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A 16 by 16 icon with a limited color palette used to offer a fun challenge for an hour or two. But icons have grown up: True Color can now be used with transparency, and the world of 16 by 16 and 32 by 32 pixelized little square images has evolved into large works of fine art. The images are rich, use lighting and other highlights, and cast shadows. The little boxes are now as large as 256 by 256 pixels, with the bigger, fancier ones fitting into the modern style of software for Vista. The file formats are ICO, GIF, PNG, and BMP.
You could spend a day or a week making a single icon, or you can get a quick start using designs already made and free to use. Cool Studio 5 provides the tools to do either. But buyer beware: IconCool Studio 5 doesn't have the one tool you'll really want--IconCool Mixer. The IconCool website says, "... Studio 5 includes the magical IconCool Mixer, which provides users who are not design specialists with a quick mechanism for creating professional icons ...." Don't believe it: Studio 5 has a button to open the Mixer, but it opens to an ad for the higher Pro version of the software, not the Mixer software feature.
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Price to ValueRating What's Hot:
$39.95 seems like a reasonable price for what you’ll get out of a software app like IconCool Studio 5. My website uses lots of little icons, and I’ve spent many hours over the years using Paint to see if I could make a good icon.
What I mostly found was that making good-looking icons, like any art, is best done by artists. I'm not a good enough one to be satisfied with my work. That's where IconCool comes in. With it as my personal artist's assistant, we can do it now!
You can make graphics images in free software such as Microsoft Paint or Paint.net. You can use the popular and free IrfanView to save images as ICO files. And Windows typically can use BMP files for icons--what more do you get out of Icon Cool to be worth $39.95? After using it for this review, I have to conclude that you don't get enough. If you’re serious about making cool new larger icons, get something like IconCool Studio 5 Pro with IconCool Mixer at the $59.95 level (I can't fully recommend it as I didn't review that version).
More and more, I’m seeing software where, even after purchase, one of its main features is an advertisement for the program the next step up. When you press the Mixer button in the registered version of Icon Cool Studio 5.25, you find that you've purchased a pop-up ad. The extra $20 gets the price over what I think is reasonable. Beyond that, it paints the perspective of the basic app being one that isn't worth the $39.95. I can continue making icons with free tools. Maybe it's there and I don't see it--an option to pay the extra $20 for added Mixer feature, after having already purchased the basic app.
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Installation & SetupRating What's Hot:
The download and installation was easy and problem-free on both my XP and Vista notebooks. You download and run the 15 MB trial package and then the 6 MB upgrade package, and finally add the registration code from the email.
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User InterfaceRating What's Hot:
IconCool provides a nice dynamic real-time interactive previewing environment to prep an image to be used for an icon, and for working on an icon design. There are lots of effects and filters to pick from, with settings that make for infinite possibilities.
The interface is complex enough that you should plan on some orientation, starting with learning the difference between working with an image file and an icon. If you start with an existing image, such as a JPG file from your camera, use the File -> Import feature from the main menu. That gets the image into an image prepping window (see image), the first step toward the icon working window.
When you've got the picture ready to make an icon from, click the Import Now button (see image). IconCool will create the first draft of the new icons; not just one icon, but as many different sized ones as you've selected.
The File -> Open command is used to open an existing icon file, not an images to be made into an icon. Icons themselves are the project files when you're making an icon. Be careful not to mix the already working icons you're using with the new ones you're making. The interface works well after you learn it a bit.
The app does a lot to provide features for image prepping, going a step beyond to provide an option to set up an IconCool plug-in for Photoshop users. Maybe the interface with Photoshop would be good for those who get the higher version of IconCool, but for those using this basic version, extra icon editing features would be more appreciated.
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Security & PrivacyRating What's Not:
I'm not usually checking for security features as I click buttons in apps to learn how they work or don't, but sometimes you bump into an item related to security. With the ANI (animated cursors) editor open and no frames added, I pressed the Test button. I learned you shouldn't do that. On my Vista system, McAfee popped up and said it detected a trojan and had blocked/removed it, pointing to something in the IconCool program folders. I tried the same thing on my XP laptop, which runs Norton for virus protection. It popped up a message about blocking a security risk.
