The Snow Leopard Pixelated (Fuzzy) Icon Bug


In the interests of wasting more time than is healthy on my Mac, I have for some time now, been adding custom icons to many of my folders. Where it is most prevalent is in my ‘install’ folder. While I religiously back up my Mac in various ways every day, I have a folder called ‘Software Install’ in which there is a subfolder for every application, preference pane, or whatever that I have bought and/or downloaded and use on my Mac. In each application’s folder I have:

  • The current (latest) version of the app as downloaded from MacUpdate or the authors website.
  • The previous version, just in case there’s a problem and I need to revert to it.
  • An encrypted text file containing my license details for purchased software (which I also store in 1Password).
  • A ‘webloc’ document linking to the author’s site.

The theory is that if I ever need to re-install an app, or I want to rebuild my Mac or even build a new Mac, then I have all I need to hand in order to quickly do whatever I need.

So far so good, but what I also like to do in my Software Install folder is to be able to easily see if an app is paid for or ‘free’, if it’s a beta version and if the software is actually on CD and I just have downloads of the update files. To do this I use custom icons and, even though I say so myself, I think it looks good and makes things pretty clear…

Install Folders

Green = 'free', Blue = paid for, etc...

…that is, until the icon display bug in Snow Leopard rears it’s ugly head! You see there’s a bug in Snow Leopard whereby when it goes to display your custom icon it uses a lower resolution version of the icon that ends up making it look ‘fuzzy’. What’s more, when the problem gets really bad, it doesn’t display an icon at all! Now if you’re here looking for a permanent fix then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. This bug has existed in Snow Leopard for at least a year and there’s no indication from Apple that they’re fixing the problem or even acknowledge that it exists. What’s more, the problem doesn’t just affect custom icons you’ve created or changed yourself, it can affect Apple’s own apps if they have a unique icon.

Fuzzy Icons

Do not adjust your eyesight!

So what do we know about the problem? Well aside from the fact that it’s been around for a fair old while – it seems to relate to the way SnowLeopard handles information about what icon to display for a given object. System objects of a certain type, e.g. the default blue folder icon you get with Snow Leopard, seem to be unaffected. That suggests that icon data isn’t stored with each occurrence of those particular objects, rather there’s a flag somewhere that says “this object is a folder and it doesn’t have a custom icon, so use the default system one”. So no matter how many custom icons you’re using, the default system ones (like the blue folder) always appear correctly.

Next, there seems to be a threshold, i.e. once you pass a certain number of custom icons on your Mac, then the problem manifests itself. This could suggest that these custom icons are being cached somewhere (in a file?) and that there’s a finite amount of space available to this ‘custom icon cache’, or the process that reads it. Once you exceed that limit, OS X starts scaling down the custom icons (to lower resolutions) to conserve space, and if it can’t do that, well then certain custom icons just don’t get showed at all.

Finally, this isn’t a problem that only manifests itself in Finder. I use CocoaTech’s Path Finder as a Finder replacement and it happens there too. I’ve also seen it happening in ForkLift, so it’s the underlying system that these apps (and Finder) are talking to that has the problem.

Ok, now that we’ve an idea why it might be happening, what can you do about it? Well not a lot unfortunately. There’s no permanent fix so far as I can tell, just workarounds or stop using custom icons. As far as the workarounds go, well the idea is to try and force OS X to rebuild its caches and you do that either by rebooting, or by using a utility like Onyx, Ice Clean, MacCleanse etc to manually purge the a cache without a reboot. And which cache is it you need to clear down? Well that doesn’t seem to be clear at the moment either, but User caches look like a good bet (I’ll know more once I’ve done some more research). Oh and if you do decide to go down the route of clearing caches, be aware that Snow Leopard uses caches to speed things up so you may notice that the next time you reboot after clearing a cache, your Mac takes longer to start and the system may seem a bit sluggish for a while as caches are rebuilt.

There’s also a theory that deleting the hidden .Ds_Store file in a folder will help, or refreshing the Icon Previews by switching them off in Finder (or Path Finder) and then switching them back on again.

At best the above tactics may relieve the situation temporarily – that’s certainly my experience and what I’ve seen trawling the various support forums. The (more permanent) alternative is to stop using custom icons wherever possible and revert to the default ones. Not great if like me you like to customize your system to make it a little more informative.

So to wrap up, I’m sorry I can’t offer more positive news. On the other hand I can always hope that an Apple employee stumbles across this page and is someone with the power to do something about the problem. (Ok it’s arrogant of me to think an Apple employee might visit my little corner of the webiverse but you never know). I’d certainly like to think the problem will be fixed in Lion when that hits the shelves, if only because it will stop my Windows-using friends (yes I do have one or two) from looking smug when they say “Hey, what’s up with your icons, I thought Macs were supposed to just work?”…..

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6 Responses

  1. OMG, I’ve been dealing with this exact problem for well over a year now … I create a lot of custom icons everyday for my picture sets as an easy way to visually identify my sets and I find myself having to reboot my machine anywhere from 10 – 20 times per day on average … I did the very same thing back when using Leopard and Tiger and Panther and never had a problem what-so-ever … ever since I went to SL its been nothing but a massive headache!!

  2. I’m about to get a new iMac with Snow Leopard.
    I will transfer my whole Docs folder over to the new computer.
    I like to use custom icons to identify my folders quickly and have made heaps of them. They’re really good and speed me up.
    Should I restore all my icons to the standard issue ones before transferring my files and folders to the new (Snow Leopard) computer?
    I’m using a G5 iMac power pc running os 10.5.8 at the moment.

    • I would transfer your custom icons across to the new Mac and see how it goes. There definitely seems to be a threshold because when I started using custom icons and only had a handful (e.g. under 100 or so) I never had this problem. I would guess I now have 300-400 objects now with custom icons and I get the problem all the time – even immediately after a reboot.

      I’m keeping all my custom icons for the time being in the hopes that Apple fix this in Lion.

  3. […] I wrote a post a while back about the problem I was getting with pixelated (fuzzy) icons under Snow Leopard. As soon as you start to use more than a few, the icons become fuzzy – almost like they’re enlarged versions of low-res icons. Sometimes a reboot will temporarily fix the problem, and sometimes using a utility to clear caches can also help, but it’s usually short-lived. If the Apple Support pages are anything to go by, it’s a common problem affecting quite a few people and there’s no fix in sight from Apple. […]

  4. Gah! This has been happening to me for a loooong time now. I have been ripping my DVD library using Handbrake so I don’t have to keep all those DVDs around. Each movie file gets its own folder. Then I specifically go out and find images for the original release film posters. Then I do Get Info in the finder and copy > paste them on as custom folder icons. I switch my finder window to Cover Flow mode for icons and I have a very iTunes-like experience for my film library. All inside the Finder! Until…

    …this obnoxious fuzzy icon problem crops up.

    Boy, is it ever annoying! Someone pleeeeease find a way to fix this.

  5. My experience seems to indicate that the cache getting overloaded is in volatile memory, and can be reset simply by restarting Finder or Dock. The problem will pop up again, but only after displaying the hundredth or so custom icon in a session.

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