Why Calibrating Your Screens is Important: We Review the Datacolor X2 Ultra

Why Calibrating Your Screens is Important: We Review the Datacolor X2 Ultra

Do you calibrate your screen? If you don’t then there are good reasons why you should. If it’s something you decide to do, then Datacolor Spyder X2 Ultra may be the perfect solution.

Why You Should Calibrate Your Screen

Years ago, soon after the turn of the millennium, I had my first digital camera and delved for the first time into shooting raw. Shortly afterward, I posted a picture online and someone told me that the grass was far too saturated. It looked okay to me, so I opened it on another device. It looked different, but still not oversaturated.

Not long after that, I started to print photos that I had shot. They invariably came out much darker than I hoped. From this point onwards I followed a steep learning curve, discovering what I needed to know of color spaces and screen calibration.

Although I learned about calibrating my screen,  at first I did little more than follow the calibration tool in Windows. I reasoned that, like the majority of people’s, most of my pictures were just shared online, and most people don’t calibrate their monitors. I soon discovered that this was inadequate.

Then, I started working with more than one computer and then with two screens. Using Windows’ attempt at screen calibration, I found it difficult to get the colors, contrasts, and brightness to match. Furthermore, I started to print much more, and the prints seemed off. Getting skin tones correct especially became more of a challenge. If aspects of this story are familiar to you, then screen calibration is something that you should consider.

My first calibration tool grew old. The software for it was designed for Windows XP and, for a while, I used it in compatibility mode. That was not ideal, I know. Old unsupported software can develop security vulnerabilities, and I admit to not practicing what I preach to my clients about upgrading software. But, it worked for a long while.

However, the old tool’s hardware was designed to work for, among other things, CRT monitors. Although it seemed to work for several years, after updating my monitors recently, it again became impossible to get them to match exactly. Not only that, even with my new computer, the calibration process was painfully slow. I could brew my favorite coffee as it calibrated the first screen and drink it when it did the other.

The results were no longer good enough for my needs.

The lens cap of the Spyders slides tighly along the cable and acts as a counterbalance to the colorimeter.

Along Came a Spyder X2 Ultra

If you are not familiar with the Datacolor Spyder X2 range, then it’s worth looking into. Datacolor has, for a long time, been the biggest name for colorimeters in the screen calibration industry, and their latest tools look well set to maintain that position.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to the Spyder X2. Put simply, the colorimeter is a device that sits against the monitor. It measures colors and brightness, and then adjusts the way your screen appears. It works with its new, improved software, and it’s that which makes this piece of equipment such a powerful tool.

The Spyder X2 is a precision device that takes a series of color measurements from your screen. It then creates an ICC profile for each display. To achieve this, the device dangles by a wire over the top of the monitor and sits against the screen. Its software then plays a series of colors on the screen. The Spyder X2 colorimeter measures the colors and then creates a color profile based on those measurements.

Watching the calibration is somewhat reminiscent of watching a program load on my Sinclair Spectrum computer from my teens.

The Different Spyder Versions

The Spyder X2 Ultra's lens.

Although some of the older models can still be found, there are currently two generations of Spyder available; the X and the newer X2. It’s worth noting that the X2 models have a new lens-based sensor and new software. Although they look similar from the outside, the X models cannot be upgraded to the X2 platform.

The basic Spyder X Pro is a low-cost model and perfect for those new to screen calibration and use just one standard screen.

Next, there is a big leap forward to the Spyder X Elite and the better-performing Spyder X2 Elite. They have more advanced calibration options and the latter runs on the latest Spyder X2 Platform with its new user software interface. It includes video & cinema targets (Rec. 709, Rec. 2020) and advanced display mapping and analysis. There are unlimited calibration settings with provision for soft proofing, plus a Studio Match feature for multiple monitor calibration.

The version I have is the new Spyder X2 Ultra. This is the most versatile of the models and is suitable for high-brightness and HDR monitors. It’s worth noting that if you already have the X2 Elite version (not the X Elite), and you have upgraded your screen to an HDR model that you wish to calibrate, it is only necessary to purchase a software upgrade.

The new platform is easy to understand and use.

What’s in the Box?

The robust cardboard package contains:

  • The Spyder X2 Sensor
  • Serial Number
  • Welcome Card with links to the software and support resources
  • USB-C to USB-C Adapter

How to Set Up the Spyder X2

The idea of calibrating a screen can seem daunting at first. However, it's a fairly simple process although more in-depth adjustments to your display are possible.