It seemed that McAfee and Norton were in agreement. I reported the items to tech support at IconCool, who wrote back saying that my anti-virus app conflicted with IconCool.
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Help & SupportRating What's Hot:
Free sample icons are available to registered users. IconCool's tech support responded reasonably quickly to my three emailed support requests during the review.
After a few rounds of emails in which I tried to explain my virus protection warnings, IconCool's tech support didn't seem to understand what I was saying. Surely their software isn't planting a trojan when I press the Test button! Saying it's a conflict between IconCool and my virus protection--that's easy. My virus protection stays.
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Product FeaturesRating What's Hot:
Here’s a scenario: You're in Photoshop working with a picture, and get inspired to make an icon. Use the menu In Photoshop -> Filter -> IconCool -> Transfer to IconCool Studio. IconCool opens and the picture is in it, ready to use for icon making.
Working in IconCool, you can use File -> "Send current image to Photoshop...." With Photoshop open, it's lightning quick, going into it as a PNG file.
Vista takes icons to new levels of graphic design, with features such as lighting effects and shadowing needed to effectively develop them. IconCool supports them.
I like the icon window with its ability to work with the various-sized icons--and save it to several icon files at once.
Scrollbars come and go as you view or hide various panels. I had some difficulties getting to a scroll bar when I needed it most, when I was ready to click that all-important "Import Now" button to move the image into the icon-making window.
The minimize, maximize, and close options in the upper right corner are not always there when working on an image before importing (see image).
Drag/drop capability works when bringing an icon file in from a file manager, but not an image file to prep for an icon. Copy/paste features from a file manager don't work for either.
The Ani Editor (for animated cursors) is fun, but can be a real chore to use:
- When changing the time duration of a frame, you adjust it 1/100 of a second at a time, and each change requires pressing the up or down arrow lots of times. You can't type the desired number into what looks like an entry field, and you can't hold down the up/down button to have it scroll quickly through the numbers. Nope, you have to click the button for each incremental change.
- The duration setting applies only to the selected frame. You can't select multiple frames and change the time duration for them all. You can copy and paste one frame to another position, but the frame properties that are copied don't include duration. It's back to toggling the setting one at a time.
- After saving an ani project, reopening it shows that the duration of each frame returns to the default of 10/100 of a second.
The lack of the Mixer feature, combined with the linkage to Photoshop, bothers me. Could it be that Photoshop is really the part that's needed to make the most sophisticated icons?
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PerformanceRating What's Hot:
Being able to open executable and DLL files to get the icons embedded in them is a welcome feature.
Icons are small files, so you should expect an icon editing app to work quickly. IconCool doesn't disappoint.
The feature for applying text leaves much to be desired. For example:
- The picklist doesn't have a locator; you can't type the letter "t" and get to the fonts that start with that letter. The list always starts with the default settings for font, size and text of IconCool Studio. It would be better if the program remembered the last settings and started with them.
- I'd opt for angled test, like at 13 degrees, and IconCool Studio added the text to the upper left corner. But with the angle, the upper left part of the letters went offscreen. Moving the text didn't bring back the missing parts.
At one time, when playing with color selections, the app crashed. IconCool didn't work well again until I rebooted the system, a Vista laptop.
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Suggested FeaturesIconCool should include the IconCool Mixer in the trial version. Lacking that, have the pop-up ad that appears when you click the Mix button offer an upgrade to the Studio 5 Pro with IconCool Mix for the extra $20. It would save the user lots of time wondering if one has to pay the full price for the move up.
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ConclusionWith IconCool Editor ($29.95), Manager ($35.50), Studio 5 ($39.95), and Studio 5 Pro with IconCool Mixer ($59.95), and 25 IconCool bundles of two or three apps that range in price from $40 to $100, selecting the right product is difficult. What makes it harder yet is not having a trial download of the higher-level app with the extra features.
You can make basic and large-sized icons and animated cursors with IconCool Studio 5. If that's sufficient for your needs, download a free trial and check it out. If you need the higher-level features that the IconCool Mixer provides, shop around for something that has a full free trial.
With the heavy marketing by IconCool, the trial not including the Mixer, and the setup for easy transfer back and forth to Photoshop, I'm left wondering if Photoshop is needed to finish making those really cool-looking icons shown on IconCool's website.
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