Anyone can slap a new desktop skin on Windows to make it look like a Macintosh or another OS, but only the most creative minds can dig deeper and churn out new icons. Right? Well, sort of. Microangelo 5.5, the newest version of the popular icon maker/manager, sports all the tools you need to apply icons you've found in other programs or downloaded from the Web. It's also the right tool for left-brain types who want to design icons from scratch, including creating icons for Windows XP. Microangelo's sticking point is its price: at $60, it's not for the budget conscious. But if you want to muck around with icons, make Microangelo your master teacher. Anyone can slap a new desktop skin on Windows to make it look like a Macintosh or another OS, but only the most creative minds can dig deeper and churn out new icons. Right? Well, sort of. Microangelo 5.5, the newest version of the popular icon maker/manager, sports all the tools you need to apply icons you've found in other programs or downloaded from the Web. It's also the right tool for left-brain types who want to design icons from scratch, including creating icons for Windows XP. Microangelo's sticking point is its price: at $60, it's not for the budget conscious. But if you want to muck around with icons, make Microangelo your master teacher.
Office for icons
After you install Microangelo--the 21-day trial download version is 2.8MB--you'll see a coterie of programs in your Windows Start menu: Animator, Explorer, Librarian, Studio, and On Display. Unfortunately, Microangelo's fivesome isn't nearly as tightly integrated as the apps in, say, Microsoft Office. Although you can launch some of them from within the others (for example, when you edit an icon in Librarian, part of Studio starts up), each looks, works, and acts differently. It's like learning to use five new pieces of software--a headache all around. On the upside, this five-pack handles virtually any icon-related chore you can think of, from finding icons squirreled away on the hard drive to building brand-new animated icons.
As with other desktop-disguising utilities, beginners can best use Microangelo as an editing tool for preexisting icons, including the icons already on a PC or new downloaded collections. Need some iconic fodder? Check out the icon section of CNET Download.com, Tucows' icon library, and DesktopLand.com for starters.
Five easy pieces
Microangelo's Explorer is the well-named app you'll use to sniff out icons no matter where they hide: within application files (such as Word or Quicken), icon files (tagged with the ico extension), or icon libraries (ICL files). Nothing's more frustrating than trying to find icons hiding in your files, so Explorer is almost worth Microangelo's ticket price. It's a breeze to operate: click any drive, folder, or file in the left-side pane (the interface is a righteous rip-off of Windows Explorer) and, on the right, Explorer shows you how many icons are in it. Click a file, and you'll see the individual icons.
Another feature, the Librarian, lets you organize icons into new collections by grabbing some from one file and some from another, then dropping them into a new file. It also has a search feature that finds icons in folders and files, then displays them. You can drag and drop icon files between collections and view icons using several different filters, including one that shows only those icons using 16-color mode. Librarian integrates with Studio, Microangelo's paint program; for example, Librarian's Edit Icon opens Studio. Sweet.
Finally, Studio, is expressly designed for creating icons. If you've dabbled with any paint program, you'll know your way around the available tools. There's a pencil for drawing and a paint bucket for fills (shown along the left); the editing area--in pixel sizes of 16x16, 24x24, 32x32, and 48x48--appears on the right. We especially like that you can change an icon's size and color depth, from a 32x32 icon in 16 colors to a 48x48 icon in True Color, simply by choosing from a menu.
Change icons with a couple of clicks
Microangelo's additional modules, Animator and On Display, help you create animated icons and easily change the appearance of an icon, respectively. Animator is essentially a modified edition of Studio, where you create individual frames, then string them together. Since animated icons are a feature of Microangelo, not Windows itself, their usefulness is suspect: only Microangelo users can put them into play. On Display, however, is more functional. It puts an Appearance choice on the pop-up menu that results from right-clicking any icon. You can choose a new icon from the menu or resort to the default Windows icon with just a couple of clicks.
Most changes in version 5.5 of Microangelo are in response to XP. You can now produce icons that look like those in XP, whether you use them on an XP system or not.
At $60, Microangelo costs two-thirds as much as our favorite full-fledged consumer photo editor, PhotoImpact 7.0. And you won't get good tech support for your money, either. The only way to get support is via a form on the Microangelo Web site; there's no phone support option. Worse, Microangelo's online FAQ is a joke; it has only a measly nine questions and answers.
That said, we still had more fun mucking around with icons using Microangelo than with any other paint program. Because it lets you start with existing icons and edit them to suit your fancy and because its tools are so easy to operate, Microangelo makes creating icons a truly addictive enterprise. Try the 21-day trial download. If you don't become hooked, try less time-intensive desktop skin and theme creators such as cheaper WindowBlinds or Desktop Architect.