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Spyder X Elite monitor calibrator review

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Review: Spyder X Elite monitor calibrator

Datacolor Spyder X monitor calibration and profiling


Datacolor have just launched their latest monitor calibrator, the Spyder X.

Keith has been looking at the the high end Spyder X Elite model which offer fast accurate monitor profiling and calibration.

There is also a Spyder X Pro model that may well suit the needs of many photographers. There is a comparison of Spyder X Pro/Elite functionality at the foot of the article.

spyder X Elite box

The SpyderX is available at: B&H | Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

Monitor calibration – you need it

spyder-iconOne of the simplest means to improving the consistency and quality of your photo editing workflow is to make sure that your monitor is properly calibrated.

The profiling/calibration process is a simple one and aims to get your screen to a known state.

At its simplest, is the white on your screen properly white? A slight magenta cast may not be noticeable, since our eyes rapidly adapt, but try and print the image or send it off for printing and that magenta cast of your screen may well lead to a greenish cast to your prints?

Why?  Well in an attempt to get good looking colour for your photos on your screen you may edit them a ‘bit too green’ to compensate for the magenta cast. That’s fine on your uncalibrated screen, but that green you’ve added appears in your prints.

Then you wonder – “Is my printer not quite right?”

In truth, you don’t know where the problem might be. My key reason for using colour management is that it lets me be ‘right first time’ more often. Note I make no mention of ‘correct’ colours here, that’s a notion that has many issues in of itself – I just want to do better.

One other reason to calibrate your screen – having a screen set too bright is one of the commonest causes of prints coming out too dark.  See my Top ten reasons your prints look wrong for more

The latest Spyder

I’ve tried every single model of Spyder calibrator since they came out and they show two consistent features of importance to me.

  • New hardware – performs more accurately, quicker and supports latest display types.
  • Software that is easy to use and has excellent help resources that not only explain how, but WHY you can do things

The Spyder X device comes in a solidly built box.

spyder X Elite box

No longer do you get a disk with software. You need to download the latest to install.

software-download

The device fits snuggly in the box.

Keep the box – devices like this should not just be thrown in a desk drawer.

spyder-in-box

The centre of the top of the device is an indicator light – also used (with the light out) as a sensor for room brightness.

The room lighting measurement can be used for a variety of purposes. I’ll come back to this later, since I’ve long chosen to turn off any room light features in calibrators, and have not changed this view with the latest Spyder.

Under the device is the serial number you’ll need to activate the software. A simple online activation process is available.

The device itself has a cover that clips over the light sensor area. It can be slid along the cable to work as a counterweight when you’re using the Spyder X on a screen.

The Spyder X uses a big lens over its internal sensors, focussing light from the screen to where it’s measured.

This improves sensitivity and makes the device  more consistent with different screen types.

spyder-x

Note too the 1/4″ tripod mount at the side of the colorimeter – this is for attaching to a tripod when using the Spyder X with a projector.

Basic calibration

I’ll start off looking at the basic monitor calibration process, using the Spyder X on my oldish MacBook Pro

initial-options

Note the dropdown menu that lets me directly jump ahead to other functions if I know what I want.

I need to tell the software what sort of display I want to work with, since they tend to adjust different parameters.

type-of-display

I’ll pick laptop for this example.

There are few settings to adjust – just screen brightness for my MacBook.

monitor-controls

Different display technologies need measuring in slightly different ways.

pick-display-type

You won’t go seriously wrong with the incorrect setting, it’s just your profile may not be the very best.

At this point I’d go to the ‘expert console’ since I know how I want the calibration doing, however the step by step assistant is good to start with.

select-workflow

There’s nothing to be lost by experimenting with different settings, but in general it’s good to assume that if you don’t know why you’d change a setting, then the default is likely a good idea.

As ever – have a look at the help documentation. There’s a lot of useful stuff in it.

help file

The calibration process is a straightforward one.

Even with modern displays, for optimum profiling it’s best they’ve been switched on for a while to reach a stable operating temperature.

profiling-wizzard

I should note that there is the option to have your profiling settings based on room lighting conditions.

room-light-adjustmment

Personally I’d never choose this. For the laptop, I use it all over the place and change screen brightness as needed. For the external monitor I want it set to similar settings as my screen in my office – I certainly don’t want a 5600K whitepoint – it will look very dull and warm, and next to my laptop distinctly off. The laptop screen is also old enough that trying to force it to 5600K just won’t produce good results.

The room lighting level measurement can however be used as a guide to whether you’re working in lighting levels, conducive to image editing. Do be careful when making the measurements to keep the sensor away from the screen.

A quicker calibration?

