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Datacolor Spyder5 Review

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Datacolor Spyder5 Review -- Front three-quarter view

If you've ever wondered why your photos don't look the same on-screen as they do when you share them with friends and family, you've stumbled on the dirty little secret of computer displays: What constitutes red, green, blue or neutral on one display may differ radically from another -- possibly even for the same model, let alone across differing brands and model-lines.

If you want to view your photos in their best light, or view other photographers' creations as intended, you'll want to calibrate your display. Relatively affordable, dedicated hardware exists to do just that, and one such option is Datacolor's Spyder-series of colorimeters.

The DataColor Spyder5-series colorimeters share a new, more compact design that doesn't require a separate stand. In place of the separate, bundled stand of earlier versions, the counterweight now cleverly serves as protective cap, keeping dust away from the colorimeter's filters when the device isn't in use. With its closed design, the Spyder5's counterweight / cap likely also helps to reduce UV fading of the color filters. The previous stand, by contrast, left the filters exposed to light and dust.

We found ourselves a little surprised by how tightly fitted to the cable the new counterweight / cap was, which gave us mild concerns about damaging the cable while we adjusted the length of slack available to drape the cable over the top of a monitor or laptop screen. In fairness to Datacolor, though, you most likely only need to make this adjustment very rarely, and it's important that the counterweight can't slip.

Datacolor Spyder5 Review -- Comparison with the Spyder3 / Spyder4 design
Evolution of the Spyder: Compared to the earlier Spyder3 (shown at right) or Spyder4, the Spyder5 colorimeter (left) is much more compact, even before you consider the earlier models' stand and counterweight.

There's also now a tripod mount on the side of the Spyder5 puck, which allows it to be used for front projector calibration with no additional parts. Note, though, that only the Elite version can actually calibrate projectors.

As in the previous generation, the Spyder5-series colorimeters still use a seven-detector optical module, but Datacolor says that it provides up to a 55% improvement in tonal response, and yields both better shadow calibration and smoother gradients. The optical module is now encapsulated to reduce the likelihood of damage from minor knocks and drops, and the baffle diameter has been reduced to help keep out stray ambient light which could adversely affect calibration.

The Spyder5 colorimeter is sold in three distinct versions, just as was the Spyder4 before it. These are the entry-level Spyder5Express, mid-range Spyder5Pro and top-of-the-line Spyder5Elite. For the first time, though, all three are based around the exact same hardware design for the calibration puck. Each version comes in a new, smaller package which is reusable if you want to store the device away between calibrations.

Datacolor Spyder5 Review -- Product packaging
The Spyder5 package is much smaller,saving you space if you store it away between uses, and reducing the amount of waste if you throw the box straight in the trash.

There's an ambient light sensor on the top of the Spyder5 which adjusts brightness on-the-fly based on changes in ambient light, though. Hence, for best results with desktop machines (or notebooks that seldom leave the desk), you'll want to leave it connected all the time. That's not applicable to the Express model, incidentally -- even though the sensor is present in the Express version, only the Pro and Elite models monitor ambient light. The Pro model detects three distinct light levels, while the Elite version detects five levels.

Datacolor Spyder5 Review -- Software download information

One change that's allowed the new, more compact packaging is the removal of a software CD from the product bundle. Instead, a small card beneath the lid tells you where to download the software online. You'll find quick start info, a user guide, and a video walkthru of the calibration process in the same place, along with support and knowledgebase links.

The Spyder5 software is available for both Windows and Mac OS platforms, and it's a separate download for Express, Pro or Elite versions, rather than a single combined app that unlocks different features with your serial number. (That, by the way, is found on a small sticker in the bottom of the package.) Downloading doesn't take very long, with a file size of around 65-69MB for Windows users, and 49-61MB for Mac users.

Once you've installed, the most obvious change in the software is the presence of interactive help, which is available on every screen along the right-hand side. As you mouse over individual options in the Spyder5 software interface, the help panel updates to reflect this. It's a handy function, although mildly annoying on our Windows7 machine for the fact that your computer emits a click sound every time you mouse over a new option.

Datacolor Spyder5 Review -- Interactive help
The Spyder5's bundled software now provides interactive help. Here, my mouse pointer was hovering over the Display Controls item, so the right-hand pane shows help information relevant to this particular step in the process.

