Datacolor Spyder 4 Elite Monitor Calibration System Review


In the world of digital photography, one of the most important things you can do for your photography has very little to do with your camera.  Color calibrating your monitor helps your workflow tremendously.  A calibrated monitor ensures that you know what you’re looking at when you’re editing and they will print better, especially if you’re working with a printing facility.  For years, I have been using the Spyder system from Datacolor.  Specifically, I was using the Spyder 2 Elite.  Well, time has passed, the operating systems have changed and Datacolor has updated their system, both at the hardware and software level.  Now they offer the Spyder 4 Elite, which was provided to us for the purpose of our review.  In this article, we will explain a little about what the system can do for you and how easy it is to use.  And since I have experience with this system through a previous version, I will also be able to provide the unique perspective of how it has improved over the years.

The Spyder System: A Brief Overview

Datacolor’s monitor calibration system is commonly referred to as Spyder and is conveniently numbered to inform you of the edition.  I personally started on edition 2, but there have been some improvements since then, both on the software level and the hardware level.  The current model is version 4.  The Spyder 4 is available in three different configurations, which are as follows (from the most premium):  Spyder 4 Elite, Spyder 4 Pro and the Spyder 4 Express.  For many of you who are working purely as hobbyists, the Spyder 4 Express may very well offer all that you need.  Like each of the systems above you, it offers the most basic of calibration controls.  It will calibrate your monitor and it will do so accurately, but there are a few features that are lacking.  You will only have the ability to calibrate a single monitor, it supports only a single color temperture choice and only a single Gamma choice.  Most significantly, it does not support ICC  profiling, which is essential if you want to ensure your color calibration (your color profile) can be used across devices.  In other words, if you ever plan to print through a professional print shop, you want an ICC profile.  The next step up, the Spyder 4 Pro, offers ICC profiles and so that is the level I would recommend for anyone wishing to print their photos, especially if you plan to make money on said photos.  The Pro version also gives you access to ambient light measurements, additional gamma selections, additional color temperature choices, grey axis algorithm calibration and a few nice software features like the re-calibration wizard and software update automation.  Finally, the Spyder 4 Elite offers a bunch of additional pro features with an expert panel for the knob-tweakers out there, including gamma curve customization and many more features that will help in transporting color profiles across devices.  All three devices utilize a USB interface.

For a more complete comparison between each iteration of the system, Datacolor has a great comparison table on their website.

Over previous versions of the Spyder system, the improvements are mostly at the software level.  Initial calibration on the Spyder 4 takes about 5 minutes, which is about a 2-3 minute improvement over my old Sypder 2.  Re-calibration (Pro and Elite versions) is a nice new feature shaving calibration time in half if you already have an existing profile.  The calibration device itself is smaller than previous iterations, easy to tuck away between re-calibrations.  The Pro and Elite versions even come with a nice little base to keep it always at the ready (just in case a reminder pops up in the middle of a big project).  But the real benefit of the newer version is the background software.  It is a much smaller footprint (in terms of RAM consumption), it’s fast at boot and generally seems to be non-invasive.  Spyder 2 was developed for an older operating system, so it acted a little quirky and slow sometimes on Windows 7 and Windows Vista.  Note that software support for the Spyder 2 ended a long time ago.  I, for one, am glad to be rid of that old clunky interface as well.

Please note that we reviewed the Spyder 4 Elite system for this article.

Initial Setup

Installation is pretty simple:  You simply install the provided software and follow the on-screen instructions.  If  you’ve used a previous version of the system, or even a different system, you’ll need to uninstall the old software and remove the old color profiles.  Once the software is installed, you run the calibration routine.  It’ll ask you a few questions about what kind of setup you have including the types of controls supported by your monitor.  It may ask you to do a couple of manual adjustments.  But it will eventually ask you to put the device on your monitor and it will run through some tests for several minutes.  The tests consist of displaying a series of shades of several colors, including a gray-scale array from black to white, while the device measures each of these shades.  After several minutes, instructions tell you that you can once again remove the device from the monitor and it will activate your new color profile.

