Spyder Monitor Calibrator with ColorVision PhotoCal

by Joe Gillespie — May 1, 2003

Have you ever looked at a wall of television sets in a store, all tuned to the same channel and showing the same program? No doubt you will have noticed that each television shows the picture slightly differently and perhaps the idea crossed your mind, "I wonder which one is right?" Well, they can't all be right!

Computer monitors are the same except you very rarely get a chance to see so many side by side and showing the same Web page. Apart from possible size and resolution differences, the colours would probably look quite different. To get them all to agree with one another, they need to be calibrated and ICC profiles produced to correct minor differences in the relative red, green and blue values. Macs have had a monitor calibration utility built-in for quite some time now and more recent versions of Windows do too but these depend on several factors that are difficult to control – the type of monitor, the ambient light conditions in the room and ultimately, human judgement.

High-end monitors used for critical print work generally have some kind of hardware self-calibration but are very expensive. The other option is to have a piece of hardware that sits on the monitor screen and reads off the RGB values with an optical sensor. The Spyder calibrator from Pantone falls into this category and is much cheaper than a dedicated, self-calibrating monitor. It removes a lot of the guesswork involved in doing the job 'by eye'. The sensor unit simply clips onto the top of the CRT or LCD monitor and dangles down over a predefined part of the screen connecting to the computer via the USB port.

The bundled 'PhotoCal' software runs through a routine where it puts a sequence of coloured rectangles and tones on the screen. These are read by the Spyder's sensor, the results being analysed and used to build-up an ICC profile for the monitor, which is saved to disk. The whole process only takes a minute or so.

I ran the test a few times on each of my six monitors. Five are on (3) Macs and one on a PC. I expected to end up with six calibrated monitors that would show a particular test image more or less identically.

Side by side, they were close, but not as similar as I had hoped. I found that I had to tweak a couple of them manually to get them as close as possible to the others. Although the tonal values (gamma) weren't far off, the mid-grey desktop colour that I use on all the machines does show-up even the slightest color-cast and I was getting different 'colors' of grey. Individually, I'm sure that any of them would be quite acceptable, but seen together, I was a little disappointed.

Pantone do provide what they claim to be a more accurate package called 'OptiCal', costing $100 more but the price I paid for the 'novice' product was already in excess of what many people spend on their monitors. I do think that the Spyder/PhotoCal package is overpriced. It easy to use but the fact that I had to revert to manual tweaking to get consistent color from one monitor to the next rather defeated the purpose.

If you can't calibrate your monitor by eye with your computer's system software and you have nearly three hundred bucks going spare, the Spyder will do a reasonable job – just don't expect too much!

ColorVision PhotoCal
Features red bar85%
Ease of Use yellow bar90%
Value for Money green bar50%
'Must Have' Factor blue bar60%
Manufacturer Pantone
Price $288 (Mac OS9.x, OSX and Windows)
Summary Calibrates a wide range of monitors – at a price.
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