You'd be forgiven for thinking that a new monitor would come preset to display at its very best. And, to be fair, an average user viewing their holiday snaps will probably be completely satisfied with their monitor's default settings.
But what if you want more, or better? That's when monitor calibrators come in. By using a colorimeter on your screen and ﬁring a selection of colors at it, any discrepancies can be detected and your computer then programmed to compensate its color output for the traits of your monitor.
Of course, no amount of calibration can make a mediocre monitor into a dream display. But by using a calibrator, you’ll know that what you have will be 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.
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.
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.
1. Datacolor Spyder5 Express
Entry level model in Datacolor's award-winning range
Datacolor’s Spyder5 range of calibration products all use an identical piece of calibration hardware: only the software and licence code deﬁne which version you have.
The advantage of this is you can upgrade to a more advanced model by buying new software: the hardware already contains a dormant sensor capable of ambient light detection. The software for the Express is almost the same as you get with fancier Datacolor products, but with almost all extras stripped out.
The appearance isn’t as friendly as X-Rite’s Colormunki Smile, but it’s very straightforward to use. The Express takes around ﬁve minutes 15 seconds to do its thing, and it calibrated our test screen to an impressive Delta-E colour accuracy of 0.93.
2. Datacolor Spyder5 Studio
Not compact, but reasonable value if you need to calibrate printers too
The Spyder5 Studio is actually a large collection of gear. The calibration kit consists of the Spyder5 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 Spyder5 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
Great results, but at a hefty price
You used to 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. It all comes at a fairly hefty price though: the X-Rite i1Studio is easily the most expensive calibrator on our list.
Monitor calibration is quite rapid at under ﬁve minutes, and the i1Studio delivers great results, with an average Delta-E score of 0.89. If monitor calibration is a little awkward, 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 saved, and you select this rather than using your printer’s default settings the next time you print.
4. X-Rite ColorMunki Smile
A great simple, affordable option
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.
Like Datacolor’s Spyder5 Express, calibration takes just over ﬁve minutes; once it was 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.
5. Datacolor Spyder5 Elite
Plenty of extras - but at a price
The Elite version of the Spyder5 colorimeter may look identical to its Express 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 ﬁve-minute calibration time to the Spyder5 Express. To the naked eye, the Elite’s color proﬁle appears identical to that from the Express, although on closer inspection, Datacolor’s Display Analysis feature reveals a marginally worse Delta-E result of 1.13 on our test monitor.
6. X-Rite i1 Display Pro
In spite of some tech jargon, a perfectly fine calibration tool
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 software. But venture into the Advanced mode’s interface and you may well be bafﬂed by some of the more technical options on offer.