windows control elements? Let’s clear these questions one by one.
Choosing 32-bit icons over their 256-color versions is easy. 32-bit icons include an extra layer defining a semi-transparency mask. The layer is called alpha channel. Thanks to that alpha channel, images with 32-bit color depth can integrate nicely with backgrounds of any color and complexity, showing smooth edges and looking great even if your background has a busy color, gradient, or has an image or pattern. In addition, the alpha channel can make shadows and reflections appear semi-transparent, making them look natural and overall rendering extremely realistic.
So, 32-bit icons are just the right kind to use. The real question is if you can use them for your project. In reality, 32-bit graphics can be used in a handful of situations – and cannot be used in others. If you’re making a Web site, the chances are that your target audience already has a compatible browser installed that can show 32-bit graphics with full alpha-channel support. Exceptions are rare, and include Internet Explorer 6 and earlier versions, really old builds of Mozilla, and a few resource-stranded mobile platforms (although most mobile browsers can still show 32-bit icons).
For Web use, you would use 32-bit icons in PNG format. If maintaining support for legacy browsers is essential, 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 designing 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 feature a single-bit transparency mask. Again, you can render your 8-bit images from 32-bit originals with IconLover, or use the GIF versions of icons supplied with your icon set. The GIF icons provided with your set will look fine on any background, but you can render your own versions if you have a bright, colourful background and want your images blend with it.
Windows applications can typically only use a specific 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 contain the same image (or, rarely, different images) in a number of sizes and color depths within a single file. Windows will automatically choose the appropriate size and color depth depending on the user’s screen settings and the location of the icon. It’s best to pack all standard sizes and color resolutions in a single ICO file. Our stock icons already have all standard resolutions and color depths stored in the ICO format; if you want to build your own ICO, you can use IconLover.
There are dozens of other things we’d love to tell you about making the best use of your newly purchased graphics. You can read an extended version of this article detailing 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 projects or Web sites at www.aha-soft.com.