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Datacolor Spyder3 Elite Review

by Josh Root, October 2008 (updated February 2011)


I have put a roof over my head and food on my table as a professional photographer for a decade now. I have shot 100% digitally for the past 7 of those years. I have owned 8-10 computer systems in that time (laptops, desktops, Windows and Mac systems) and at least a dozen different digital cameras.

However, I am almost embarrassed to admit that I have never once done any serious color calibration on any monitor I have owned. I’ve just used the most basic calibration utilities such as the one included with Apple’s OS X. This probably means that either:

  • I am very good.
  • I am very lucky.
  • I have been blessed with very understanding editors and art directors.

In truth, probably all three are true to some extent. That doesn’t excuse anything. As digital becomes more and more the status quo, having a properly color calibrated system can improve the quality of your images and your printing. Color calibration will make it easier to accurately make any color adjustments that your images might need.

So, operating under the “better late than never” motto, a Spyder3 Elite, (compare prices), arrived at my door the other day and I went about making up for lost time.

What’s In The Box:

  • Datacolor Spyder calibration unit
  • Quick Start Guide
  • Installation CD (with serial number on CD sleeve)
  • Stand for calibration unit
  • Calibration unit counterweight (for non-suction cup use)
  • Screen Cleaning packets
  • 2 year warranty

The Calibration Process

The quick start guide is pretty easy to understand. Essentially, you need to install the software (requires Windows 2000, XP, or Vista. Mac OSX 10.3+) first. Then plug the calibration unit into an open USB port. After the unit is plugged in, you start up the Datacolor software. According to Datacolor, while you do have to enter in the software serial number when installing the software, the software is not limited to that original machine. You are allowed to use the Spyder3 to calibrate all the machines in your home/business.

The software itself is pretty easy to use in the default “wizard” mode. First off it attempts to detect your display. In my case it cleverly detected the external monitor I use and not my laptop’s own monitor. You are asked to tell the software what kind of a display you have, choosing between LCD, CRT, laptop, projector (that last one being an option not found on all calibration units). Then it asks you a couple of questions about image adjustment controls on your monitor, then suggests you reset all your adjustments to factory default. Finally, you choose how you would like to use the calibration unit, with the suction cup or without.

This brings me to my main issue with the Spyder3. The suction cup is useless on my matte screen LCD monitor. On a glass CRT monitor, the suction cup works just fine. But on my LCD, it simply will not stay stuck and crashed to the desk twice before I gave up on it. Thankfully, the Spyder3 does not need the suction cup to operate and can instead just lay against the screen. This is accomplished by hanging the unit’s cable over the back of your screen and using the included counterweight to make sure it stays in place. This works well enough, but you may need to tilt your screen back slightly to make sure that the unit lays flat as it it supposed to.

My only annoyance with the Datacolor software is related to the suction cup issue. After choosing “using suction sup” in the setup, then finding out that the suction cup would not work, I could not get back to re-choose “use without suction cup”. There was a “back” button on the start screen, but nothing happens when you click it. I finally figured out to delete my computer’s profile in the “DisplayHistory” folder of the Datacolor software install. Once I did that I was able to do the setup process again and choose “use without suction cup.”

Once properly set up, the Datacolor software did its thing and displayed a couple different color swatches for the calibration unit to analyze. The process took only a minute or so. Once everything is finished, you are presented with a set of example images and the option to switch between the “before” and “after” version to gauge the effect of the calibration.

Initial screen where software attempts to find your current monitor.

Choose your monitor type.

Tell the software what image controls your monitor has.

Same as above.

Suction cup choice. Choose wisely…

The calibration unit at work.

The comparison screen that allows you to see the effect of the calibration.