I’ve the option of recalibrating my display, checking the current calibration is OK, or going through a full initial calibration.

Recalibration makes use of the software’s previous measurements from this monitor to reduce calibration time.

laptop-settings

I’m doing an initial calibration here.

There are some settings I can change, if I want, but 6500K is a reasonable setting for the laptop.

select-colour-temperature

Similarly, I’ve no need to change the gamma from 2.2  (1.8 was used on Macs many years ago).

select-gamma

Since my laptop tends to get its brightness altered quite often, I’m just leaving the brightness unadjusted.

It’s an oldish laptop – most laptop screens really are not what you’d choose for consistent photo editing.

The sensor needs to hang over the screen and rest on it.

placing-sensor-on-screen

The cover has been taken off, slid along the cable, and is now behind the screen acting as a counterweight.

sensor-position

Whilst total darkness isn’t required, it’s best to turn down lighting for the measurement process.

The screen will display a number of colours, whilst the colorimeter measures the light coming from the screen.

measurements-colour

A couple of minutes later, I’m invited to save the profile created.  You can also choose a calibration reminder.

My own screens tend to be calibrated every few months, or when I’ve some new kit to test…

profile-reminder

Unless you need to test/compare equipment/settings, there’s little reason to keep old monitor profiles, so the default name should normally suffice.

save-profile

After profiling you get the chance to switch calibration on/off to see how things have changed.

macbook-uncalibrated

The uncalibrated screen is as you can see, well off from a neutral grey. The calibrated version (below) is a lot better.

In real life it doesn’t look quite so bad in the uncalibrated state, but the two photos are shot using the same white balance.

macbook-calibrated

Multiple screens

Every so often I need a better quality editing setup on my laptop, or need to set up tethered shooting, on location.

This is where I’ll use a second monitor such as the BenQ SW240 [review] with hardware calibration and a wide (near) Adobe98 gamut.

I’ve opened up the Spyder software and it’s detected my second monitor. Since I’m using a Mac, I can have different profiles for each screen (not always possible on Windows systems without a second graphics card).

I’ll go straight to the expert settings screen.

expert-screen

I’ll select the better (but a little slower) method of setting the greyscale.

select-better

The colorimeter hangs through the little hatch at the top of the display hood. Note how I’ve tilted the monitor back for a better contact with the screen.

tilt-back-to-measure

The screen was last calibrated with BenQ’s own software, but using a Spyder 5 calibrator.

Note – this was a pre-release Spyder X unit I was testing, so it wasn’t yet directly supported by the BenQ software. With hardware calibration you’d normally use the software which came with your monitor, along with a good measuring device.

My previous calibration was still stored in the monitor, so the screen brightness came out very fractionally off the 120 cd/m2 I’d set. The monitor also has its linearisation stored in it, so all the Spyder software really had to do was create a profile (which specifies a few parameters of the monitor such as whitepoint and primary colours).

Unsurprisingly, there was very little difference between calibrated/uncalibrated for a monitor like this.

However, there was a noticeable difference between my calibrated laptop and my calibrated external monitor.

SpyderTune

One misconception people have about using a monitor calibrator is that it will make all screens look alike.

It won’t – it will optimise any particular screen, but that doesn’t mean they will look the same.

For this example, look at the different gamuts shown in the profile overview option (available after profiling).

compare-displays

The red triangle shows the large gamut of the BenQ monitor whilst the blue triangle shows it for the laptop.

When monitors differ

There are several consequences of using two dissimilar monitors like this.

You can see the red triangle above covers more greens, so you can get  ‘more green greens’ on the big monitor. This means we have colours displayable on the BenQ that are not displayable on the MacBook. This is rarely really obvious, but you can see it if you carefully look at colour variation detail in the test images (an older version of the Datacolor image is on our Printer test images page).

Without precise setting of black points, the depth of black and thus apparent screen contrast will differ. Some displays are just capable of blacker blacks, whilst more expensive monitors give noticeably better performance in dark shadow areas.

Lastly, the spectral distribution of the light that makes up a particular colour on any model of monitor will differ. The Spyder sensor (or any other for that matter, this is not a Spyder specific problem) may well record two screens as showing the same colour, but we see them as slightly different. Think of this as similar to matching two items of clothing in daylight and then finding that under artificial lighting they differ (a metamerism problem).

This photo shows the two displays (both calibrated to similar settings) next to each other.

after-profiling

Note that you can even use your own images for this checking, not sure why, but you can…

The variation is perhaps a little more obvious in the photo than to my eyesight, but the difference is real.

Using the SpyderTune adjustment  I can tweak the whitepoint of the laptop to look visually similar.

after-tuning

Now, looking at this photo, you might notice that they are not quite the same – well it’s a photo, they looked the same to me.

