Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Icon Editor Round Up

A walk through three popular icon editing programs for the PC: IconBuilderXP, Microangelo and IconCool Editor.

Introduction: the ICO Format

Icon and cursor editors represent a missing functionality of traditional image-editing programs like Adobe Photoshop. They take common graphic files and convert them into ICO files, which are used as favicons on websites, application icons, CD-ROM icons and more. Because the .ICO format’s functionality goes beyond plain image files like JPEG and PNG, special third-party software is needed to create and modify them.

The .ICO format serves as a container of sorts, holding information on several different versions of the same image. By nature, icons are directly tied to a user’s system. Resolution, color depth, folder views and operating system all contribute to how and where ICO files will be displayed. Windows XP allows 24-bit color and 8-bit alpha (transparency) information, but older Windows versions can dumb down an icon to non-transparency and a restricted color palette, usually just 16 colors. The ICO format allows for multiple iterations of both color depth and pixel dimensions to be included, which avoids having the operating system force a single image into different sizes and restricted color selection.

Because of these unique factors, icon development can be a tricky road to navigate. In this article, we’ll explore three popular icon software packages for the Windows platform. Each has a different approach to creating ICO files, and each has a different set of capabilities at multiple price points.

What Icon Editors Are Not Meant To Do

Simply put, these software titles are not, in any way, meant to replace traditional image editing programs. In fact, IconBuilderXP is directly tied to Photoshop as a plug-in. Some have rudimentary editing capabilities, but these functions are designed and optimized solely for ICO development.

Usability Reviews, Interface, Features

First, all of these editors are modern versions. They can all save to the most common file dimensions and color depths, and both Microangelo and IconCool Editor will allow custom icon dimensions, just in case you ever need a 78×45 icon for some esoteric application. All three support alpha channels for Windows XP. Each application also supports a real-time preview function, so you can check work live as you make edits.

IconBuilderXP is fundamentally different from Microangelo and IconCool Editor, in the sense that it is a plug-in for Photoshop, and not designed to be stand-alone software. Since it lacks any drawing or editing tools, it forces all design to be completed inside Photoshop, with ICO rendering available as a selection inside the filters menu. With other editors, the designs must be saved and imported. Since most designers do their work inside Photoshop anyway, this is a timesaving advantage.

However, this can be annoying when trying to edit a single pixel, or maybe a small group, as it requires closing the filter, editing in Photoshop, and starting the whole process over.

IconBuilderXP does offer several nice features, including a very convenient display that lays out all the icons in a matrix of pixel dimension and color depth. While lacking the ability to select custom dimensions, the program supports the most common sizes: 16×16, 24×24, 32×32 and 48×48. It also has a nice feature called “Quickbuild” that will find all the versions you compressed on a single layer and lay them out in the matrix. The program will also try to properly interpolate high-color information into 256 and 16-color palettes automatically, but with limited success. It is recommended to do this by hand in Photoshop.

By contrast, Microangelo and IconCool Editor are stand-alone ICO creators/editors in the true sense of the term. They allow importing of files (such as PNGs) for conversion into the ICO format, as well as drawing and editing tools for creating images from scratch. Both offer the basic tools: pencil, rectangle, text, eraser and color sector. However, IconCool offers a far more advanced creation toolbox, with a spraypaint tool, a more advanced eraser (delete either the main color selected or all colors — very useful), a gradient tool, and several crude filters including “Buttonize” (bevels), various distortions, noise generators and color shifters. For the person looking to create icons from scratch with Photoshop, this is the program to get.

However, in terms of fast usability, Microangelo wins hands down. It’s a snap to import icons, tweak pixels, add and delete various formats, and then export an ICO file. While the editing tools are only of the most basic variety, they are perfect for most pixel tweaking. For more advanced changes, its back to Photoshop.

By comparison, IconCool’s more advanced capabilities often confuse simple tasks. Importing an ICO file brings up a dialog box that offers the ability to open any single element of the master icon file, and choosing 32-bit color separates the preview pane into three tabs: color, alpha and composite. For advanced editing, it’s a great feature. For quick tweaks, it’s a hassle. On the flip side of that coin, IconBuilder has some nice tricks in its menu arsenal, like the ability to export an icon directly into AOL Instant Messenger.

All three software packages will produce absolute top quality ICO files. There are some nice features common to all three as well, such as previewing the icon on different background colors. (IconBuilderXP does this particularly well, with a button that cycles through colors rapidly, instead of manually changing shades through a new dialog.)

Overall, each is a nice program with a diverse set of features. It is worth downloading the demos to get accustomed to the features and interface, because each will appeal to a certain type of designer.