Monitor Calibration Longevity

2nd November 2019 Colour Management & Lighting


Monitor calibration is now universally seen as an important part of quality image making. In the photographic domain, it's fairly rare to see anyone doing serious work without a monitor calibrator. Even Graphic Designers who are often surprisingly reluctant to move on from the primitive days of Pantone books and CMYK, are finally getting the message that calibration is the way to go.

Put simply, to do serious, reliable, accurate digital imaging work it is fundamental that you can see and assess on screen colour accurately. Your screen and perception of it will influence profoundly every single image you make and calibrating it is the bare minimum you should be doing to keep it running OK.

However, it's all too common to see people who own a calibrator and have given up using it because they encounter problems at some point (most likely a failed calibrator), or bought a calibrator in 2002 and dig it out once a year assuming it will be bringing them accuracy. It won't! Unfortunately, calibrators can and do fail on occasions, and do also simply wear out.

Life-span of a Monitor Calibrator

Seen from a general scientific standpoint, calibration equipment generally requires re-certification on an annual basis to be considered accurate. However, with consumer level devices (those in the $0 to $600 range), the cost of re-certifying these devices is prohibitive. So it's generally not offered as a service.

In practise, the cost of owning a calibrator is between about $50 and $100 a year across its minimum lifespan of three years - which remains a very small price to pay for accuracy and reliability.

In practise, after long and diverse experience at Image Science, we have come to believe that three years is about the length of time you will reliably get from a good monitor calibrator (of the colorimeter type) - using standard organic filters. This includes the entire Spyder range right through to the X and i1s before the i1Display Pro model.

After three years, you may encounter problems, and it is likely the accuracy of your calibrator will drop off significantly.

There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. These calibrators contain dye printed filters over the sensor, and like any colour printed item, these will change in time. A small change in these filters can result in a big change in the calibrator's measurement of colour. Older calibrators all have an 'open filter design' and are quite vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity. Newer models have 'double printed' filters designed to last longer.
  2. Monitor technologies change - and especially in the last 5 years. Because almost all monitor calibrators are colorimeters by design, they have internal colour filters over their sensor. These filters must be designed to properly read the currently available monitors. Old calibrators were designed with CRT monitors in mind, then later models were designed with standard gamut fluorescent lit LCDs in mind, and now current calibrators must cope with both LED and fluorescent backlighting and wide gamut colours. No one colorimeter is ideal for all monitors, and basically as monitor technology inevitably marches forward, your calibrator will cease to be a reliable measurer of your monitor's colour.
  3. Operating systems and graphics drivers can impact calibrators as well - for example, i1Display 2 support has been abandoned for OSX Mountain Lion and above, Spyder 4s and below have been abandoned with Catalina.

In practise, if you imagine a minimum three year life span, this means the cost of ownership for a calibrator is between about $50 and $100 a year across the three years. It remains a very small price to pay for accuracy and reliability.

If you're a professional, think what one stuffed up job could cost you and you will immediately see that calibration pays for itself on job one. If you're a hobbyist, then it's more about saving wasted time than anything else, and getting the results that you want.

Warranties are 12 months though, and they won't move on that unfortunately. We have long argued with them for more, but as yet none of the makers have moved this boundary unfortunately. We live in hope - but most do last 3+ years in practise so this is usually more of a theoretical concern than a practical one.

Why the i1Display Pro Lasts Longer

As you will see around our site, we're very much in favour of the i1Display Pro calibrator above the other available options, notably the Spyder range.

There are many differences that make the i1 better (see our i1 Display vs Spyder article).  But one of the key differences is the use of dichroic (non-organic) filters.  To quote Wikipedia on this:

Dichroic filters have a much longer life than conventional filters; the color is intrinsic in the construction of the hard microscopic layers and cannot "bleach out" over the lifetime of the filter (unlike for example, gel filters).

The way we normally explain it is that dichroic filters are really more like glass prisms - the light filtering behaviour does not effectively change over time like printed organic (gel) filters used in other calibrators.  This means you can take measurements with the oldest i1Display Pro (from circa 2012!) - and compare them to measurements from one made today (2019 at time of writing) - and they will behave effectively identically.  If you do the same with any Spyder across a three year period, you will find significant measurable difference.