You must download the software from the Datacolor website. As part of this process, you will need to register the serial number to get an activation code. Print this code and keep it safe as you will need it for future installations.

The basic calibration process is easy. Once the software is downloaded and you have given the screens 30 minutes to warm up, you plug the Spyder X2 into a USB port attached directly to your motherboard – the manual says not to use a hub or extension cable – and follow the on-screen instructions.

The connection is via a hard-wired USB-C cable. If, like me, you don’t have a USB-C port on your computer, use the USB-A (USB-3) adaptor included in the package. You then run the software, mount the Spyder X2 tool against your screen, and follow the instructions.

Studio Match allows the calibration of multiple monitors.

Additional Key Features of the Spyder X2 Elite and Ultra

Any screen’s appearance changes with the room light. Therefore, there is an ambient light sensor built into the X2 Elite. That allows the device to monitor the room’s brightness and the software to adjust your monitors accordingly.

The Spyder X2 Ultra has advanced display mapping and analysis. That gives you a better understanding of your monitor’s color, brightness, contrast, gamut, tonal response, and white point. You can also use it to check your screen's brightness, plus its color uniformity and accuracy.

The Studio Match feature, which I use, provides calibration for multiple computers and displays, ensuring a coherent color reproduction across all your monitors.

There are unlimited calibration settings and, for more advanced users, gamma curve, white point, and brightness adjustments.

The soft proofing feature allows you to replicate the appearance of other displays and devices on your calibrated screen. You can also see how prints will appear for different printer models, papers, and inks.

Preparing to measure the screen's brightness. The software will prompt you to increase or decrease the screen's brighness settings before the calibration process begins.

How Accurate Is the Spyder X2 Ultra?

My honest answer to that is “accurate enough.” If you are pedantic and want absolute precision, then you need to invest in a spectrophotometer. However, for photography, the Spyder X series is perfectly suitable. However, it is worth noting what they say on their website:

As OLED has become more widely available, so too are the different types of OLED display technology. While it may be possible to use the Spyder X/X2 to calibrate certain types of OLED displays, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the resulting calibration. Currently, we do not recommend using a Spyder X/X2 to calibrate any type of OLED display for color-critical applications.

Color-critical applications are those with a high color rendering index (CRI). The CRI is the ability of the screen to accurately reveal colors and photography doesn’t usually fit within that description, whereas medical applications and art restoration do.

What I Liked and What Could Be Improved

What I Liked

  • The device is reassuringly robust.
  • Compared to my old calibration tool, it is far faster to use, and its results are more accurate.
  • Both my screens, made by two different manufacturers and with different resolutions, now look the same.
  • Prints now accurately reflect what I see on the screen.
  • My laptop display matches the displays on my computer screen.
  • The new software interface is far better than the older version I used.
  • The software is more versatile in its functionality than the older version.
  • There was minimal single-use plastic.

    Before and after pictures are available. This is the standard set supplied but you can create also create a set using your own images.

What Could Be Improved

  • There's one improvement that I would like to see that might be particular to me. To force myself into an ergonomic sitting position, I have the center of my screens wall-mounted slightly above eye level and they are canted slightly forward at the top. Consequently, I find the Spyder X2 doesn’t sit properly against the screen but dangles in front. My initial solution was to prop it using a long steel rule, so it is held against the screen. After that, I raided my wife’s sewing kit for some elastic to hold it in place. So, some means of holding the Spyder against the screen during the calibration process would be useful for me, but not so much for laptop users whose screens are tilted backward.

In Conclusion: Is the Spyder X2 Ultra Worth the Price?

The answer to this question is pretty much about whether you need to calibrate your screen or not. If you are only posting photos to Instagram and don’t care too much that your image’s appearance will vary on other people’s screens then just carrying out a rudimentary calibration such as an online tool will suffice. If, however, you take your photography seriously and you want greater accuracy, then screen calibration becomes a necessity. Then, the Datacolor Spyder range of colorimeters will probably be your first choice and they are something I happily recommend. Nevertheless, the model you choose will depend upon your needs.

If you operate a single screen and are a bit more concerned about your color accuracy, especially if you want to print photos, then the Spyder X Pro is probably adequate, and it’s great value.

As soon as you start using multiple screens, the Spyder X2 Elite becomes the tool for you.