Advanced Features

While my personal results were just fine when using the wizard for my calibration, the Spyder3 has a whole pile of advanced features for those with more particular requirements. If you work in a location that changes in brightness throughout the day, you can set the calibration unit to continuously measure ambient light levels and adjust the monitor accordingly. If you have multiple people working on images in a studio, or use multiple computers to process images, you can use the system to calibrate multiple monitors to the same target. An “expert console” allows you to bypass the calibration wizard and adjust every aspect of calibration to your heart’s content. You can measure spot color off the screen, set reminders for when it is time to re-calibrate, and even keep track of the history of your monitor’s calibrations to watch for degradation in image quality/brightness over the life of the monitor.

Different Spyder Models

There are currently four different Spyder models available. The Spyder3 Elite, (compare prices), is obviously what I am writing about in this article. The others are:

  • The Spyder2 Express, (compare prices)

    , is the most basic model and does not have any of the advanced customization features of the Spyder3 models. It uses the older Spyder2 calibration unit and is intended for digital enthusiasts who want to get a better handle on color calibration than they can achieve on their own.

  • The Spyder3 Pro, (compare prices)

    , uses the same Spyder3 calibration unit reviewed here but has fewer advanced features in the software package. The Pro version targets advanced amatures and professionals on a budget (or who do not need/want the Elite’s advanced features).

  • The Spyder3 Print, (compare prices)

    , uses the Datacolor 1005 calibration unit that is specifically designed for those in the printing/publishing industry. While it can be used by photographers, it is missing some of the features that the Pro/Elite units have because those features are not applicable for print production work. For the most part, photographers will be better served by one of the other three Spyder units.

There is a good comparison chart of the four models on the Datacolor web site: Comparison Chart

Conclusion

Given how easy it is to now get accurate color calibration on my monitors, I feel pretty silly for having waited this long to actually get around to doing it. The Datacolor Spyder3 Elite calibration system is easy to use, powerful, and has enough advanced features to keep even the most obsessed pixel peeper happy. The advantage of being able to use the Spyder3 Elite on any monitor you might own (including projectors) is a big bonus in my mind. Aside from a few software navigation peeves and a less-than-perfect suction cup, there is really nothing bad I can say about the product.

Bottom line? I highly recommend the Spyder3 Elite to anyone who works with digital images and wants to make sure that the are looking at the most consistent and accurate representation possible on their monitors.

Where to Buy

You can purchase your own Spyder3 Elite from Photo.net’s partners. Their prices are fair and your purchase helps to support Photo.net.

More


Original text ©2008 Josh Root.

Article revised February 2011.

Readers' Comments


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Tom Cogbill , November 07, 2008; 04:08 P.M.

This review is missing a key question, in fact, the whole point of color calibration, as far as I'm concerned: How much difference has this calibration process made in your printed out images? Has it significantly enhanced your control over output colors?

Ed Macke , November 07, 2008; 04:37 P.M.

Just wondering... how do we know whether it actually did its job? Is there any objective measurement of whether its calibrations were correct, or do we just take Spyder's word that everything is perfect?

Also, I agree with the other post. Now that your monitor is supposedly calibrated... so what?

I mean, these calibration units aren't exactly cheap (the reviewed item seems to be around $270), so I'm going to need a lot of convincing that they make that big of a difference.

Robert Moskovski , November 07, 2008; 06:08 P.M.

Agree, and by the way applying suction cups on the LCD without protective glass is not very smart...

Paul Gresham , November 07, 2008; 10:41 P.M.

Josh,

In the same boat that I've never gotten around to doing this even though I had one in my hand the other day but put it back on the shelf as too expensive to buy without knowing something about. In that respect a timely review that does help ... many thanks.

It's possibly not as expensive to adjust and print proofs, particularly easy on a Mac. Of course that is a significantly harder approach IF this thing works as advertised! So I would like to know how big a difference it makes on printed output. Especially as a whole heap of other issues may come up. Does it, for instance, show any inconsistencies with your printer's calibration? How does a print match up against the screens representation (A single picture of both side by side would be great to see!)?

Also would like to know, were you able to get two monitors on the same machine to accurately match each other in terms of brightness and colour? Can you effectively get two profiles to match, let's say a laptop in a dark environment with the brightness turned down (say a blacked out studio) and a bright environment (daytime, office)?

