X-Rite ColorMunki Photo Knows More Than One Trick
Profiling your monitor is basically the minimum you should be doing if you care about working with accurate colors. But if you want to take even greater control of your color management world, you might to try creating your own printer profiles. Or perhaps you have digital projector that you wish did a better job with color. The X-Rite ColorMunki Photo does it all.
It used to be if you wanted to create multiple kinds of profiles you had two choices. You could go the economical route and end up with poor results, or if you could get good results but spend a lot of money doing so. This stands to reason when you think about it. A printer creates color in an entirely different way than does a monitor screen or computer projector. A device that can accurately measure each of them must cost more than something that only works for a monitor. Either that, or it will likely do a poor job of at least some.
Common monitor calibrators such as the X-Rite i1 Display 2 or Datacolor Spyder 3 are technically known as colorimeters. As the name implies, such devices measure color. They do this by determining the amount of red, green and blue necessary to create what they see. A spectrophotometer, on the other hand, is a more sophisticated device that measures response across the entire color spectrum rather than just the three primary colors. For monitor profiling, either will suffice, but when dealing with reflected color from a printer or off a projector screen, spectrophotometers have a distinct advantage. The X-Rite ColorMunki is a spectrophotometer.
More to the point, it's the first easy to use, affordable spectrophotometer, at least that I am aware of. If you're wondering what "affordable" means, you can find ColorMunki Photo for just over $300 if you shop around. This might seem like a lot, but the closest competitor is more than double the price. This is also less than just a basic colorimeter cost no more than a few years ago. The massive growth in digital photography is obviously what spurs such innovation, so if you want to get in on the act, now's the time. The ColorMunki Photo is revolutionary. There's a $50 rebate on through the end of the year if you need more enticement.
Physically, the device looks more or less like a 50-foot tape measure. I'm not kidding. It's oddly rectangular in shape with a large rotary dial in the middle. Rather than sitting flat against your monitor when profiling it, you place one of its narrow sides on the screen with the rest of the device jutting out. If you're profiling something else, the rotary dial allows you to reposition the actual sensor inside to face what you are trying to measure.
For monitor profiling, the process is pretty standard. You run the program on your computer, place the device on your screen, and watch all the pretty colors go by on your monitor as the measurements are taken. When it's done, you save the resulting profile and put everything away. You're done. To hold the ColorMunki on your screen, the device goes in a neoprene bag with a weighted strap attached. You drape the strap over the back of the monitor to provide the counterweight while the neoprene nicely protects the face of your monitor. There's an Advanced mode in the software that gives you control over gamma, target luminance and the like, but start with the Basic option if you're new to monitor profiling. When finished, the program will give you an option to remind you to profile again in one to four weeks. The software does a good job of guiding you step by step though the process with onscreen images. You just set your ColorMunki to match the picture currently displayed at each step. On Windows Vista and above, run the program as Administrator if you haven't already resorted to turning User Access Control (UAC) off completely.
The process of profiling a projector is similar except that the device gets placed facing the screen rather than on it. You take the ColorMunki out of its bag and rotate the dial to point the sensor inside in the right direction. X-Rite recommends that you position it approximately the same distance away from the screen as the screen is wide which means it will likely sit in front of the projector itself so you may need to do a bit of adjusting to avoid it casting a shadow on the screen, but it works well other than that.
Printer profiling consists of printing out a test page with fifty color patches and then measuring the results (after it's had time to dry) by dragging the ColorMunki over the printout. If you've explored printer profiling before it might seem surprising that ColorMunki doesn't give you way more patches to scan but this is only the first phase of profiling. Based on reading the results of this first pass, the software determines which colors are already spot on and which are more problematic for your printer. It then guides you through printing out an additional fifty patches as needed to fine tune those difficult colors.
ColorMunki isn't perfect of course. X-Rite introduced this thing over a year ago and the main reason I haven't written about it yet was that earlier versions of the software were causing me some degree of instability under Windows Vista. The latest update of the software (version 1.1.1 for Windows) came out about a month ago and it seems like it works fine now. I haven't tried it on Windows 7 yet, but X-Rite says the new version works on Microsoft's latest as well. For those of you on a Mac, they released a version to support Snow Leopard not too long ago as well.
