A well-calibrated monitor is a must for photo editors, designers, and content creators, but there's no reason for anybody to be working with a monitor that delivers skewed colours or an errant brightness level. There are a number of free calibration apps that you can use to improve your monitor's overall image quality, and if you’re running Windows 7 or Windows 8 you can use the built-in utility to perform a basic calibration (see our feature on monitor calibration for more details).
However, if you want to make sure your monitor is consistently displaying accurate colours, you'll have to spend some money on a solution that measures and adjusts things like white point, gamut, and luminance.
The Datacolor Spyder4 Pro offers an affordable way (it’s £108) to calibrate multiple monitors so that they all produce consistent colour and image detail, and stay that way (it's a good idea to recalibrate every so often as monitors tend to change over time). It uses a colourimeter and software to create a profile for each monitor, and measures ambient light to tune your monitor according to your lighting conditions. The device delivers all this successfully and is a snap to use, but it could do with a longer USB cord and an auto-adjustment option for brightness settings.
Design and features
The Spyder4 Pro consists of a colourimeter, a stand, and calibration software. A colourimeter measures colour and compares it to a known standard, such as the sRGB and Adobe colour standards. The three-legged Spyder resembles a Klingon warship and sports a two-tone gloss and matte black finish.
It's small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and connects to your PC via a weighted USB cord. The weight did a good job of holding the meter in place when hung over the top of the monitor, but the 67in cord was barely long enough to reach the full-sized tower PC situated beneath my desk. Another foot or so would provide some much needed leeway. On the top of the Spyder is an activity LED and an ambient light sensor, and the bottom plays host to a 7-colour sensor. A stand is provided for measuring ambient light and for storing the Spyder when not in use.
The Spyder4 Pro works with LCD and CRT monitors as well as laptop screens. The basic model in the range, the Spyder4 Express (£85), only lets you calibrate one monitor, but the Spyder4 Pro supports multiple monitor calibrations and can be installed on multiple PCs. It doesn't do projector calibrations though; for that you'll have to upgrade to the Spyder4 Elite (£150) or go with X-Rite's rival product, the ColorMunki Display.
Installing and using the Spyder4 Pro is a breeze. It's important to make sure your monitor has been on for at least 30 minutes before calibrating, and that the software is installed and running before you plug in the colourimeter.
The first time you run the software you're asked to enter an activation code (found on the CD sleeve). You can automatically activate the software via the Internet or do so manually. Either way you'll have to furnish your name and email address to complete the activation. Once activated you are given a license code that must be used if you are going to reinstall the software or use it on an additional PC.
The calibration process is wizard-driven. The Welcome screen has a checklist of certain pre-calibration procedures such as warming up the monitor, adjusting ambient light, and resetting the monitor to its default settings. It also offers a handy video tutorial on calibration for the uninitiated. In fact, there are help screens available throughout the process that will guide you through the calibration procedure.
First, select the type of display that you're calibrating (LCD, CRT, laptop). Then enter the manufacturer and model information on the following screen. You'll then be prompted to enter the gamut type (unknown, normal, wide), and backlight type (unknown, CCFL, white LED, RGB LED). Next, select the type of controls your monitor has (contrast, brightness, Kelvin presets). If you're calibrating a CRT monitor you can add an RGB slider control to the list, but Datacolor suggests leaving that box unchecked when calibrating an LCD monitor.
A Calibration Settings screen shows recommended target values that include gamma, white point, brightness, and ambient light settings. You can choose your own settings using the dropdown boxes – options include four gamma settings (1.8, 2.0, 2.2, 2.4), four white point settings (5000k, 5800k, 6500k, native), brightness (native, CRT, LCD), and ambient light (on, off). Select "on" for ambient light if you want to calibrate your monitor to match your lighting environment, which is a good idea.
After that, the colourimeter will take an ambient light reading and produce a result with a suggested brightness and white point setting. In my case it suggested a brightness setting of 180 cd/m2 with a white point of 6500k. You will then be directed to place the Spyder4 on the screen, adjusting the weight so that the colourimeter sits flush on the screen with the weight positioned at the rear of the cabinet.
The Spyder will now measure brightness, colour, and white point, and display the actual readings and suggested target levels. If you elected to change the monitor's RGB setting manually, here's where you do so. Using your monitor's OSD controls, adjust the RGB colour levels until they match their targets. It may take multiple attempts as you have to update the settings each time to see where you are. As I already mentioned, this option should be left unchecked for LCD monitors. Unless you have an intimate knowledge of how colours interact with each other, you may end up with severe tinting issues.
Next comes the brightness level adjustment, which has to be done manually using the OSD controls. It would be nice to have an automated luminance option similar to the one provided with X-Rite's ColorMunki Display.
The Spyder then measures the various shades of red, green and blue (from dark to light), and shades of grey (from black to white), adjusting settings accordingly. Once the calibration is finished you then save the profile, which is automatically loaded each time you fire up your PC. Here you can also set a reminder to recalibrate in a set period of time ranging from one day to six months.
At this point you can use a variety of images to compare picture quality before and after the calibration. Each image can be enlarged so you can look for changes in detail and colour saturation. The Profile Overview compares the calibrated monitor to other displays in your profile list and shows how accurately it displays colours in the likes of the sRGB and Adobe colour spaces.
You can quit the program or use the Advanced Analysis feature to run individual tests for gamut, tone response, brightness and contrast, and white point when using the monitor's various picture presets. These tests can be saved as charts, providing a nice visual representation of how your monitor stacks up. When it comes time to recalibrate, simply use the ReCAL option at startup and you'll have a freshly calibrated monitor within minutes.
The calibration process itself took a little more than five minutes to complete, and the results were outstanding. I tested the Spyder4 Pro on three different monitors and in each case the calibration provided noticeably superior picture quality compared to what you get out of the box. Highlight and shadow detail appeared sharper, and the resulting luminance level was easy on the eyes – not too bright and not too dim. Moreover, colour output matched up nicely across all three monitors, much more so than before they were calibrated.
With the Datacolor Spyder4 Pro you can calibrate all of your monitors and laptops to deliver consistent colour quality across all of your systems. Its ease of use and excellent help options ensure that even novice users can achieve noteworthy results without paying a fortune.
I'd love to see Datacolor add an auto-brightness feature and tack on another foot of USB cable to the colourimeter, but neither of these minor gripes prevent me from recommending the Spyder4 Pro to anyone who wants to fine tune their monitor.
As good as the Spyder4 Pro is, though, the X-Rite Colormunki Display is a better deal. It’s pitched at the same price level (well, it’s a fiver more to be precise) but it also offers support for projectors and ambient light monitoring, along with an automated brightness adjustment, which is why it just edges out Datacolor’s calibration tool.