data URLs (RFC2397) allow you to embed small images and such right into your HTML or CSS and thus avoid the overhead of an HTTP request just for one tiny 16x16 icon. I think these are a more elegant solution for small icons than CSS Sprites, because they localize the icons right there in the stylesheet.

There are lots of “online tools” out there, but the process is actually trivial: a data URL is just a base64 encoding of the file with a label and a mime-type tacked on the front. So for the Unix-heads among us I present the following tiny bash script:

#!/bin/bash

for filename; do
    mimetype=`file -b --mime-type $filename`
    encoded=`base64 -w 0 $filename`
    echo "data:$mimetype;base64,$encoded"
done

It takes one or more files as arguments, and outputs a URL for each, one per line. It uses the file command to determine the MIME type of the files, and the base64 command to encode it. You use it like this:

    $ dataurl sort_up.gif sort_dn.png
    data:image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhEAAQALMLAJLNXpDEaZPNX4/NU5bUWJnXWpDNVIvFWXyuWmOPRf///////wAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACH5BAEAAAsALAAAAAAQABAAAAQvcMlJq704612V4ouSJJ8mAgiZnYVwqJY4EsEIU55oAKSHiQNe6We7XXI5kHK5iQAAOw==
    data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAABAAAAAQBAMAAADt3eJSAAAAIVBMVEWZ11qQzVSPzVOLxVljj0V8rlr///+W1FiTzV+SzV6QxGnd5+EIAAAAL0lEQVQImWNIgwIG/AwXFyjDaQqU4QhluLgvcQEzUiY0u0GkPEOgalLcCJuMygAAMbUyf2u25M8AAAAASUVORK5CYII=

You can then cut and paste the URLs output by this script into your CSS like so:

    background-image: url(data:image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhEAAQALMLAJLNXpDEaZPNX4/NU5bUWJnXWpDNVIvFWXyuWmOPRf///////wAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACH5BAEAAAsALAAAAAAQABAAAAQvcMlJq704612V4ouSJJ8mAgiZnYVwqJY4EsEIU55oAKSHiQNe6We7XXI5kHK5iQAAOw==)

or into your HTML like so:

    <img src="data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAABAAAAAQBAMAAADt3eJSAAAAIVBMVEWZ11qQzVSPzVOLxVljj0V8rlr///+W1FiTzV+SzV6QxGnd5+EIAAAAL0lEQVQImWNIgwIG/AwXFyjDaQqU4QhluLgvcQEzUiY0u0GkPEOgalLcCJuMygAAMbUyf2u25M8AAAAASUVORK5CYII=" />

image

HTTP overhead is something around 500 bytes. Base64 encoding increases the size of files by 1/3, so using this encoding method is likely to be worthwhile only on images smaller than 1.5KB or so … but that is the case for an awful lot of small icons.