Thanks Paul

Ryan Scoffield , November 08, 2008; 07:28 P.M.

I have this product, and have been using it for the last two months. Previously I had problems with my prints not matching what I saw on my monitor. Sometimes the difference was immaterial, other times it was a very significant difference where I had to have pictures reprinted for clients. I got this product so my prints would match what I see on my monitor. I have been very impressed with it, and it works very well. My prints match almost exactly what I see on the screen. The color is extremely accurate when I compare prints to the monitor. The prints seem to be just a tiny bit darker, but not much, and nothing even close to problematic. I have only used the unit with the calibration wizard, and it has worked very well. I use a ViewSonic VP2250wb monitor.

Nick Meertens , November 10, 2008; 02:13 A.M.

My spyder 2 manual clearly states that the suction cup is only intended for CRT screens and not to be used on LCD's. It might be good to mention that before people damage their screens trying to attach the suction cup.

Krista Behrend , November 10, 2008; 04:33 P.M.

If you walked into a retailer and looked a a long wall of monitors you would notice that each one is different. All monitors display colors differently, drift and wear out over time. Calibrating your monitor is like tuning your car’s engine. You need to calibrate regularly (at least once a month) to achieve accurate, consistent color, life-like flesh tones, superb gray balance and tonal response.

Color perception by the human eye is subjective and is different from person to person. The Spyder3 is like an “electronic eye” that scientifically measures color and adjusts it to the industry standard. This sounds harder than it is. Spyder3 software is very user friendly and walks you through the entire process.

As a photographer it is critical that your images are displayed and printed correctly. If you have a color managed workflow you can be confident that your colors are true and avoid costly mistakes and time consuming reprints.

As Ryan pointed out, the prints come out a bit darker than his display. This is because Emissive light (coming from a display) does not register in our eyes quite the same way that reflective light (bouncing off your page) does. You would get the best visible match if you used a proofing light to view the print.

You can dive deeper into color management by profiling your printer and viewing prints under a controlled lighting condition that matches your display’s luminance level but now you're getting really complex. Bottom line is that calibrating your monitor is the first easy step to accurate colors on screen and in your prints.

<were you able to get two monitors on the same machine to accurately match each other in terms of brightness and colour?>

Yes, you can match 2 monitors to the same luminance to get them to display the same colors. You would not want to match yourlap top to your desktop display because a laptop has a noticeable color shift (based on viewing angle) compared to your desktop LCD/CRT.

Josh reviewed the Spyder3Elite which is the most feature rich product at a list of $249. You can purchase the Spyder3Pro for a list of $169. Both products are very simple to use. The differences are in the software features. If you are new to calibration I’d recommend you start with Spyder3Pro. If you need to calibrate a projector and match 2 displays to one target or have unlimited control I’d go for the Spyder3Elite.

Great Color Management Guide from Photoshop CS3 Visual Quick Pro Guide: http://spyder.datacolor.com/pdfs/pscs3vqp_excerpt.pdf

Pro Photographer, Catherine Hall’s Video on why Spyder3 is important to her: http://www.rangefindermag.com/videos/64/Cinematic-Studios-Catherine-Hall-Spyder-3-Elite.aspx

Krista Worldwide Product Manager - Datacolor

Roger Leekam , November 12, 2008; 09:52 A.M.

They advise you not to use suction cups on LED screens & there's a provided attachment to stop you doing so. I attach the Spyder to the top of the screen frame with Scotch tape & let it hang. Works fine

fred fuzz , November 12, 2008; 02:28 P.M.

This a nice review of an item from a great product line. I am still using my Spyder 2 which is a brilliant tool but to advantage of a recent offer to buy a Spyder 3 Print.This is a terrific product and a big improvement over my Monaco EZcolor which a had been satisfied with until I saw the superior results from the Spyder 3 Print profiles.

If anyone plans to get Spyder 3 then make sure you get a Spyder 3 Print as well.

