Display Calibration 101: Step-By-Step With Datacolor's Spyder4Elite

See How Easy Calibrating Your Display Can Be?

You’ve heard us say it in every monitor review: we always recommend calibration. It's often a challenge to put into practice given what the required gear costs and the training needed to achieve good results. While it is true that most displays look pretty darned good right out of the box, we have yet to encounter a review unit that didn't benefit from a precise calibration.

It’s important to remember that the science behind the industry’s video standards has two simple directives: display an image that is as true-to-life as possible, meanwhile creating the least amount of eye fatigue for the viewer. By making small adjustments in key areas, even inexpensive monitors can meet this goal. A few years ago, only very expensive professional products played in the accurate color arena. Now, with advances in technology and manufacturing, anyone can have a professional-quality image on their desktop. Products like Datacolor’s Spyder4 systems keep your display emitting industry-standard colors with ease, and without spending a ton of money. You don’t really have to know a lot about the science behind it to get good results, either. The software handles all the patterns and measurements without user intervention, and the end result is a better-looking, more accurate monitor.

And that was the purpose of today's story. We've been using Spyder4Elites for a while now, across several segments and in a number of labs. Everything about the process is so straight-forward that we figured showing you what we go through in each review might encourage more enthusiasts to take calibration seriously and get more enjoyment from their computing experience.

What impressed us the most is how the Spyder4's calibration settings are stored in a look-up table rather than adjusting the monitor itself. If you read our monitor reviews, you know that not every screen has the same available controls, and adjusting the color gamut is usually limited to a few presets, if it's possible at all. The same is often true for gamma, though none of the panels we've tested offer the ability to actually edit the gamma curve. Without software like Spyder4Elite, you're limited to your display’s own menu system.

Of course, the Spyder4 isn't perfect. We'd like to see a redesigned sensor that's weighted properly to ensure it lays flat against an upright screen. And there are other low-priced alternatives to Datacolor's solution, most notably the $299 CalPC package from Spectracal. This bundle includes the X-rite i1Display meter and the CalMAN 5 software suite with integrated pattern generation (we’ll be covering CalPC in a future article). Alternatively, you can also save $80 on Datacolor’s Elite product and get the Spyder4Pro. You give up multi-screen matching, SpyderTune, unlimited choices for calibration parameters, and the screen uniformity tests. But for only $169, it gets the job done. X-Rite's ColorMunki Display sells for around the same price.

Besides the walkthrough, hopefully you’ve also gotten a little exposure to the technical justification behind calibration and color reproduction in displays. Our next installment will discuss this science in much greater detail. The theories of color perception go back to a time when computers filled a room and didn’t even have a video display. These theories are what guide modern color science. Stay tuned!

Christian Eberle
Contributing Editor

Christian Eberle is a Contributing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He's a veteran reviewer of A/V equipment, specializing in monitors. Christian began his obsession with tech when he built his first PC in 1991, a 286 running DOS 3.0 at a blazing 12MHz. In 2006, he undertook training from the Imaging Science Foundation in video calibration and testing and thus started a passion for precise imaging that persists to this day. He is also a professional musician with a degree from the New England Conservatory as a classical bassoonist which he used to good effect as a performer with the West Point Army Band from 1987 to 2013. He enjoys watching movies and listening to high-end audio in his custom-built home theater and can be seen riding trails near his home on a race-ready ICE VTX recumbent trike. Christian enjoys the endless summer in Florida where he lives with his wife and Chihuahua and plays with orchestras around the state.

  • de5_Roy
    very informative. :)
  • Someone Somewhere
    I've been doing this for years.

    However, I wouldn't recommend Colorvision - their support for open source software is pitiful.

    It would be nice to have the option to calibrate the monitor instead of just using colour profiles though. It can get irritating to run the same test on multiple OSs or computers attached to the same monitor.
  • envy14tpe
    Thank you so much for doing this article. I think calibrating a monitor (at home) is very important for accuracy.

    I use the Spyder Express 4 and love the results. There are 3 models of the Spyder 4 and buyers need to choose which is best for their use.

    Would it be possible to make the images a larger file so people can see the difference more clearly?
  • daglesj
    I have a Spyder 3 Pro.

    Great device when you first unbox it, then not so good when you find the colours and visuals look far worse after you finish with odd tinges and hues.

    Then you read up and find the the devices are not actually calibrated and set properly when they leave the factory.

    Pretty useless. I wouldn't buy another spyder. Look elsewhere for proper results.
  • Traciatim
    I've been looking at picking up a calibration tool set for a while so I liked reading this article. My question though is that I want to use my setup to calibrate TV's for friends, Monitors, Laptops, multi monitor setups, TV's with PCs and Multiple other devices attached . . . I was looking at getting the Spyder4 Elite and the TV HD upgrade but it seems like if I calibrate a TV with a PC attached using the TV HD version and then try to do the PC with the software then is that going to mess up the previous settings?

    If anyone has any experience with these tools in multi-use and multi-display scenarios or has a better option on what tools to get I would really appreciate any info.
  • WyomingKnott
    "All modern fixed-pixel displays create images in RGB format." Sharp states that their Aquos line has a yellow sub-pixel. It might be interesting to compare one of their TVs to a similar RGB panel.
  • Someone Somewhere
    None of the connections allow it to receive data with a yellow channel though, so it's all interpolated in the display.
  • ddpruitt
    Great article, I always try to do this with monitors and displays. Most are set up so horribly out of the box and people always use what feels good instead of what's right. I have never used a color calibrator because there's so little factual information. I'll probably ending getting one of these now.
  • ojas
    I wish you could cover some free/open source software, $249 is still a bit much for some like me...plus exchange rate is getting painful these days :(
  • master9716
    The Before Picture looks More Realistic