The software is big too. The download totals over 300 MB with the final installed footprint just shy of 200 MB. Good thing drive sizes are bigger these days. When X-Rite first released this, the CD contained only a small program to help in downloading the latest version. While they do now include a version on the disk, you'll still likely want to download the updated version. Thank goodness for broadband internet too. They also include a DVD with training materials which is a nice touch. You'll be glad they did too since the printed documentation is rather sparse.
If you've read other reviews of the ColorMunki you may have heard that you can only activate the program on three computers. While this was indeed part of the original license agreement, X-Rite says they never enforced that provision and have since revised things to explicitly allow you to use it on any number of computers you may own. You still do have to be connected to the internet to activate the program, but there are no annoyingly long gibberish license keys to enter. You simply attach the device to your computer via USB and it reads the serial number strait from the hardware.
My only real gripe about the ColorMunki is an ergonomic one. To profile anything, the program first wants you to calibrate the device. To do so, you rotate the dial to Calibration mark and let it acclimatize itself. After a brief few seconds, the software tells you it's OK to rotate it back to the measuring position which is a lot harder than it might seem. Doing so requires some firm pressure, but you have to rotate it without pressing in on it. If you do, it thinks you are calibrating it all over again and you'll have to go back to the Calibration mark and start over. Don't pass Go and don't collect $200. Unless I'm more of an idiot than I think I am, figuring out how to do this actually requires practice. I'm not kidding. If you want a tip, hold the device firmly in both hands and rotate the dial with only your thumb pressing against the divider in the middle of the dial. Make sure you press only parallel to the face of the dial, not downward into it or else you'll have to go back to Calibration again. It literally took me twenty minutes to figure out why I couldn't get past Calibration when I first got my ColorMunki this past summer. Some more appropriate handle to grab the dial with would have been most welcome. It's almost as if no one tested this thing before they released it. It creates great profiles, but using it shouldn't seem like solving a Rubik's cube. Just so you know, now that I 've figured out how to do it, rotating the dial works fine, but it's not at all obvious. Weird.
As with all monitor profiling devices, there are also a few problems with getting everything to fit on your screen sometimes. If your monitor isn't very big and has onscreen controls for adjusting brightness and so forth, you may have a difficult time getting things to fit in Advanced mode where the software adds more controls of its own to the display. Also, if you have no current monitor profile, you'll be presented with a pop-up message that it couldn't save your old profile to facilitate before/after comparison. This wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the fact that it gets displayed directly underneath the ColorMunki so you can't read it without moving the device. You can just hit the Enter key to make it go away so don't let it worry you too much. Again, basic ergonomics.
In addition to profiling pretty much every kind of output device, the ColorMunki has a couple more tricks it can help you with. You can carefully position the sensor on any solid object to spot measure its color which is a neat trick especially for designers that need to match a real world color. There's also a Color Picker feature that will help you generate compatible color palettes based on any image you may have available. Web designers will love this. There's also an ingenious Color Pouch feature that allows you to bundle any number of images with a profile for delivery to someone else for review in a color managed environment.
X-Rite makes both the ColorMunki Photo as well as ColorMunki Design. Apart from the fact that the Photo version is black and the Design one white, the two are quite similar. The DigitalPouch feature comes only with Photo while Design has support for spot color optimization and a few other odds and ends. There's also ColorMunki Create that comes with a colorimeter rather than the spectrophotometer and will only profile monitors not printers. Create also lacks the ability to profile to user specified white points and measure ambient illumination.
It's nice to be able to get such good results from a single device. Once you master rotating the darned control dial, the ColorMunki Photo works great. You can get off cheaper if you only need to profile your monitor, but if you've longed for an affordable solution to cover your printer and projector as well, this may be just what you're looking for. Recommended, with the latest software update.
Update 12/23/2009 - Reader DW confirms that the new version of ColorMunki software works fine on Windows 7. By email, he writes "Setup and profiling were a breeze. My new HP LP2475w monitor needed work coming out of the box. However, after profiling the monitor and printer with the ColorMunki, I had excellent matching between my monitor and printer." Good to know as I consider moving to Windows 7 myself in the near future.