What’s being changed with the Spydertune is the whitepoint, where I’m modifying it to fit -my- eyesight. It may be slightly different for someone else in the room with me and definitely is a little bit different for my camera.

The adjustments are quite subtle (you’d hope so after the calibration process).

spydertune-for-laptop

There’s one problem with using the tuning settings – it throws your calibration off for the tuned monitor. The screen is still linearised and profiled, so it’s much better than nothing, but you are adjusting part of the setup to your own eyesight.

So, I get a choice for the laptop, a more pleasing visual match, or a more accurate calibration.

Given I tend to use a second screen with a laptop when I need image quality and for editing, I can leave non essential stuff on the laptop screen.

I’ll settle for the better visual match, but remember that if you use the tuning, only one screen is now fully calibrated.

If you use the laptop on its own, you can create a profile/calibration for just that, and one for use with your external monitor. It’s an old laptop, so I simply don’t bother.

Just to go back to the calibration though – here’s the laptop in its uncalibrated state.

laptop-uncalibrated

Studio Match

An option is provided to match settings to the capabilities of a collection of monitors.

On a single computer this looks for the dimmest monitor and adjusts other displays to match it. If you’re trying to match multiple computers, then a datafile is produced that can be moved form computer to computer to enable balancing.

spyder match

An important thing to note is the potential for metameric differences between display types, such as with the laptop above.  If you really need a room full of screens all looking the same, then buy the same model of screen – preferably at the same time.

Projectors

I’ve used the Spyder for profiling my old Sony projector for a few years now.

It took quite a bit of experimenting with all the projector setup/display options to find the ones that gave the best results after profiling. Modern projectors have improved linearity and gamut, but still there are differences between projectors and monitors.

You’ll need to select what controls are available.

projector setup

For my old (2005) projector I leave it at full brightness and its native whitepoint.

The whitepoint actually comes out around 7000K, which would be rather cool looking for a monitor.

However, this is fine for a projected image in a darkened room, where the eyesight of my audience will adapt to this and see the white on the screen as a pure bright white.

Where you may need to change things is if you’re using the projector in a non dark environment. Here, a lower temperature setting may work better with low room light.

I’ve tried calibrating other projectors and all were improved, but to varying degrees.

The Spyder X device is placed directly in front of the screen, about a foot away.

sensor positioning

The sensor faces the screen – you’re measuring light reflected from the screen, not what comes out of the projector. This means that your profile is for the screen and projector.

Soft Proofing

If you’ve installed the Spyder X Elite software, an option lets you soft proof images for print and several pad devices. The software comes with some sample profiles, but the general idea is that you’d use it with printer profiles you already have.

soft proofing

The standard test image is provided, but of course you can add your own.

I’m a strong believer in using a test image like this as part of your evaluation of any new printer or paper. Once you can get a good print of a test image, you know that any faults left showing are not printing related.

For much more about this (including soft proofing) see my article about 5 key steps to improving your photography by printing your work

You get to set the printer profile to use and rendering intent.

soft-proof-setup

The picture can be displayed as a proof, with colours as close to what’s expected as your monitor can mange.

You can also get the display to show areas of the image that are out of gamut for the printer/paper.

softproof-example

In the example here, the out of gamut areas are shown in grey, but you can change this highlight colour.

As an introduction to soft proofing, this is interesting, and of real use if you’re using editing software that doesn’t support soft proofing.

However I feel an opportunity has been missed here – the limitations of the yes/no gamut limit display are just the same as in Photoshop or Lightroom, and there are no options for displaying paper whites or so many other features that would make the tool really useful.

Soft proofing can be a useful tool, but I see too many using it in their print workflow as a crutch – or excuse not to take time really looking at prints and seeing them as a finished, final work, rather than a version of what’s on the screen.

More options

When I’ve finished calibration, I can look at the measurements for the display (and the help if I’m not sure what it all means).

help and monitor info

The software installs a small status monitoring application, which appears in the menu bar (on a Mac).

spyder-status

It’s a simple way to launch the Spyder software and control preferences (profile reminders for example).

If like me, you do much testing/experimentation, you may not want extra status monitoring software running. You can safely delete the Spyder startup item on your Mac without any harm. You’ll need to start the Spyder software directly in that case. Note – this is for Macs, the software does a bit more on PCs to keep your colour management working.

The menu can also launch a profile management panel, which lets you perform various functions.

profile-management

On a Mac I’d do these things with the ColorSync Utility but it’s nice to see just how many old profiles have collected on my laptop…

Monitor quality

For those wanting to tinker, there is a whole array of monitor measurement and analysis software.

