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The best monitor calibrators in 2020: keep your on-screen colors accurate

(Image credit: Future)

Camera manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure the cameras we buy faithfully capture colour. So it's not ideal if you then end up viewing and editing your shots on a computer monitor that's misleading your eyes by displaying poor colour accuracy. This usually manifests itself with a subtle colour cast, such as a green or pink bias that can often be subtle enough that you may not notice it, that is until you try calibrating your monitor.

By using a monitor calibration tool – a colorimeter is the technical name – on your screen and firing a selection of colours at it, any discrepancies can be detected and your computer then programmed to compensate for the colour inaccuracy of your monitor. When you then switch between the monitor's pre- and post-calibration output, that once-subtle colour cast can suddenly be revealed as shockingly obvious and you wondered why you didn't calibrate sooner. 

Of course, no amount of calibration can make a mediocre monitor into a dream display. But by using a calibrator, you’ll at least know that your monitor is performing at its best. 

Deciding which calibration device is best for you can be a tricky, as one can only rely on the colorimeter’s eye to assess the color accuracy of a calibrated monitor. In our tests, we quote Delta-E color deviation from ideal (zero) color. Some of the calibration kit tested can also be used to calibrate your printer, so if you're after both then choose on of the combination kits featured.

Five things to look out for

Monitor output fluctuates, so you’ll need to periodically recalibrate. Most colorimeters will get the job done in a few minutes and remind you when another checkup is due. 

Ambient light detection  
Some calibrators can measure surrounding ambient light and adjust monitor brightness to compensate. Useful when comparing printed images with on-screen equivalents.

Monitor types
The tech inside your monitor will affect how it displays colors, hence a calibration device that can accommodate subtleties like LED backlighting should produce more accurate results.

Advanced features
Fancier options can calibrate color to conform to color standards, match color output across multiple screens, or calibrate a projector.

If you’re into home printing, your printer can also be calibrated to ensure it’s printing at its best. You’ll need a calibrator designed for printer profiling.

(Image credit: Datacolor)

1. Datacolor SpyderX Pro

A great value monitor calibration tool that includes all the features you need

Much quicker than previous Spyder5
Great overall accuracy
Good value
Interface could be more friendly
No budget Spyder X 'Express' version

SpyderX is the successor to Datacolor’s popular Spyder5 monitor calibrator series. It uses a brand new lens-based sensor system rather than the old honeycomb baffle on the Spyder5. The result is a claimed increase in calibration accuracy, especially in the lightest and darkest image regions, and a sub-2-minute calibration time, making this the fastest Spyder calibrator ever. In our hands the Spyder X Pro calibrated our test monitor in a staggering 1 minute 15 seconds. Given monitor calibration isn't a once-only procedure - you should calibration roughly once a month to ensure consistent color accuracy - such a noticeable time saving is very handy indeed.

Available in Pro and Elite flavours, both SpyderX versions offer features like ambient light monitoring and multi-monitor support. The Elite spec adds projector profiling, pro-orientated advanced calibration options, and its video color space targets are useful for video editing, but for most photographers we reckon the Pro edition offers the best bang per buck.

Whichever version you opt for, Datacolor’s calibration software is informative and easy to use, yet includes plenty of customisation to suit lots of monitor types.

(Image credit: Datacolor)

2. Datacolor SpyderX Studio

Not compact, but it's our top pick if you need to calibrate a printer as well as your monitor

Well-priced for a combined monitor and print solution
Performs well in our tests
Bulky to store
Print scanning not that smooth

The SpyderX Studio is actually a large collection of gear. The calibration kit consists of the SpyderX Elite monitor colorimeter, a separate SpyderPrint spectrocolorimeter for assessing printed output, and a small SpyderCube to help set the white balance, exposure, black level and brightness when shooting Raw images. 

The monitor calibration hardware and software, and the resulting color accuracy, are identical to the SpyderX Elite. Printer calibration requires you to print at least one sheet of color patches, which you scan using the SpyderPrint and a plastic ruler guide. 

Opt for the single-page print of 225 color patches and the scanning process demands accuracy, but it’s painless; choosing two pages of larger swatches is easier, and you can ditch the guide.

