Over the past three-plus decades, the icons of Microsoft Windows have evolved alongside improvements in screen resolutions and color depth. Here’s a look at how the size and style of Windows icons have changed over time.
Windows 1.x (1985) and Windows 2.x (1987)
In the first two major releases of Windows, application icons only appeared if you minimized a program to the taskbar at the bottom of the screen (in Windows 1.x) or to the desktop (in Windows 2.x). Icons were simple black-and-white illustrations that were 32×32 pixels in size.
To run apps in Windows 1 or 2, you’d pick a file name from a list in a program called “MS-DOS Executive.” MS-DOS Executive didn’t show icons, only the names of the files (as if you typed the “dir” command in DOS). In those days, Windows ran as a basic graphical shell over MS-DOS, so the basic list of files made sense—even if it wasn’t as visually appealing as later approaches.
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Windows 3.0 (1990)
Windows 3.0 introduced the capability to display 16-color icons that were 32×32 pixels in size, and they featured a new “3D” look (as it was called at the time) with simulated shadows, courtesy of artist Susan Kare. Kare had previously designed icons and fonts for the original Macintosh.
With 3.0, Windows icons used color for the first time, and Kare imparted them with the right mix of playfulness and business sense that made them very appealing. She set archetypes in Microsoft icon design that would filter down through future Microsoft apps and versions of Windows alike.
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Windows 3.1 (1992)
Icons in Windows 3.1 resembled Windows 3.0 icons with more detail, despite still being 32×32 pixels and 16 colors. Artists at Microsoft achieved this by using dithering effects in the icons to simulate more color depth as well as by improving shadow effects in the illustration style.
Windows 95 (1995)
In Windows 95, many icon designs got a graphical overhaul, although some still carried over from Windows 3.1. Most Windows 95 system icons shipped as 32-by-32 pixel 16-color images by default. However, the Win32 API used in Windows 95 introduced support for 256×256 pixel icons with 16.7 million colors for the first time. In fact, with the Plus! add-on pack (or a registry hack), you could enable 65,536-color icons (called “high color” at the time), although not many Windows 95 users used them.
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Windows 98 (1998)
Windows 98 shipped with 256-color icons by default in 32×32 pixel size. And for the first time, Microsoft offered many system icons in a larger 48×48 pixel size. These were ideal for accessibility purposes and for use with high-resolution displays (although their usage was generally rare at the time). Many icon designs (such as My Computer and the Recycle Bin) received updates, but Windows 98 also relied on many legacy icons from Windows 95 and even from Windows 3.1, in some cases.
Windows 2000 and Windows Me (2000)
Like Windows 98, Windows 2000 shipped with 256-color system icons, which were available in 32×32 and 48×48 pixel sizes. Several major desktop icons received facelifts again, gaining more detail and color depth. Windows Me used many of the same new icons as Windows 2000, including a new “My Computer” icon.
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Windows XP (2001)
Windows XP supported 32-bit icons (16.7 million colors and an alpha channel for transparency) for the first time. This allowed for translucent shadow and glassy effects as well as for smoother icon edges, thanks to improved anti-aliasing. As with Windows 2000, most XP system icons were either 32×32 or 48×48 pixels in size.
Design-wise, XP’s icons offered a fresh start, with rounded corners, more color depth, and the use of smooth gradients, noticeably moving away from Kare’s Windows 3.0 icon style for the first time. Even so, many icons for lesser-used apps and utilities carried over from earlier versions of Windows.
Windows Vista (2007)
In Windows Vista, Microsoft included a new Aero interface that emphasized glossy translucent effects and drop shadows. For the first time, Windows shipped with a set of 256×256 pixel system icons. The set wasn’t complete, however, and smaller icons could be automatically scaled up to match. Accordingly, Windows Explorer in Vista allowed scaling icons dynamically to non-standard sizes based on the user’s personal preference.
As with XP, many of Vista’s main app and utility icons received a sleek, glossy Aero-style redesign as Microsoft attempted to match the modern, resolution-independent look of Mac OS X.
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Windows 7 (2009)
Windows 7 used mostly the same icon set as Vista, but it changed some key icons for programs like Control Panel and Microsoft Paint. Several revised icons gained a more flat, heads-on appearance that began to move Microsoft away from the glossy 3/4 view icons in Vista.
Windows 8 (2012) and Windows 8.1 (2013)
Windows 8 received a radical UI design with the Metro interface. Metro included a new type of icon called a “Live Tile” that allowed dynamic information updates within the tile itself (kind of like a mini-widget) on the Start Screen.
In Windows 8, many app icons became simple white silhouettes of objects or shapes over a solid, colored background. In addition, Windows 8 included regular desktop (File Explorer) icons, most of which were carried over from Windows 7 and earlier.
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Windows 10 (2015)
At launch, Windows 10 initially carried over the look of Windows 8’s Live Tiles icons while also still using File Explorer icons held over from both Windows 8 and the Windows 7 era. Windows 10 also included some redesigned desktop icons with a more angular look and softer gradients. Sometime in 2020, Windows began rolling out new application icons in the Microsoft Store that abandoned the flat, angular Live Tile look in favor of more colorful icons with a more rounded design.
As it stands today, Windows 10’s icon set is still a huge mixed bag of at least three or four different legacy icon styles carried over from earlier versions of Windows.
Windows 11 and Beyond (2021)
For the past few years, Microsoft has been teasing a unified set of brand new icons for Windows 10, first including them in Windows 10X and then planning to release them in an upcoming “Sun Valley” update. Now, it looks like these icons might just roll out with Windows 11 instead—but only time will tell.
Notably, it looks like Windows 11 will abandon the Metro/Live Tile concept of Windows 8 and 10 completely, meaning that icons can have more depth and color. So far, Microsoft is going for a flat cartoon look with low detail and gentle gradients. It’s a welcome change for many users, especially if Microsoft can finally move past the mixed bag of legacy icons currently found in Windows 10. The future awaits!