The MQA software will let you choose just a sub set of measurements.

mqa-options

As ever, there’s plenty of info to help explain things.

display-analysis

Once measurements are completed, you can save them for subsequent analysis.

save-mqa-file

Here are a few results from the BenQ monitor.

colour-accuracy

The Gamma curve is pretty good (from the hardware calibration I did in the past).

measured-gamma

The gamut is claimed to be 100% Adobe 98, although I believe the monitor specifications put it fractionally under.

mqa-gamut-check

Note below, the info panel pulled up for the MacBook display, showing just how much work the profiling/calibration is having to do.  No, this is definitely not a screen for high end image editing…

macbook-screen-adjustment

As you can see, plenty of graphs and charts.

Much as part of me loves this sort of techy stuff, I’m minded to say that if you’re a photographer, spending much time on it is not really going to improve your photography… ;-)

Conclusions

The new colorimeter is claimed to be the best Spyder yet, with the large lens on the front improving light measurement evenness from screens. If you’ve an old calibrator and a new monitor it really could be time to update, since display technologies are still changing quite rapidly.

The software also feels faster than earlier versions, but I’m going to say that for most people, a modest reduction on profiling time is something that really shouldn’t matter, for a process you might do every month (or 1-2 months for myself).  Of course, if you drew the short straw and are tasked with calibrating a whole room full of screens, then yes, that time does matter.

The software continues Datacolor’s tradition of having clear, well written help guides that take time to explain why you do things, not just how.  I’ve long held them up as a positive example of how software ‘help’ should be approached.

The profiling options should meet the needs of a wide range of users, although if you need all the really advanced hardware calibration options found in the custom software that comes with some higher quality monitors, you’d use that software with a Spyder X colorimeter (when supported).

The room light measurement option is a good quick guide to if your editing environment is too bright, but personally I’d not use it to set profiling settings for me, and definitely not use it for ongoing monitoring purposes. Once I’ve finished calibration, the device goes back in its box.

The projector profiling works very well, although as your screen gets further away from your computer/projector you may need assistance with cables.

If you’ve a large distance between computer and screen there are obvious problems. I’ve not tested the device, but it’s low speed and might work with a USB extender of some sort – very much one to experiment with though.

All in all a solid calibration product that can help photographers wanting to improve the quality and consistency of their workflows.

The Spyder X Elite does offer a lot more functionality than the Pro version, so do check the comparison table below to see what best suits your needs.

Datacolor have a website devoted to the Spyder X http://spyderx.datacolor.com

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UK Pricing

  • SpyderX PRO SRP (156 GBP incl. VAT)
  • SpyderX ELITE SRP (243 GBP incl. VAT)

The SpyderX is available at: B&H | Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

Spyder X system requirements

SpyderXElite 5.5 Minimum System Requirements

  • USB port
  • 24-bit video card
  • Mac OS X 10.10, 10.11, 10.12, 10.13, 10.14
  • Windows 7 32/64, Windows 8.0, 8.1 32/64, Windows 10 32/64
  • Colour monitor with at least 1280×768 resolution
  • 1GB of available RAM
  • 500MB of available hard disk
  • Internet connection for software download

Spyder X Elite vs. Pro comparison

Feature SpyderX Pro SpyderX Elite Feature Description
SpyderX Device Colorimeter with NEW lens-based color engine for fast and accurate calibration
Price $169.99 $269.99
Single Click & Wizard Calibration Capability Fast & Easy Calibration Modes
Multiple Monitor Support Supports Calibration of Multiple Displays
Ambient Light Monitoring & Profile Switching Can Adjust for Room Light Changes
Before and After Calibration Review Shows before & after comparison of display calibration
Display Mapping & Analysis Tools Basic Advanced Offers tools to check the quality of your display
Calibration Setting Choices 12 Unlimited Calibration options (combinations of gamma, white point and brightness)
Expert Console Calibration All-in-one calibration control panel
Video & Cinema Calibration Targets Calibration Targets for Motion Work
Soft Proof of Print Results Soft proofing with print output preview
Projector Calibration Calibrates digital projectors
Display Matching in Studio Defines a studio standard for all displays to be matched (StudioMatch)
Visual Fine Tuning for Side-by-Side Display Match Precisely tune side-by- side displays

All the Spyders…  I’ve been fortunate enough to review every Spyder model produced, right from the first (far left).  All these still work, but only the most recent ones will give optimal results for a wide gamut screen like the BenQ monitor here.

spyders - all models

The device tested was lent to us by Datacolor. Northlight images prides itself on our independence – we have no business relationship with Datacolor. See our Review Policies for more details.

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