ColorVision Spyder and OptiCal

Monitor calibration hardware and software that works and doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how to use.

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If you're editing digital images on your computer, then you need to calibrate your monitor. Calibration generates standard ICC color profiles that help image editing software like Photoshop provide consistent, accurate color displays. (You should also use color profiles for your input source and printer, but that's fodder for another review.)


The Spyder ready to calibrate my monitor using the supplied Optical software

Notice that I didn't say that you should think about calibrating your monitor. There's no ifs, ands, or buts allowed here. If you don't calibrate your monitor, you simply won't get repeatable results. Worse still, you'll be making blind changes to colors. Even crude calibration is better than none. Ready? Set. Calibrate!

Summary
In a word: recommended.

Pro: Simple to use; reminds you to recalibrate; doesn't require much user interaction.

Con: Some subjectivity involved with Brightness setting if you don't also use Precal.

Product Specification

Measuring Function
CIE-XYZ (closely matches CIE 1931, using seven filtered sensors and a luminance sensor)
Measuring Characteristics
40-150Hz refresh rates supported, measures 10 degrees vertical, 20 degrees horizontal; luminance accurate to 4%, chroma to .004 x,y; linearity within 2% over range
Size and Weight
79mm round x 37mm high, 134 grams
Price
US$399 (a lower-priced version with PhotoCal software, which doesn't support reminders or nearly as many monitor choices or gamma settings is available for $224)

Colorvision
300 State St, Suite 303
Rochester, NY 14614
800-554-8688
www.colorvision.com

 

Alternatives

Of course, calibrating can be an informal or formal process. Since my computer has a DVD drive and I happen to have a television background, for a short time I simply set my system using Joe Kane's Video Essentials DVD. The test signals on that disc allow you to set up your television for optimal NTSC viewing, and the principles used there are mostly applicable to computer monitors. The problem with using a method like this is that it involves a great deal of subjective interpretation, despite Joe Kane's excellent explanations.

A few Web sites offer some slimmed down methods of approximating calibration, having you manage your monitor's settings directly. This works fairly well for setting Brightness and Contrast levels, but getting color balances correct is virtually impossible.

Both the methods just described have one additional problem: they are manual methods that you must repeat regularly.

Some users have opted for setting their monitor using Adobe's Gamma program, which is supplied with Photoshop. Again, this works reasonably well, but even the same person generally doesn't make the exactly the same settings twice in a row (NTSC, the standard for television signals, is jokingly referred to as meaning Never The Same Color--it seems that problem has migrated to computer video, as well). Still, using Adobe Gamma is better than nothing, even if you might not get your profile perfect.

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Hardware is Best

The best way to automate color profiling for your monitor is to use a hardware solution. Until recently, these devices were rather expensive. Some even had to be connected to your monitor full-time, taking up a small square of window real estate away from your work.

Colorvision's Spyder, and its corresponding software, OptiCal, were one of the first inexpensive solutions to come along. I'll jump to the chase here: you've got no excuses anymore; get this product!

But you probably want to know more before dropping your moola on YACA (yet another computer accessory). Okay, happy to oblige:

The Spyder is a relatively small (fits in the palm of your hand) gizmo that looks like it fell off a cheap imitation of a Bang and Olufsen stereo system. A clear plastic tripod holds the hidden sensor, and suction cups at the end of each leg hold onto your monitor. Snaking from the sensor is a 6' USB cable (the Spyder works on Macs or Windows machines, though you need different OptiCal software for each). As with all USB devices, Windows will want to install drivers the first time it sees the Spyder, but my Dell XPS and USB hub didn't miss a beat in doing the Plug 'n Pray Windows Driver Dance.

 

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Using OptiCal

Beginning with Windows 98, the Microsoft OS has finally "caught up" with the Mac in color management. Hidden away in the bowels of your /WINDOWS/SYSTEM folder is a basic color management utility that loads each time you boot up (Macintosh users have had color management for so long, I can't remember which version of Mac OS first had it). Most recent video boards have the ability to be software programmed in color adjustment. What OptiCal does is build the ICC profile data for the color management system to use, which in turn tells the video card how to set its internal color registers. (Okay, it's a lot more complex and convoluted than the previous paragraph suggests--but the point is still the same: your operating system can control how your video board displays colors.)