This is where your mind will be blown…

When calibration is complete, you get this little demo screen where you can switch between un-calibrated and calibrated profiles.  Prepare to be impressed.

When calibration is complete, you get this little demo screen where you can switch between un-calibrated and calibrated profiles. Prepare to be impressed.

Once all the tests are done, it will show you a collection of photos featuring people, scenes and objects which you should be pretty familiar with.  Everything will seem pretty normal and you may wonder what really changed.  Well, your eyes play tricks on you and you probably thought your monitor was pretty close all along and you may question why you calibrated in the first place.  And then you’ll notice a button where you can switch profiles – back and forth between your new calibrated profile and the profile your monitor was using up until that point – and sudden you realize just how horribly your monitor was calibrated before.  For me, the default Windows profile on my monitor had a horrible bluish cast on it.  Flipping back and forth between the profiles revealed much warmer and far more accurate colors.  Well, it only seems warmer because it was so blue before.

Once all that’s done, the software is set up and your calibration is complete.  When you start your machine, the software will kick in at boot time, a splash screen will show and you’ll see all the colors go back to their calibrated glory.  It will remain this way – even through sleep cycles of your machine – until you re-calibrate.  It’s pretty much worry free from this point on.

The Impact of Calibration

The Spyder 4 Elite with base & included CD (software also available as a free download) - photo courtesy of Datacolor

The Spyder 4 Elite with base & included CD (software also available as a free download) – photo courtesy of Datacolor

If you’ve never calibrated your monitor before, I would suggest that you go back and review some of your old photos.  You may find that many of them are too warm for your tastes.  You will notice more detail in shadows than you did before, or you will see the differences between white and almost white.  The dynamic range in all your photos, even your black & whites, will seem much more dramatic.  It’s possible you over-corrected for problems you only thought you had.  You’ll learn that your camera is actually pretty good at automatic white balancing.  An unfortunate side-effect is that you’ll grow to dislike other people’s monitors.

Speaking of other people’s monitors, it’s a sad fact that the great majority of your fans will not have properly calibrated monitors.  That sucks a little, because your photos won’t look as rich or as accurate as they do on your monitor.  But that’s not really the point of calibrating your monitor.  The purpose is so that you’re seeing everything the way it should be.  You’re correcting only for the problems that do exist, and your finished product will be balanced.  It will still look good on other people’s monitors, especially since you’re not over-correcting anymore.  Where it will really make a difference is if you’re printing.

Now that you have a profiled monitor, that profile (whatever you named it) will show up in your export options from Lightroom, Photoshop and other photo editing programs.  Embedding that profile makes it easy for your favorite print facility to match their printers to your monitor’s color profile.  So your prints will look just as great as they do on your screen.

When I first calibrated my monitors so many years ago, it was a huge eye opener.  I was working in film at the time and so I was battling the inconsistencies between film, the scanner, my monitor and the printers.  Calibration really made a drastic improvement to my work.  At the time, I was toting my photos around on a thumb drive (which were quite small back then) to try out on different monitors, making notes and tweaking as I went.  Calibration eliminated that whole process from my workflow and I was able to focus on improving my technique.  People really took notice.

