Somewhere between a simple setup disc and a full professional calibration is the Spyder from Datacolor.
Consisting of a small colorimeter you attach to your TV, some software, and a Blu-ray (or DVD) with test patterns, the package claims to let you “calibrate” (their word) your own TV.
I’ve wondered for years if these things work, and if so, how well. Are they accurate “enough” for the money?
The Spyder4TV HD sensor itself is looks like something you’d see in a sci-fi movie, a tri-tip doodad that attaches to the front of your TV via elastic cabling. Calling it a “spider” is appropriate, with eight total bands stretching out from the sensor. Technically, these are two loops that wrap around the corners of the TV, but it looks vaguely spider-ish. I though it appeared more “hugging gibbon,” but that’s somewhat less marketable an analogy.
Sensor in place, software installed, disc in drive, and you’re ready to go.
The software does a good job leading you through the process step-by-step. I have little doubt even someone who has never adjusted their TV’s settings could follow this without difficulty, and that’s obviously important for a product like this.
Here’s how it works: The software instructs you to select a certain pattern on the disc. It reads the sensor, then instructs you to change a setting on the TV. With Contrast, for example, it instructed me to set the control to 100 (likely too high), then 0 (too dark), then 50, 75, 87, 93, 90, 92, 91 and so on. To put it simply, it finds the extremes, then narrows down to find the right setting. With Color and Tint, it adds a second pattern to the mix. It’s not difficult, and the whole thing takes 20-30 minutes.
Perhaps the best feature is at the end of each setting, it shows you a little chart that diagrams your progress. And the very end you get all the charts in one pdf (see below for our results).
There’s one major problem with the Spyder4TV, though — namely, the existence of every setup disc on the market. I’ve in the past mentioned Disney’s excellent WoW disc, and Digital Video Essentials. Using WoW, I can set up every aspect of a TV the Spyder4TV can, in significantly less time. Admittedly, I’m a professional, and have done this countless times, but out of curiosity, I checked the results from the Spyder against my own settings, using the $25 WoW setup disc.
Here are the settings as chosen by the Spyder4TV:
Here are the settings I would pick, using Disney’s WoW.
The Contrast and Brightness controls are close enough that I don’t think there’s much of an issue (the TV I used for this test is slightly odd in that it’s not clipping with a contrast setting of 100). Between 91-100 and 61-67, you could make an argument for personal preference. The Brightness setting of 67, especially, will make a few shadows more visible.
However, the Color and Tint settings were way off, when I checked with a blue color filter. A little extra color never hurt anything, but these two were further off correct than I’d prefer.
It took me under 5 minutes to find what I’d argue are the “correct” settings for this TV. For someone who has never done it before, going through the tutorials on WoW or DVE, I could see manual calibration taking longer than it did to run through the Spyder4TV-assisted procedure.
There's only thing a setup disc can’t do that the Spyder can: choose the best color temperature setting. While I’m a firm believer in accurate color temp, I’m not sure it’s worth the extra $100. After all, the Normal or Warm setting is likely the closest on every TV, and choosing between the two could come down to personal choice (short of hiring a professional calibrator).
The Spyder fits an odd niche. It’s for people who want to do setup themselves, but don’t trust their eyes to a setup Blu-ray/DVD. The accuracy of the meter compared to one’s own eyes is arguable.
In reality the only major advantage over discs like Disney’s WoW and Digital Video Essentials is the ability to pick the color temperature preset closest to D6500. Not being able to go that next step, the actual calibration of color temperature (i.e grayscale tracking), is disappointing. So if you go the route of a setup disc, you'll either have to trust your eyes for the best color temp, or hire a professional ISF or THX calibrator.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.