After the usual prompts to ensure your monitor is ready for calibration, you're prompted to choose your display or laptop manufacturer and model, information that lets the app configure things appropriately if your chosen device is already listed, and which gets fed back to Datacolor for future software updates if not.

Express users still get a very streamlined calibration process, with no real options to speak of, and no review of profiles post-creation, beyond the simple before-and-after comparison images provided by Datacolor. They do, however, now have the ability to calibrate multiple monitors, although there's no way to tune the separately-created profiles to account for different display technologies.

Datacolor Spyder5 Review -- Advanced calibrations settings
The Spyder5Express provides a mostly hands-off calibration process, but Spyder5Pro and Spyder5Elite users have much more control over exactly how they want to profile their display..

Pro and Elite users get more control over the process, selecting what controls their monitor offers for adjustment, and then specifying the gamma, white point, brightness and ambient light detection settings they prefer. Pro users get a choice of 16 possible targets; Elite users also get two additional broadcast video targets (Rec. 709 and Rec. 2020).

The full calibration process takes around five minutes, and subsequent calibrations can be performed more quickly --around a couple of minutes -- using the ReCAL option. The Pro and Elite versions also allow you to recheck your current calibration, if you feel that it may have drifted but don't want to perform a recalibration until you're sure it's necessary.

Datacolor Spyder5 Review -- Calibrated display profile preview
Once calibration is done, you can see how much of a difference the process made by toggling back and forth between calibrated and uncalibrated views of a selection of Datacolor-provided sample images. Clicking on these will change to a two-by-two display, and then to a single image, just as in earlier versions of the Spyder software.

If you're using a Pro or Elite-version, you can also now use custom images for before/after evaluation when done calibrating, not just the standard Datacolor-supplied images. For Elite users only, this evaluation can also be made in full-screen mode. And as in the previous version of Datacolor's software, you can review the gamut of your display and compare it to other profiles post-calibration with all but the Express model.

Datacolor Spyder5 Review -- Custom display profile preview
Sypder5Pro and Elite users can now choose their own before and after comparison images, as well. Here, we've used an image that regular Imaging Resource readers will know very well indeed -- our standard still life scene.

Both Pro and Elite users can also perform display analysis, but the options available to each differ. Pro users can graph gamut, tone response, analyse how brightness affects contrast and white point, and check how on-screen display settings affect white point. Elite users have access to all of the above, and can also analyse color accuracy and screen backlight uniformity.

Elite users also get another couple of options not available on the Spyder5Pro. The first of these is the StudioMatch tool, which helps match multiple monitors not just on the same machine, but also across multiple machines. Secondly, there's the SpyderTune tool, which allows you to tweak the white point, gamma and brightness, handy when using displays with different panel types or backlight technologies that still appear different to the eye even after a precise calibration.

Having spent a while with the Spyder5Elite version, we've definitely found it to be a worthwhile improvement on earlier models. The new design for the colorimeter itself takes up less desk space and would seem to better-protect your valuable investment. While we don't have a way to verify Datacolor's claims of improved accuracy, the profiles it generated on our machines were noticeably better than uncalibrated results, even on relatively expensive displays.

Datacolor Spyder5 Review -- Display analysis
More than just a calibration tool, the Spyder5Pro and Elite can also perform a variety of tests on your monitor. Unique to the Spyder5Elite are the screen uniformity and color accuracy tests.

There is one optional-extra feature of the earlier Spyder4 colorimeter which its followup lacks, but in all honesty, it's one that probably didn't get much use, and can be worked around free-of-charge to at least some extent with the Spyder5 and a little work. A kit could be ordered for the earlier version that would allow calibration of high-definition TVs, using a DVD disc to provide the necessary color patterns, but there's no equivalent for the Spyder5.

However, you can still connect your computer to the HDTV -- assuming it has the correct input available, of course -- and calibrate it as if it was a regular display. That calibration won't be of any use for other inputs, of course, because the correction is being made on your computer rather than the Spyder5 walking you through the process of making the adjustments on the TV, but it's still worth doing if you often put your laptop's photos on the big screen.

Available immediately, the Spyder5Express is priced at US$130 or thereabouts, the Spyder5Pro at US$190, and the Spyder5Elite at US$280.

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