Chris Letts , November 14, 2008; 02:09 P.M.

I've just recalibrated due to a new PC, using Spyder2 - I have always found that the monitor calibration has very little effect, and it's impossible to get the monitor to match the printer output that way. In Spyder 2 you also receive 'Printfix' software which attempts to calibrate the screen directly to the printer - I don't know if that is included in Spyder3 but I think it's much more important than simple display calibration.

Eric Lund , November 19, 2008; 02:44 P.M.

I'm a little surprised that Krista did not mention one additional product in the lineup, Spyder 3 Studio. This product adds printer calibration. It includes a separate colorimeter for measuring off printed paper swatches. Perhaps she did not want to shock anyone with the, <gulp>, $600 price tag. With studio, the suite takes you from input file all the way through final print in a color corrected solution. The print calibrator takes longer, because you have to measure each color patch on, IIRC, about 3 or 4 pages filled with patches, but the results are quite good.

Eric

Juan Mencia , November 19, 2008; 04:49 P.M.

I have owned the Spyder 2 suite (monitor/print calibrator combo) for aprox 2 years, fairly recently after my purchase, I tried to contact the customer unsupport as I now call it, through their site where I am a duly registered owner. I ended up giving up and managed to solve the problem. A week ago I discovered that the print calibration patches were misplaced or "lost". As I needed to get some prints done I called customer service and the gentleman told me that he "didn't know" if "they" would provide me with a replacement,we are not talking about an instrument.This is a sheet of paper with good quality controlled printing process that if any mortal spills any beverage on it is going to be ruined. I have sent 2 e-mails a week apart, and so far they haven't had the courtesy or respect to acknowledge any of my pleas.Think it over

Larry Greenbaum , November 19, 2008; 10:40 P.M.

Datacolor is offering a mail-in rebate of $35 for Spyder 3 Elite if purchased by 11/30/08.

René J.V. Bertin , November 20, 2008; 04:58 A.M.

Would it be unreasonable to expect they've misplaced their own copies and are no longer capable of print new ones that are correctly colour-managed? ;)

Anyway, I've downloaded a copy of SuperCal for Mac OS X quite some time ago. It's got much elaborate controls than the OS X built-in tool, and has made my screens much more pleasurable to use. I like that it give the option to use a gamma-corrected profile or a 'perceptual' profile based on the same calibration (I tend to use the latter). Also, since *you* are watching the screen from a normal working distance, I presume that you get to account much more for ambient lighting than with a device that shields off said lighting by being smack on the screen.

As a result, colours appear much deeper and more saturated, and there's more detail in the darker parts especially. This also helps avoiding discretisation (staircase) effects, especially annoying when watching videos. I haven't ever managed to get colours to match across monitors, though. Despite what Krisha says, I *do* want to match my laptop's screen to my external screen — why on earth would you accept colour mis-matches??

Couple of years ago, I asked advice from a good friend in the publishing business (she does CD sleeves, annual reports, that kind of thing, working from home). She told me she just used a software tool like I (I think the one in Photoshop), that in her experience the investment in an electronic tool was largely lost as you control so little outside your own office/home that the benefits are in fact negligible. Is she wrong (nowadays)?

Roger Smith , November 21, 2008; 04:41 P.M.

To correct the above, Spyder3Print is for anybody with a printer they want to profile, not "printing professionals." It used to be called PrintFixPro (new name, same device). I use this with several Epson inkjet printers and it works well and is quite affordable.

Krista Behrend , December 02, 2008; 04:18 P.M.

<I'm a little surprised that Krista did not mention one additional product in the lineup, Spyder 3 Studio. This product adds printer calibration.>

The only reason I didn’t mention the Spyder3Studio is because I was replying to a review on Spyder3Elite for display calibration; plus it would have been an even longer winded post. ;) The Spyder3Studio is a full color management solution for monitor calibration and printer profiling and is a great product for profiling any combination of printer, ink and media. The list is $599 but you can find it for less at one of our photo resellers.

