May 1, 2006 12:00 PM,
By Jeff Sauer
Hardware-software system helps deliver lifelike pictures.
Even after someone or some business buys a new HDTV or flat-panel monitor, there’s still a question about image quality. That’s because many new displays have default settings that are designed to stand out on a showroom floor, often exaggerating saturated colors, blacks, and contrast. Awkwardly, those settings can detract from color accuracy, and often overdrive brightness and contrast at the expense of product longevity.
Datacolor’s SpyderTV ($229) is an easy-to-use hardware-software system that can help non-technical users configure a display to deliver more lifelike pictures. Unlike other available solutions that serve much the same purpose, SpyderTV effectively eliminates any eyeballing or guesswork, and obviates professional training. That’s because it includes a professional-grade colorimeter (indeed, the same that’s included with Datacolor’s professional ColorFacts calibration system) and software that walks users through setup adjustments step by step, as well as a test pattern DVD.
Is SpyderTV professional calibration? No. Professional calibration is the most accurate way to fine-tune colors and, more importantly, grayscales, because a professional can access the service menus and individual color controls rather than just the onscreen menu controls, as SpyderTV does. However, at roughly $200 to $400 a pop, and with the recommendation to do it every 12 to 24 months, professional calibration can often be rationalized away as unnecessary.
Setup-assisting DVDs, like Digital Video Essentials and the Avia Guide to Home Theater, cost a lot less ($25 to $50) and walk new users through a series of user onscreen menu adjustments: brightness, contrast, color, and tint. But those solutions ultimately ask untrained eyes to make fine adjustments while looking through color filters, and can demand a lot more time and patience than the average consumer has to give to the task. SpyderTV takes the indecision out of that process by relying on a USB colorimeter’s measurements, instead of those of a consumer’s eyes, and a software computer interface telling the user exactly what to do next.
The entire setup process for a display takes about 30 minutes. It’s a little faster if the onscreen menus don’t get in the way of the colorimeter and you don’t have to exit the menus each time to take measurements. A lot of that time is spent juggling the DVD player’s and monitor’s remote controls, switching between test patterns, and making the individual adjustments to brightness, contrast, color, and tint.
SpyderTV begins by asking you to select monitor type, then to manually enter the current, maximum, and minimum values for each of those aforementioned parameters, plus the name of and settings for each color temperature presets your specific display has. It prompts you to take a maximum, minimum, and 50-percent reading of each, then goes on to deliberately focus in on the most appropriate setting for each parameter.
Each measurement along the way prompts you to toggle between two test patterns (appropriate to the parameter), which can make the whole process a little tedious. After following prompts to, for example, set brightness to 50 percent and take a reading, then 75, then 60, then 70, then 65, then 69, then 67, you have become either pretty adept at juggling the two remotes, or annoyed by the process. Presumably, someone interested enough in good color and picture quality to spend a couple hundred dollars will appreciate the effort for the half hour it takes, or at least the novelty of the process.
AS GOOD AS IT GETS?
Naturally, the biggest questions for professionals are, “How good a job does SpyderTV do?” and, “Can it replace professional calibration?” The answer to the first question is that it does a very good job, especially compared to eyeballing it. And it does at least as well as trying a similar configuration with the Avia DVD or Digital Video Essentials, although the results from using those tools can vary quite a bit depending on who’s using them.
And, of course, that’s the biggest reason for SpyderTV: it takes the human element, especially the non-technical human element, out of the equation. There’s no guesswork and no eyeballing it, and the results are darn good. On some displays, the results might even rival professional calibration. However, that depends completely on how the display is set up at the factory and how good the grayscale tracking is from the start.
That’s certainly where SpyderTV can’t match professional calibration. It does not offer grayscale calibration through a range of black to white, but only sets brightness and contrast so images aren’t washed out or too muddy. And if the grayscales are off, there’s not too much color and tint adjustments are going to do to correct the underlying problem. Nor can SpyderTV, with the colorimeter pressed up against the screen, make any value judgements about the viewing conditions or build custom presets for a specific environment.
None of that should be terribly surprising, especially coming from a company that also sells professional calibration equipment. It’s not that SpyderTV skimps on features to protect the high end, but one can do only so much with onscreen menus.
Surely, using SpyderTV is better than doing no calibration at all. Datacolor certainly hopes that there are enough people and businesses out there buying fairly expensive HDTVs and monitors to create a market for a $200-plus product that helps them get the most out of that new purchase, especially if they don’t have the wherewithal to hire a professional calibrator.
Does that decrease the market for professional calibration by giving users a rationale not to do it? Perhaps so, but those users probably aren’t likely to be repeat customers anyway. In fact, smart calibrators would be wise to recommend SpyderTV as a way to keep a home theater system looking its best between formal calibration appointments. With that in mind, Datacolor might wish to consider a SpyderTV discount tier for ColorFacts users who could then resell SpyderTV to calibration customers, or give it away as a special perk for its best customers.
After all, the goal of professional calibration is achieving and retaining the best picture quality, and SpyderTV is another way to educate consumers that monitors don’t often come out of the store looking their best. Indeed, the reports that SpyderTV can print out at the end of the setup process offer a nice visual on how it has improved the picture quality, but also could tell a professional what needs more detailed adjustment.
Pros: Very easy-to-use software combined with professional-quality colorimeter; takes the guesswork out of proper display setup. Works on plasmas, LCDs, CRTs, and RPTVs.
Cons: Doesn’t do grayscales; price comparable with professional calibration.
Supported Technologies: RPTV, DLP, LCoS, LCD, and CRT TVs
What you get with SpyderTV: SpyderTV software CD; SpyderTV colorimeter; suction cup/tripod attachment; SpyderTV test pattern and instructions DVD; storage bag; two-year SpyderTV hardware warranty; free technical support; free software updates
Requirements: DVD player; remote controls for your TV and DVD player; desktop or laptop PC with Windows 2000 or XP operating system near your TV; USB port; computer: Pentium II 800MHz, 256MB Ram, 100MB free drive space; video card: 1024×768 resolution, 24bpp color (16.7 million colors).