If those screens are HDR, then it’s the top-of-the-range Spyder X2 Ultra.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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I have been in the colour calibration business since the mid 1990s and very well remember the reluctance of many editors working with the first incoming waves of digital images. In most cases, that denial of the benefits - together with exchanging their desktop backgrounds (when that became a thing) for mid-gray-nothing-else - turned into "wow, this spares us hundreds of hours of turnarounds".
Today, I work for the movie industry. They aren't even at the stage many photographers were 30 years ago. Movies tend to cost 10* what it would need to be, because of a complete and absolute refusal to learn what has worked for others.

Tldr: calibrate. Gray background (to not fatigue your eyes). Learn about profiling your workflow. Use raw. Simple.

It's funny that loads of people will rather spend extra money on higher resolution display 27" 2K vs 27" 4K then get 2K hardware calibrated monitor and get calibration device with it. In the case of Benq SW270C it's €1000 altogether. It reminds me of the megapixel game... Ppl buying expensive 50mpx + camera, but pair it with cheap lens. Cheap tyres on expensive car...

I havre an Eizo CG319X, which has their top-end built in calibrators. I've just had it serviced and checked by them.

I also have a Calibrite Plus, along with an older XRite i-1 Display (they both give identical results.

And recently I bought a Spyder X Elite.

Here's the frustrating thing... They all give different results, enough to be concerned about.

The Eizo gives too warm on a mid grey.
The Calbrite / i-1 gives a cooler grey (better), but with a hint of magenta.
The Spyder X Elite is similar to the Calibrite but leans more towards yellow.

And I can see the difference not only on a mid grey, but also on finished headshots.

Of all, I find the Spyder X Elite to offer the most neutral grey tone.

But you'd think that at least in a mid-grey area, all three would be extremely close - not so, and it leaves me disappointed.

(For the record I'm calibrating as RGB, gamma 2.2, 80cd/m2 in a colour neutral, (Munsell Grey N5) room with extremely accurate daylight lamps in a dimmed environment. I scrunch y eyes and leave time with hem closed between when I make comparisons so as not to be fooled by continued light perception with my eyes.)

I'm blessed (???) with very acute colour vision so I notice these things when others may not. (I used to calibrate broadcast monitors by eye and got them extremely close many years ago). Heck I even notice the differences when balancing of different grey squares on a new ColorChecker card, which drives me mad.

But even so, isn't it concerning that when we're trusting calibrators to be absolutes, they're not so absolute as we think.

That said, for my money, the closest neutral grey I found was with a Spyder X Elite - which I was not expecting. So I use the built in software with my Eizo, but now use the Spyder.

(Also the Syder software allows us to choose between vs2 and v4 ICC types which is useful when using very old NLE softwares.

If I have a niggle with the Spyder - the cable position could further from the screen (like with the Calibrite). This would force it to sit better against a flat panel without needing to lean it back. (Because some of us have thicker bevels than others). And the cable could be more flexible - again helping that flat positioning issue. (Datacolor... if you're reading this and make changes - I want my free calibrator)

I did hear back from Datacolor regarding your last comment. They recommend that I suggest in the article: using an elastic strap to gently hold the tool against the screen. Thanks for that really helpful comment. Sadly, they didn't mention a free calibrator for you, but it was a good try!

Did you calibrate to the same white point? And what happens if you use DisplayCAL?
I wouldn't be surprised if the differences are due to calibration settings.

I love this! I use it religiously

Me and well now.

I just assumed that most photographers that are serious about photography calibrated their monitors. I've been doing it for as long as I've been serious about photography. Relative to equipment costs like camera bodies and lenses, calibrators are an important and inexpensive investment.

Reviews for products like this better serve the reader when other similar products are included in the discussion. I've used the Spyder system and can say XRite is easily the preferred brand. Better hardware, software, and customer support.

Their monitor calibrations have split off under a new name now.



Fair comment about you wanting comparisons. It is not how reviews are done on Fstoppers as the reviews are a more in-depth look at one product. Interestingly, If you want a comparison, read Lee's comment above he found the Spyder to be more accurate. Thanks for the interesting discussion.

Historically (up to the Spyder 5, I believe) the XRite devices were categorically superior. Specifically, the Spyders used organic dyes in the color filters, which degraded over time, leading to inaccurate results. I have even heard about brand new devices that didn't give the same readings.

I wonder, how well does it work with open source calibration software such as displaycal? It would also be interesting to see how it compares to older devices such as the i1 display pro.

I currently use one to calibrate my monitors and TV.