spyder2express review

(This follows on from a post yesterday)

Succinct review: It rocks!

Longer review: I have two monitors. One is a 21″ widescreen Dell and one is a 15″ Samsung which I pilfered after my parents’ accounts assistant retired. The former is a high-quality monitor by average-consumer standards, the latter is decidedly not. I was intrigued as to how they’d fare when calibrated properly, and once the spyder arrived I eagerly unpacked it, read through the instructions and installed the software. Immediately there was a problem: it jumped straight onto my secondary monitor, and wouldn’t move. The only way around this was to disable the monitor, which was probably sensible anyway. I plugged in the calibrator and the software prompted me to hang the unit over the screen:


The obvious first reaction is ‘OMGHEADCRAB‘. The second is ‘what’s it going to do, then?’. I started the calibration process, and it spent the next eight minutes displaying varying shades of red, green, blue and grey. It told me to remove the unit, then said ‘I’m done’ and showed a before/after switch. I flicked it.

It turns out my Dell is pretty good. The before/after warmed up the display a little – everything went slightly more orange than before – but nothing major. I didn’t care – the point was to get a calibration and put my mind at ease, and whether the adjustment was big or small was irrelevant. And now this was done – great! The software automatically told my Dell to use the spyder2express colour profile, and that was that. But the niggling voice at the back of my head said ‘how do you know? It’s a cheap calibrator – how can you be sure it’s done a good job?’. So I came up with a plan to test it.

The next step was calibrating the Samsung. This would generally be problematic as the spyder2express only supports one monitor – it will overwrite its previous profile if you re-run the calibration, and the files can’t be simply renamed in Windows Explorer1. But I knew you could be sneaky and install the Microsoft Color Applet. This Control Panel extension gives you more sophisticated control over colour profiles, including the ability to rename them. So I renamed the Dell profile2, then disabled my main monitor and ran the calibration on the Samsung.

This time: massive difference. The before/after button took me from cool blue to warm orange. 24h later I’m still noticing that the display is very different.

Now, two monitors provide a good test of the spyder’s abilities – since both monitors are calibrated, I should be able to put the same image up on both screens and see no difference. This was the moment of truth: if the colours are identical, the unit works as advertised. If they’re off, its quality is variable. And how much it’s off indicates how good a unit it really is. So I fired up the Lightroom 2.0 Beta, with its swish multi-monitor support, and opened a photo on both monitors simultaneously.

Result: to my eyes, identical. I could see contrast differences between the monitors, but there was no difference in the colour. Brilliant. I spent ages playing around in Lightroom, changing white balances and whatnot, and it remained consistent no matter what I threw at it.

Yesterday afternoon I took the spyder to my parents’ office. My Dad’s monitor is notoriously bad – the colours have always been washed out, and I have to keep its brightness low to prevent photos posterising. I was skeptical the spyder could do much with it, to be honest, but ran it anyway. The before/after showed a huge difference. Everything was again much warmer, but somehow less bright, too. I checked out his Picasa and photos looked much, much better, but I also found I could up the brightness much more without any posterising. I’m amazed at the difference. Mum’s monitor was better, and became a little warmer, but nothing too drastic. I brought up the same flickr page on both machines, stepped back, and they looked exactly the same. Excellent.

I was worried the spyder would be a disappointment. I was prepared to pay to get better colors than before, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be just mediocre. And it isn’t – I really couldn’t ask for anything more. I suppose the final test comes when I send some images off to the sRGB printers, but I’m confident – if it can produce perfectly matching colours on my monitors, there’s no reason to think it’s not matching the specifications. I spent most of today editing photos from my niece’s Naming Day last weekend, and it’s great to know that my parents will be seeing the same colours I am.

A bit more geeky stuff follows.

Loading the profiles

Windows, believe it or not, doesn’t automatically load colour profiles, even if you set it in the monitor settings. There is a reason for this, but it’s another layer of knowledge below my current level, and I haven’t yet got that far. Whatever the cause, you need a program to force the colour profiles into place. The spyder installs a startup program by default, but you can use the Color Applet for multiple monitors. Make a shortcut to the Applet’s .exe with the extra command-line option /L. You’ll see Windows start up in rubbish-colours mode, then suddenly snap into place. It’s quite the change on my Dad’s machine!

The monitors’ colour ranges

The Microsoft Color Applet can show the color ranges of the profiles, and therefore the capabilities of the monitors. Here’s the full sRGB specification:

So if you want to edit sRGB images, your monitor needs to be able to display all the above colours. Here’s how it compares with my Samsung (I’ve desaturated the sRGB for clarity – admittedly this is a bit odd):

It’s actually not too bad, especially compared with some laptop panels. But it obviously can’t cope with the deeper colours. Here’s the Dell:

It struggles a little with the deeper blues, but can actually display more greens, reds, and the lighter blues than exist in the sRGB colour map. The lack of deeper blues isn’t considered a big problem by other reviewers, and you need a much more expensive monitor to get the total range. So that’s excellent – I’m most pleased.

  1. possibly – I’ve seen conflicting reports about this []
  2. I kept getting in-use errors, so I actually ended up copying the profile in Windows Explorer, then renaming this copy in the Applet []