<Despite what Krisha says, I *do* want to match my laptop's screen to my external screen — why on earth would you accept colour mis-matches??>

I’m not saying you can’t do this but a laptop screen is a serious compromise, for the sake of battery life, so to dumb your studio screens down to what a laptop can do is not ideal. Besides, you probably want to run your laptop in uncontrolled lighting, and thus calibrate it in Visual mode, for max luminance, not target it to a studio standard. Most professional photographers use the laptop on location and edit their work on their studio desktop screen in controlled lighting.

<I called customer service and the gentleman told me that he "didn't know" if "they" would provide me with a replacement,we are not talking about an instrument>

I believe Juan is referring to PrintFIX which is a product we discontinued three years ago, and no longer have a supply of calibration sheets for it at this time. We ran a PrintFIX to PrintFIX PRO upgrade offer for six months, ending two and a half years ago, for those wishing to remain current, and have since upgraded all PrintFIX PRO users for free to Spyder3Print software, and most recently the faster, easier Spyder3Print v3.5 software, but that we can't offer support or upgrades offers indefinitely, they all have timeframes.

For anyone that owns PrintFIX PRO (for printer profiling) you can update your software for free (Spyder3Print 3.5) on our website under the software downloads section.

There are some nice enhancements in the software features and the patch read time is much faster. Patch options are from 150 (one sheet) – to over 729 and there is a target for printing your best black and white photo too.

Krista

Leigh B. , June 14, 2010; 04:08 A.M.

Thought I would update this thread with my recent experiences.

I just received a Spyder3Studio SR and decided to check it out on my 24" Apple LED Cinema Display.  To say I was impressed is an understatement.

I calibrated the display three times under different ambient lighting conditions: 1) normal ceiling fluorescent lights; 2) table lamps on but ceiling fluorescents off; 3) room lights off but lights in adjoining rooms on.  The results were identical for all three situations.

As a retired electrical engineer/computer geek, I've designed many products that involved integration of hardware, software, and user interfaces.  In my professional opinion, this is a very well-designed product. 

It's not perfect (what is?).  There are a couple of places in the software that need Back buttons but don't have them.  But you can always exit the program and re-start it.

One possible problem moving forward is its insistence that the detector be plugged into a direct USB port rather than through a hub.  Most new computers have the hub built in.  There are no direct ports accessible to the user at all.

I did have an issue getting a license code for the free upgrade to software version 4.0.  I sent an email to customer service and had an answer within an hour, from a guy in Switzerland.  Seems like pretty good support to me.

I haven't used the printer calibration yet.  I really hate to print that many pages on a very expensive pigment-based printer, with the potential of having to repeat the test, but that's the way it is.

Anyhow, two thumbs up for this guy.  Very well done.

 

- Leigh

 

W Watson , October 15, 2010; 03:16 P.M.

Datacolor is running a scam. They say if you buy a Spyder Elite in 2010 that you will receive all upgrades, no charge. Well these guys promise FREE but they scammed me as they want $ to upgrade despite just buying the product last week. They have no United States phone number and do not respond to emails in a timely fashion. In attempting to upgrade it wiped out my prior version and am unable to calibrate my monitor at all unless I pay their upgrade price. DONT buy any product from DATACOLOR if you can help it.

Andrew Kelly , March 15, 2014; 02:38 A.M.

I bought the Spyder 4 Elite a couple of months ago and it has been a complete disaster. To say that it is worse than useless is an understatment. The calibration adjustments are so obviously wrong that I have to revert to the default colour profile (It leaves a very bluish light).

As the images I produce frequently end up on the cover of magazines, I have to be spot on with my colour temperature.

My monitor is an expensive monitor, designed for photography and images normally look stunning on it.

As an electronic engineer and technology expert I am sure that it is being used properly (i.e. leave the monitor on for an hour before hand...).

I am just disappointed after spending £166 ($276) on their best unit and sorry I didn't see any negative reviews before I bought it.


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