For this reason alone, the i1 Display Pro is a game changer and has a much longer effective life span... at least 7 years and counting.  And this is one of the main reasons it is our primary recommended calibrator - it will simply help you achieve accuracy for a much longer period than anything other commonly available colorimeter.

X-Rite i1Display Pro
The benchmark monitor calibrator. Fast, accurate, easy to use, works with everything and very reliable. Our recommended calibrator.
Free Custom Printer Profile With This Monitor Calibrator!
$412
More info

When to Replace Your Calibrator

In general, whenever you replace your monitor, you should discuss with us whether or not your calibrator will still be a good match for your new system. Also, if your calibrator is over three years old (and is not an i1Display Pro) - it may be time to consider an upgrade.

Your monitor calibrator is out of date and pretty much guaranteed to be doing more harm than good if you are using an:

  • Spyder 4 or below (really Spyder5s are really already on their last legs too)
  • Original i1Display or i1Display V2
  • Smile, Huey, any of the more basic calibrators.

If you have moved to a wide gamut monitor, or LED backed monitor, you should replace your calibrator if using an older model, as they were not designed to accurately read these monitors. So replace if you are currently using an:

  • i1Display V2 or below
  • Any Spyder3=4 or below model

If you are experiencing any of these issues, you should be looking at upgrading your calibrator:

  • A clear post calibration colour cast - especially if it is green or magenta. If it is warm/cool, it might just be the whitepoint you have chosen, and/or try native whitepoint as some LCDs simply don't like whitepoint adjustments.
  • Persistent error messages about mis-readings during calibration.
  • A smaller than expected gamut, e.g. you own a wide gamut monitor but your calibrator software shows you only an sRGB measured gamut.

Rescue an Older Calibrator?

If you have an older monitor calibrator, or one that you think doesn't work with your current operating system or monitor there's often a solution to your problem. A lot of people encounter issues calibrating their new wide gamut monitors with older calibrators, or finding drivers when they move to a new version of their operating system - for instance Mac OSX.

There is an excellent open source colour calibration system called argyllcms. On top of this, a second project called DisplayCal adds a very good user interface for monitor calibration. It's compatible with a long list of sensors, all the common ones, and on most operating systems, such as Linux, OSX and Windows. They provide extensive information through their website so before you toss that calibrator in the bin - give it a go!

Three Years Isn't Enough!

Monitor calibrators at the consumer price level are a relatively new product development, with the Spyder3 and i1Display 2 being the first serious stabs at solving monitor calibration at a reasonable price. Like most early generation products, it's clear now they had some teething issues.

It's also fair to say the developers could not really have anticipated the fierce pace of monitor development. The shift from CRTs to LCDs was surprisingly swift in the end, and now new backlighting and wide gamut technologies are coming to the market very quickly.

The i1Display Pro has a sealed filter design and is more programmable than previous devices and, most importantly, use dichroic filters. This means it has significantly greater longevity. The firmware can be tweaked to cope with changes in monitors and the filters last MUCH longer.  The i1Display Pro is an amazingly fast, accurate and quick calibrator with current monitors and we certainly recommend it highly.

If you still think replacing your calibrator on a three yearly basis is too much, from a cost or environmental perspective, then you can also consider using a spectrophotometer instead.

Spectrophotometers

X-Rite i1 Studio
A completely integrated color control solution to calibrate your displays, projectors, scanners and printers!
$759
More info

Spectrophotometers, although more expensive initially, do tend to have very long life spans. - particularly those with an LED light source (pretty much all of the current models) - as LEDs tend to be very stable. This means that devices like the i1 Studio last much much longer than their gel filter colorimeter type cousins. They are also much better at coping with changes in back-lighting and gamut technologies, as they measure the complete visible spectrum.

We have found our own spectros are often still reliable are 10 years or more. This means the cost of ownership of something like an i1Studio will be $50/year or less over time, and you get printer profiling and spot colour measurement as extras as well.

The caveat is that spectros are definitely not as good at calibrating monitors as the best colorimeters like the i1Display Pro. They are not awful, but they are a bit weaker at measuring shadows - and given this is an area monitors tend to struggle in, and is of key importance in fine art print work - it's definitely a compromise.

So overall for the best monitor calibration we do still recommend a well-kept and relatively new colorimeter like the i1Display Pro.  (And use our custom profile service for your printer!).

Read our Buying Guide to Monitor Calibrators