What you see may be what you get, but it’s not necessarily what everyone else gets. I was reminded of this when I bought a gaming monitor. I’d originally intended to get a 4K monitor of some kind, but I decided to go for speed over size. The one I did get can render my games at a brisk 144hz, and my games have never looked better.
Well, they looked good after I finally got my color calibration worked out. It took a while, as I was out of practice, but after finding my monitor’s ICC profile and eyeballing the calibration about fifteen times, I was finally content. If I design any websites in the future, they should look more or less as intended on everyone else’s devices.
When you’re just starting out in web design, you might not think about your monitor too much. It’s there, you’re used to it. Let’s pick some shiny colors for your new mockup and go! Except everyone’s got a different display, on their desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone. And sometimes, even the same model of monitor can show colors slightly differently.
What you see will not be what they see.
But, if you calibrate your monitor right, you can at least make sure that the differences aren’t too drastic. A design made on a well-calibrated monitor might look slightly different on other screens. One made on a badly calibrated monitor might literally be using the wrong colors. Yes, it can be that bad.
1. Hardware calibrators
Okay, so here’s the big one. There are actual pieces of hardware which you can mount on your monitor, and they’ll do the hard work for you. Together with their bundled software, they’ll pretty much automatically set up all the brightness, contrast, and color balance stuff right. Usually.
The problem is that they’re expensive. If you can justify the expense because you have the money, and plan to recalibrate your monitor a lot, by all means go for it! Some of the more affordable ones seem to come from Spyder, like the Spyder5, and the Spyder5EXPRESS. They are in the 100-150 USD range on Amazon. Other options, like the X-Rite i1Display Pro and the Pantone ColorMunki, tend to be much more expensive.
Software for Windows
2. The built-in calibration wizard
Well the first and most obvious solution is built right into the OS. Just open up your start menu and type in the word “Calibrate” and you should get the right option immediately. You will then be led through a series of fairly easy-to-follow steps that will get you up and running.
You may have to try a couple of times to get the result you want, but it’s a good start for anyone unfamiliar with the process.
3. Nvidia or AMD control panel
If you have a more powerful video card for gaming, video editing, or what-have-you, it will usually come with configuration software. In the case of Nvidia and AMD, the only names that really matter when it comes to video cards, both include display calibration tools built into the apps.
The advantage of these tools is that they might include options specifically tuned to the capabilities of your video card.
Calibrize is a decent alternative to the built-in tools for beginners, as it also has a step-by-step walk-through to help you get started. Don’t expect anything too fancy. Just a good tool for beginners.
Don’t let the missing images on QuickGamma’s website fool you… the download is still there. QuickGamma starts fast, and runs fast. It also has a bare-bones interface with no hand holding. It might be a good option for people who already know what they’re doing, and just want to make fast adjustments on the fly.
Software for Mac
6. The built-in wizard
Yeah, pretty much the same idea as the one for Windows. Not much to say, other than that if you want to access the “expert mode”, you should check out this tutorial.
Price: $19 USD
As I couldn’t try this one out, I can’t say much about it, other than that it is designed for Macs, and specifically for the displays used with them. That specialization could be a serious advantage.
Software for Linux
Non-Linux users, skip this section. It’s about to get freaky.
See, color management in Linux is a bit nuts, as every desktop environment either handles it differently, or doesn’t handle it at all. I’ve even seen some terminal-based apps for color management, and that just seems… wrong. Still, we have options.
I don’t know how they work with the new Wayland display server, or if that even matters. If they don’t, it won’t be long before they do.
8. “Native” solutions
Gnome Color Manager seems to work for both Gnome and XFCE. It’s a fairly simple app that depends entirely on ICC profiles. All other configuration will have to be done manually, in the monitor’s OSD. KDE’s KolorManager works pretty much the same way.
DisplayCAL, formerly dispcalGUI, is the one proper DE-agnostic app I could find. It can import your ICC profiles, it supports interactive configuration (read: it has color sliders and stuff), and it has a lot of good reviews.
There’s obviously no shortage of tools. I just wouldn’t recommend using more than one at the same time. There’s too much potential for the settings to… conflict. And you might even consider going all-out and buying a hardware solution.
If, however, like me, you don’t calibrate nearly often enough to justify that expense, you’re going to have to eyeball it. It’s a good thing we have options.