Living and Working With Spyder 4 Elite

This pop-up reminder will remind you to re-calibrate

This pop-up reminder will remind you to re-calibrate

For the most part, the Spyder 4 Elite software is out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  Except for the splash screen that you see at boot time, you won’t really notice that it’s even there.  However, during your setup, you were able to pick a re-calibration cycle.  Over time, your monitor can fall out of calibration.  CRT monitors are rare anymore, but they tended to shift quickly and you needed to calibrate as frequently as 2-4 weeks.  LCD monitors are less prone to color shifting, but somewhat frequent calibration is still recommended.  If you are a professional, you should re-calibrate more often.  Some studios re-calibrate once a week, just to be safe.  So you pick a time that is reasonable for you (and you can change it down the line if your needs change), and the system will occasionally pop up to remind you to re-calibrate once that time frame has passed.  The way that Datacolor handles this now is actually an improvement.  With my Spyder 2 system, I was only reminded at boot time.  As I tend to sleep my computers now, in lieu of shutting them down fully, those reminders weren’t really popping up anymore.  With the new Spyder 4 Elite system, you still see it at boot time, but you also see it occasionally pop up at random.  I’m not sure if there is a specific event that triggers the reminder, but it’s frequent enough so as not to be forgotten.

During calibration or re-calibration, the calibration wizard will tell you exactly what to do.  Note the steps listed down the left side.

During calibration or re-calibration, the calibration wizard will tell you exactly what to do. Note the steps listed down the left side.

Once nice feature is the Profile Chooser which allows you to switch between profiles.  This is fun if you simply want to see how your monitor has shifted over time, assuming you named each profile differently.  But it’s actually pretty useful.  You can have a number of different profiles for different settings.  For example, I have a profile with my laptop plugged in (full brightness) and one for when my laptop is running on battery (60% brightness).  Using the Profile Chooser, I can easily switch between these profiles.  I suppose you might have additional profiles for different lighting schemes in your office, taking advantage of that ambient light reader.  It does make a difference, and that Profile Chooser makes it easy.

The Spyder 4 device is also a bit smaller than my old system – now only barely larger than my palm – and it comes with a convenient low-profile stand.  So while I always felt the need to put the Spyder 2 away and out of the way, the Spyder 4 remains inconspicuously out of the way on my desk.  So when those reminders pop up, I’m much more likely to re-calibrate when I should.

Of course Datacolor itself is a great and dependable company.  Their tech support was responsive and helpful.  Software is maintained with updates on their website correcting any issues or minor interface improvements.  For that matter, my laptop doesn’t have a CD so I download the software from their website.  It was easy to find and hassle free.  For the record, I haven’t had any problems with the Spyder 4 system to date.  However, I got my Spyder 2 a few Windows versions ago, and when I upgraded my OS, I needed some help with unique problems.  That was a long time ago, but I remember how painless it was getting help for my problem.

Final Thoughts

Packaging of the Spyder 4 Elite

Packaging of the Spyder 4 Elite – photo courtesy of Datacolor

I’ll be blunt:  You should have this system.  Color calibration is an essential aspect of your workflow and it cannot be overlooked.  There are other systems on the market, but none as trusted or as dependable as Datacolor’s system.  Now let’s talk about which version is most appropriate.  The Spyder 4 Express is only $100 USD (as of this writing), but lacks a very key component, in my mind:  ICC profiling.  I consider that to be a pretty essential feature, so I would recommend ignoring the entry-level Spyder.  The Spyder 4 Pro is only $70 USD more.  The Pro is the version that I expect most of you to consider and I wouldn’t expect that many of you would need more than that.  However, the Elite version ($250 USD as of this writing)  offers a few nice features, most notably the unlimited Gamma and color temperature selections and the expert (one-page) panels.

When it comes to Color Calibration of your monitor, Datacolor’s Spyder 4 system is easy to use, accurate and effective.  There really isn’t a reason not to get one.  The Spyder 4 Pro and the Spyder 4 Elite are therefore, without a doubt, going to be listed as a Shutter Photo Recommended Product, and exclusive list of only the products we trust most.

Things We Liked:

  • Very dependable and accurate.
  • Simple and easy to use.
  • Non-invasive software complete with an intuitive reminder module.
  • The improved hardware design is much smaller than previous iterations.

Things We Didn’t Like

  • ICC Profiling should be standard across all systems.  It is not available with the Spyder 4 Express (lowest) version.

About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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