A precalibration step using the supplied PreCal software attempts to set the overall color guns and luminance to within a narrow range. I found this step took some fiddling with my Gateway VX900 monitor. First, even though the monitor supports a standard 6500K color temperature setting, the monitor was still too blue. Eventually, I ended up with the red gun cranked all the way up and the blue gun set much lower. This process is straightforward, but depending upon your monitor's controls, can be frustrating. For example, whenever the on-screen control overlays appear on the VX900, they skew the overall color even further towards blue (the overlays themselves are bright aqua). Thus, I had to tweak a control, wait for the overlay to disappear and the color to return to normal, monitor the result with PreCal, then iterate. It took me quite some time to get everything within PreCal's narrowly defined boundaries.

Next you run the OptiCal program. OptiCal first asks you to set the Contrast control on your monitor to maximum, and your Brightness control to minimum. You're then to slowly increase the Brightness until the OptiCal logo is "barely visible." This is probably the one weakness in the system--barely visible means different things to different folk. I've found that in five repeats over five consecutive nights (to keep me from easily duplicating the results) I set the Brightness level to three different levels when I performed this step. True, those levels are all very close together, as illustrated by the bar graph my monitor displays, but, still, you'll get just a bit of difference between settings. (You can use PreCal or OptiCal to help you set consistent luminance values, by the way, but those controls are not readily available during a standard calibration session.)

Once you've made the brightness and contrast adjustments, OptiCal displays a big dialog box with a "blank" panel in it (see the photo, at the top of the review). You mount the Spyder on your monitor over that panel. However, I'd warn you not to jump right to that step. My monitor, and several others that I've tried, has an obvious color shift when I bring up the on-screen controls for Brightness and Contrast. I find it takes at least 10 seconds before the monitor returns to a semblance of its former rendition. Thus, I always pause for a minute prior to performing this next step. You should also note that your monitor needs to be clean, with no direct light hitting (nearby desk lamps should be turned off). For those of you using monitors with an anti-reflective coating, be aware that the suction cups on the Spyder will leave a mark; keep cleaning fluid handy when you use the Spyder.

Once the Spyder is in place, you simply press the Enter key and let OptiCal do its thing. It's place primary colors and gray rendition patches in the area under the Spyder, and then step through a gray ramp to verify the color settings. This step is completely automatic, and doesn't take long to perform (typically less than a minute on my machine). The color adjustment tables that OptiCal calculates based upon what the Spyder saw are then loaded into your video card (and every time you reboot). Since monitors in color rendition over time, OptiCal reminds you every couple of weeks to perform another assessment.

 

 
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How's It Do?

After my first use of OptiCal, I looked at a number of photos I had touched up with Photoshop. I found two where cloned areas didn't quite match, a typical sign of uncalibrated monitor use. This, despite not seeing any obvious difference in how my monitor was rendering color. Score one for OptiCal and the Spyder.

Don't necessarily assume that all of your color issues are done once you've calibrated your monitor, though. In late afternoon, the position of my monitor means that some indirect sunlight finds its way onto the glass, and the warmish color temperature of the light clouds my color judgements. I've learned not to do color adjustments in the afternoon. (Serious users build black side and top hoods for their screens, so that no stray light reaches the glass. They also usually see that the lighting in their space is full spectrum and 100% indirect.)

Still, you'll get reasonably repeatable color results using Spyder and OptiCal, and you have virtually no chance of doing that without some sort of calibration system. Repeatable = good. Uncalibrated = bad. Considering Spyder and OptiCal list for US$399, I consider them a wise investment for anyone working with digital images.

 

 
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Dave Yuhas writes: A few points you overlooked: Documentation that can only be described as pathetic. I've used freeware with better help. The CD arrived with an outdated user guide PDF. If you want the current version, you have to download it. After you get the product you learn ColorVision "recommends" plugging the Spyder into a USB card and NOT into a built-in USB port. Brain-dead tech support--my impression based on one contact.

Thom responds: ColorVision does seem to have a bit of a problem "keeping up." Documentation lags the software releases and I'd have to agree with you on technical support: my two experiences with them were less than stellar. As for Colorvision's USB suggestion, I haven't had any problems on several machines using the Spyder on built-in, card, and hub ports. I think the recommendation may date back to when USB first appeared and wasn't directly supported by Windows. Many early machines had very specific USB drivers that don't agree with a number of products.

   

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