Introduction and design
If you’re looking at an image of the sky on your screen, how do you know that the particular hue of blue is really what you’re seeing? When you’re looking at a white background, how true is this shade of white?
A color-calibrated display gives users the confidence to know that the tones of colors that they see on a screen is accurate. To achieve this, studio displays designed for graphics and production work come with built-in colorimeters, but these solutions are often costly. Datacolor makes a range of tools under its Spyder5 series, with costs starting at $129 (£83, AU$165), that work with existing laptops, monitors and projectors. The Spyder5 Elite is at the high end of the spectrum at $279 (£180, AU$356).
The Spyder5 Elite competes in the same colorimeter segment as the X-Rite ($189, £122, AU$241) from Colormunki, though that product hasn’t been updated in a while.
Given the amount of time graphics and video professionals spend in front of a display to get the perfect images and video edits, it’s surprising that more studio displays and mobile workstations don’t come with built-in color calibration hardware.
For users familiar with prior generations of the Spyder series, the biggest change on the Spyder5 Elite is that the design has shrunken from an elongated stick to a black-hued hockey puck-sized tool. The Spyder5 Elite measures 2.73 (L) x 2.93 x 1.71 (H) inches (6.93 x 7.44 x 4.34 cm), and the device is affixed to a USB cable that plugs into your computer.
The solid plastic construction gives reassurance that the Spyder5 Elite will survive being crammed into a mobile photographer’s gear bag for work in the field or at client sites.
The Spyder5 comes with a tripod mount for use with projectors and a detachable cap, which is also attached to the USB cable. The cap serves as a counterweight for hanging the colorimeter over a display to calibrate and take readings. The cap protects the sensors, and the padding on the colorimeter helps protect your display against scratching when you’re placing the device on your monitor to take measurements.
There is also an ambient light sensor on the top of the colorimeter for reading the lighting levels in your room. I found that I got the most accurate color readings when using the colorimeter in a dark room with little to no ambient light.
Setup and performance
The content of the box that the Spyder5 Elite ships in is minimal – inside, you’ll find the colorimeter, a card with a web address to download the software and user manuals on the internet and a sticker with the serial number for the software activation that’s affixed to the bottom of the box. If you intend on discarding the box, you’ll want to jot down the serial number in a safe place for later use.
Overall, the setup experience is quick. Using both a MacBook Pro and a Lenovo ThinkPad T450, the setup took between five to ten minutes on each system.
Curiously, even though the software is tied to the hardware serial number, in addition to the software serial license number, Spyder also generates a license code, which the company says you’ll need if you re-install Spyder 5 Elite. I didn’t need to use the license code on the PC after I had installed the software on my Mac, but this extra step in the activation process can be a hindrance if you need to calibrate multiple monitors and systems in a studio environment.
The Spyder5 Elite uses a seven-color sensor to measure your screen output. Once you launch the Spyder software, you’ll be greeted with a welcome screen that reminds you to warm up your display for at least thirty minutes, ensure that no intense light falls directly onto your display, reset your display controls and connect your Spyder5 unit.
The Elite model gives you different calibration options to use. There is a step-by-step assistant that will walk you through the process, a studio match to ensure that all the monitors in your studio have similar color tuning and an expert console that will give advanced users more flexibility. Most users will likely use the first two options.
If you’re calibrating a desktop monitor, you’ll want the Spyder5 Elite to start by measuring the ambient light in the room before you begin calibration by placing the unit on a desk. This will ensure that you’ll have the most accurate reading possible.
Once that’s done, the calibration process takes five minutes to complete, and the wizard will walk you through each step. To calibrate, you’ll want to remove the cap off of the colorimeter and place the colorimeter on your screen – the software will guide you on where to place the device – and use the cap as a counterbalance to keep the unit from sliding off of your display.
At the end of the process, a display profile is created, and you can apply this calibrated profile to your screen to get the most out of a color-calibrated display in your workflow.
For those who want to understand what is happening with their displays, the included Spyder Utility software reads your screen and gives you a detailed analysis of your display’s gamut for color saturation, tone response, brightness and contrast, white point at different presets, screen uniformity for brightness and color at different areas of your display and color accuracy. This is a more detailed process and takes longer to finish, but helps you understand your screen’s weak spots, such as areas of the display that are lit darker than others.
Looking at the data from my MacBook Pro, the Datacolor software found that the display on my laptop achieved 100% of the sRGB and 78% of the AdobeRGB color gamut, color and luminance uniformity varied at different brightness levels. The sRGB and Adobe RGB color gamut measurements are similar on the Lenovo ThinkPad T450, but the ThinkPad had a screen with more uniform brightness than the MacBook.
I found the brightness consistency test from the Elite model useful in understanding which areas of the screen are brighter than others.
Even though you get a lot of information from the Spyder Utility software, the program requires frequent user input. It takes less than twenty minutes to complete the entire analysis, but the software will prompt you for specific actions, like moving the colorimeter to different positions on your screen and manually adjusting the brightness to get readings at different screen brightness levels.
While the movement of the colorimeter can’t be automated, I had hoped that the brightness adjustments could have been. Many systems don’t give you precise brightness indicators – like at 25% or 50% – so you’ll have to visually guess how bright your screen is using a brightness slider.
Over time, even a calibrated monitor can fall out of calibration. The Spyder5 software lets you quickly check your screen if a calibration is needed, which should be done at least monthly if you’re working in a production environment, and a quick calibration option allows you to quickly recalibrate your monitor without going through the lengthy initial calibration steps.
Videographers will want to use choose the Elite over the Pro and Express models since it supports video color standards for PAL SECAM, NTSC, Cineon, ITU-R Rec. BT.709 and ITU-R Rec. BT.2020.
Because the colorimeter works in conjunction with the software, the Spyder5 Elite will only work with PCs, Macs and external displays or projectors connected to your computer system. It cannot be used to calibrate a standalone TV, for example, or a smartphone or mobile tablet that’s not connected to your display.
The Spyder5 Elite is an excellent tool for professionals hoping to get the most accurate output from their laptops or external displays. Coupled with the bundled Spyder Utility software, those obsessed about color accuracy in their workflow can learn a lot about their monitors and what is happening beneath the glass.
The built-in ambient light sensor on the Elite model that we reviewed – also found on the Pro model – makes it easy to calibrate a display under standard office environments without having to turn off the room lights. The Spyder5 Elite offers plenty of options for calibration, including an expert mode with unlimited calibration settings and advanced gray balancing. The Display Analysis tool allows users to gain a better understanding of their displays with a detailed report on the different display components covering saturation, brightness and contrast.
There isn’t much to dislike about the Spyder5 Elite. At $279 (£180, AU$356), the Elite is a pricy model with advanced features that may be overkill for the average consumer. Users who want a more straightforward calibration tool can opt for lesser expensive models, like the Spyder5 Express ($129, £83, AU$165) or the Spyder5 Pro ($189, £122, AU$241). Likely, the Pro model will hit the sweet spot for most users, coming with the ambient light sensor of the Elite.
The Spyder5 Elite is an excellent tool for graphics and video professionals working in studio environments demanding accurate color, contrast and saturation from their work. Compact enough for easy portability when traveling, the Spyder5 Elite not only lets you calibrate, check for calibration and quickly recalibrate, but it also provides tools to help you understand your display and its strengths and weaknesses.