Can you easily distinguish between fuschia and magenta? A designer's job is not an easy one. And to make matters worse, monitors are analog devices, so there are always differences from one to the other, even between different units of the same model. To help correct these fluctuations, several companies offer calibrators that combine hardware and software to reduce those differences and make the display more accurate and predictable. These tools can get quite expensive, but we tested three that cost less than $600: the Monitor Spyder with OptiCal 3.1 software from ColorVision ( www.colorcal.com ), the Monaco Sensor with MonacoView 2.6.6 software from Monaco Systems ( www.monacosys.com ), and the Monitor Optimizer with ColorShop 2.6.2 software from X-Rite ( www.x-rite.com ). The X-Rite package is the most expensive, but it did provide the best results.
Right on Target
All three devices attach to your monitor's screen using suction cups, and then register an assortment of colors and shades displayed by the accompanying software. The software then compares the readings from the calibrators to its database of what the color readings should be. The software creates monitor profiles to be used by color management systems like Apple's ColorSync and the ICC specification used by Adobe Photoshop and other programs. Those profiles, which can be selected from the Monitors control panel, help make the monitor's display more accurate. You should recalibrate weekly, since monitors vary their display over time and as environmental conditions change.
To measure the accuracy of each calibrator, I compared Adobe Photoshop files to printed output. I didn't find major differences between each calibrator, but the X-Rite profile resulted in the most accurate image in my tests. This is partially because it darkened the monitor a bit more than the other two. In general, people tend to brighten their monitors, resulting in washed out colors; the X-Rite calibrator is a good way to correct for this tendency.
The X-Rite software, however, was the hardest to use. X-Rite installs a set of utilities called ColorShop in a folder, making you think that's where the calibration functions are. But instead they're in a control panel. And because there is no documentation other than Acrobat PDF files, you can't easily find the calibration function. To its credit, ColorShop comes with a generous assortment of utilities. One of them shows the color ranges of different output devices, and another shows aesthetically pleasing complementary colors to one you've selected. But the tools are very confusing, and they have extremely poor interfaces -- they're floating palettes with a set of pop-up menus. There are no menu commands, dialog boxes, and so on, that unite the palettes and provide context for what tools can be used for which purpose. The X-Rite software also forces you to reselect the port the device is connected to each time you use it.
The OptiCal software that came with the ColorVision package has a few useful features, such as the ability to adjust the monitor's gamma curves. While most people never have to know what a gamma curve is, the ability to adjust it can come in handy to fine-tune the overall display. For example, you can create a gamma curve that darkens light colors but leaves midtones and saturated colors alone, to help compensate for bright daylight that might otherwise wash out the light colors on screen. Note that ColorVision sells a less-expensive version (with different software that was not available for testing).
The Monaco software, MonacoView 2.6, is a basic utility for creating an ICC profile, with a no-nonsense interface that's almost as simple to use as a screen-capture utility. And though it's not quite as full-featured as the OptiCal software, it does have its nice touches. After creating a profile, the software can rate how well the monitor matches it when you later calibrate (so you can see if your monitor's picture tube is not holding the settings). The software can also prompt you when it's time to recalibrate.
We tested the USB versions of each calibrator, but the X-Rite device also comes in a serial version, and the Monaco device also comes in an ADB version and an ADB version with a serial adapter.
I preferred the ColorVision calibrator, as it was easy to attach. The Monaco device fell off a bit easily on my older, curved-front monitor, and the X-Rite one was difficult to attach and detach because of a complex mechanism -- you have to push down two sliders with the same hand that is holding the device.
But the most important consideration, when it comes right down to it, is color accuracy, and in that arena, the X-Rite's Monitor Optimizer has the edge.Monitor SpyderMonitor OptimizerMonaco Sensor