3. X-Rite i1Studio

A nifty all-in-one monitor and printer calibration tool, but slower than a SpyderX

Straightforward to use
Accurate monitor calibration
Very versatile 
Combined hardware can be more awkward to use than separate devices

You usually need separate devices to calibrate a monitor and printer, but the i1Studio packs both functions into a single tool. Consequently it’s no surprise that this all-in-one device is bigger than a typical monitor calibrator, and it comes with a case to hold it on your screen during operation.

Monitor calibration is fairly brisk at under five minutes, but it's noticeably longer than the time taken by the Datacolor SpyderX calibrator. At least the i1Studio is worth the wait as it delivers great results, with an average Delta-E score of 0.89.

If monitor calibration is a little slow, printer profiling is a cinch. You don’t need to pause on every individual colour patch on the two A4 test prints: just slide along each row of patches and the i1Studio automatically does its thing. Like monitor profiling, a custom profile is then saved, and you select this rather than using your printer’s default settings the next time you print.

There's also iOS smart device calibration. You’ll need to download the ColorTRUE app to use this feature, then you place the i1Studio on your device’s screen and the calibration process works much like it does when calibrating your main monitor. There is a catch though: this doesn’t alter your device’s colour at a system level. Only images opened within the ColorTRUE Image Gallery will be displayed with corrected colour.

4. X-Rite ColorMunki Smile

The shoestring-budget option here, but monitor calibration accuracy is respectable

Delightfully simple to use
Bargain price
Very limited options available

The ColorMunki Smile is child’s play to use, thanks to software that trades advanced options for clarity. Its full-screen interface is easy on the eye, and only a few buttons stand between you and calibration. 

Options enable you to change calibration reminder frequency and set the calibration to suit standard or LED-backlit monitors. Everything else is fixed, though judging by the color profile generated by the Smile, it uses a standard 6500 K color temperature target. 

Calibration takes just over five minutes and once complete our test monitor was corrected of its default green color cast. Checking the Smile’s color profile reveals a respectable average Delta-E color accuracy of 2.0 - not perfect, but acceptable at this price point.

If your budget cant stretch to a SpyderX Pro and you have a typical standalone computer monitor, the ColorMunki Smile will get the job done.

(Image credit: Datacolor)

5. Datacolor SpyderX Elite

Datacolor's fully-featured monitor calibrator caters for every eventuality, but at a price

Extensive customization
Some useful extra features
Extras aren’t essential if you just want to calibrate and go 

The Elite version of the SpyderX colorimeter may look identical to its cheaper Pro sibling, but fire up the Elite’s software and you get a host of extra features. 

The most valuable is arguably the ability to calibrate your monitor not just to conform to a typical 2.2 gamma and 6500 K white point, but also to color space standards like sRGB, Adobe RGB, NTSC and Rec 709. 

Given that they use the same hardware, it’s no surprise that the Elite manages a very similar sub-two-minute calibration time to the Spyder5 Pro. Both versions maintain excellent calibration accuracy scores with negligable Delta-E variation.

There's no doubt that the SpyderX Elite is an excellent monitor calibration tool, but we'd only recommend it over the SpyderX Pro if you specifically need to calibrate your monitor to suit video colour spaces, or want complete control over every element of the calibration process.

6. X-Rite i1 Display Pro

X-Rite's fastest monitor calibrator is great for monitor calibration perfectionists

Very fast
Plenty of customization
Accurate calibration 
Slightly daunting software
Many extras aren’t essential 

The i1 Display Pro is a speed demon, calibrating our monitor in a blistering 1 minute 36 seconds. This is useful if you regularly calibrate to ensure consistent color – and it doesn’t come at the expense of accuracy either, as we recorded a decent Delta-E score of 1.11.

The i1 Display Pro is designed to be a comprehensive monitor calibration tool; to this end, its i1 Profiler software is crammed with features. There are also extensive options for setting a range of desired brightness, gamma and white point. 

Keep things in Basic mode and it’s fairly easy to use, albeit not quite as intuitive as Datacolor’s SpyderX software. But venture into the Advanced mode’s interface and you may well be baffled by some of the more technical options on offer.

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