There are several common questions asked by developers. Where should I use 32-bit icons with alpha-channel, and why choose them over traditional 256-color images? What development environments support translucent graphics, and what file formats should be used? Finally, which formats to use for the many control elements? Let’s clear these questions one by one.
Choosing 32-bit icons over their 8-bit versions is natural. 32-bit icons feature an extra layer defining a semi-transparency mask. The layer is called alpha channel. Thanks to that alpha channel, icons with 32-bit color depth can integrate nicely with backgrounds of any color and complexity, having 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 makes shadows and reflections appear semi-transparent, making them look 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 graphics can be used in a handful of situations – and cannot be used in others. If you’re making a Web site, then chances are that your user base already has compatible Web browsers that can show 32-bit icons with full alpha-channel support. Exceptions are rare, and include Internet Explorer 6 and earlier versions, ancient builds of Mozilla, and a few resource-stranded mobile browsers (although most mobile platforms can still show 32-bit icons).
For a Web site, you should use 32-bit icons in PNG format wherever possible. If supporting legacy browsers is important, you can resort to 24-bit PNG icons, converting the original 32-bit images with an icon editor 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 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 display nicely on most types of backgrounds, but you can produce your own versions if you have a busy or colourful background and want your icons blend with it smoothly.
Windows applications can normally only use a specific type of file depending on what exactly you’re going to use it for. For example, ICO files can be used for application icons. ICO files pack the same image (or, sometimes, different images) in various sizes and color depths within a single file. Windows will automatically pick the proper 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 versions stored in the ICO format; 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 making the best use of your newly purchased stock icons. You can read 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 find the right icons for your applications or Web sites at www.aha-soft.com.