Review: ColorMunki 1.1

Flip Phillips
30 July, 2009
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The quest for consistent colour rendition across all input and output devices (from your monitor to your printer, for example) has been going on since the introduction of colour to the desktop. In the late 1990s, the introduction of ColorSync, the Mac’s color-management framework, and the availability of professional-level calibration hardware and software such as the Colortron, got more people thinking about the multiple issues surrounding consistent colour across the design workflow.

Colour management has always had a bit of a voodoo associated with it. Unfortunately, managing color is not as simple as specifying a colour for a given pixel and having your intent carried out across all input and output devices. Indeed, the physical functioning of the two primary components—the monitor and the printer—are markedly different.

Monitor colour is created using an additive process in which three colour primaries (red, green, and blue) are mixed together to yield a specific colour that is emitted (like a flashlight) from the screen. Printer colour, on the other hand, is subtractive in that the pigments in the inks and dyes remove wavelengths of light before it is reflected to the eye. This process uses an entirely different set of primaries than your monitor, that is, the colours of the inks present. Even if your printer has green ink, it is not likely to ever create the same shade of green that is emitted from your monitor for a variety of reasons, including the whiteness or colour of the paper it is printed on and the nature of the light source illuminating the printed page. Combine this with the idiosyncrasies of human colour perception and you’ve got quite job trying to keep things consistent.

Then, when you think about all the possible input elements—graphics software, digital cameras, and various scanners and all the possible output possibilities—printers of countless varieties, presses, film, and digital video (not to mention the displays—projectors, LCD, LED, and CRT), there is a nearly endless number of combinations and unending complexities involved in getting colour ‘right.’

To help get this mayhem under control, you need both hardware and software. These help determine what colours your various input and output devices are capable of creating, a process called calibration or profiling. Then, once you know where you stand in colour-space, you need tools for gauging matching accuracy, palette creation, and exploration. And that’s where X-Rite’s ColorMunki 1.1 suite of tools enters the picture.

ColorMunki suite. Tools for measuring and managing colour have existed for a long time, primarily for use in the printing industry. X-Rite has introduced the ColorMunki suite targeted at the entry-level professional market—the photographer who needs consistent prints for her customers, the designer who wants to explore colour options while ensuring the proper translation from computer to product, and even the enthusiast who just wants better colour reproduction.

The ColorMunki line is split into three products—Create, Design, and Photo, each aimed at a particular need. They consist of a color measurement device and associated software. The software is similar across the three products, while the hardware varies between the Create product (a colorimeter) and the Design and Photo products (a spectrophotometer). I had a look at each package, using a recent vintage MacBook Pro and Mac Pro with dual 24-inch Apple Cinema displays driven by an ATI Radeon X1900 card. Xerox Phaser 6180 and Canon i900D colour printers provided output.

Create. ColorMunki Create is the suite’s entry-level product. It comes with a USB bus-powered colorimeter that is used to calibrate your monitor along with the ColorMunki Create software.

Create allows you to compose sets of colours (palettes) that you can then export to other desktop software, like Illustrator and Photoshop, to help maintain consistency across applications. You can create these palettes in an assortment of ways: you can enter your own colour values; select from various Pantone colour libraries; create harmonious sets automatically; or auto-extract a colour set from an image. The last option is particularly fun and useful, giving the designer a set of colours based on those most predominant in a source image. Matching other colors in a design to an image or using one of the image’s colours to find other harmonious colours gives designers a nice set of tools for exploring the colour potential in their work.

In Create, monitor profiling is straightforward. The software instructs you to place the device on the screen, push one button, and you’re off to the races. The process is automatic and requires no user intervention. After about two minutes, you’ve got a profile that is specifically tailored to your monitor. Since monitors change or drift over time (CRTs are notoriously worse than LCDs and LEDs) the software can remind you to re-calibrate at a given interval. Once a month is probably OK for most users.

Design. ColorMunki Design is the step up from Create, and aimed, as its name implies, at designers. It includes software with the same functionality as Create, as well as plug-ins for various desktop publishing applications, called AppSet, to keep palettes and colour settings in sync across them. On the hardware side, it includes a USB bus-powered spectrophotometer instead of a monitor calibrator. A spectrophotometer can read colours from emissive sources, like your monitor, as well as from reflective material, allowing you to ‘digitise’ colours from objects, fabric, or printed material. So, along with profiling your monitor’s colour reproduction, you can also profile your printers.

Like monitor profiling, the printer profiling process is very simple. You print out a sheet of coloured stripes and scan them with the ColorMunki device. The software then processes them and prints a second ‘tune-up’ sheet that is measured using the spectrophotometer to refine the profile’s calibration, and you’re done—at least for that printer and paper combination. You’ll want to re-calibrate if you switch printers or papers. We calibrated the Xerox printer to standard copy paper and the Canon to glossy and matte photo paper. Purists will want to calibrate whenever an ink tank is changed, but that’s not absolutely necessary for the casual user.

This profiling process creates a set of ICC (International Color Consortium) profiles that are used by both Mac OS X, via ColorSync, and by graphics and design applications, like those in Adobe Creative Suite, to communicate the colour reproducing abilities of the hardware in your system. Now, you have a calibrated system, ostensibly providing consistency between what you see on the monitor and what the printer outputs.

All three products in the ColorMunki suite provide similar color picking and palette making tools. The differences between the products are largely in the hardware—Design and Photo include a spectrophotometer while Create comes with a colorimeter, and the included colour libraries. All products come with the Munsell Glossy library as well as a Color Group library that classifies colours by names such as Very Light Blue. Design and Create include Pantone Goe, PMS and Fabric and Home sets.

The AppSet plug-ins keep application color settings in sync across applications like InDesign, Quark, and Photoshop, though there are some issues with Photoshop CS4 that require a small amount manual intervention. The colour palettes you create are automatically synchronised between the above applications as well as through a ColorMunki colour picker plug-in, making them available to any application that uses the standard Apple colour picker.

Lastly, there are advanced calibration settings for those who want to take ambient room lighting into account, or specify an alternate target illumination and monitor luminance.

Photo. Finally, ColorMunki Photo caps the suite of tools. It contains the same hardware as Design, allowing for printer and monitor profiling as well as grabbing colors from the real world. It also allows for projector profiling, which some folks may find handy.

The software is essentially the same as Design, but without the Pantone libraries, which most photographers won’t care about anyway. The colour picking and manipulation software is separate from the calibration software, unlike Design and Create, but has the same essential palette creation and exploration features. There is also a DigitalPouch application that allows for ‘packaging’ images and their calibration information for sharing with others. The useful thing here is that the person on the receiving end of the transaction doesn’t need ColorMunki software to get the benefit. The package contains an application that allows for calibrated viewing on their end as well. As anyone who has had to try to verbally describe colour issues to their printer knows, this colour communication feature is a welcome addition to the photographer’s toolkit.

Macworld’s buying advice. Since printing and monitor display are fundamentally different beasts, it is very difficult if not impossible to always match colors between devices. There are colours your monitor can display that your printer can’t print and vice versa. Even worse, your eye-brain-environment team has its own agenda when it comes time to deciding whether or not colors match. That said, the calibration and profiling provided by the various products in the ColorMunki 1.1 suite resulted in consistent and realistic monitor colors across machines, while the Photo and Design products delivered print colors that matched well across a variety of image types (photos, graphs, and illustrations) with photos getting the best results.

The ColorMunki product line brings very good colour management down to the entry-level professional, advanced amateur, or enthusiast at a reasonable price. Both the hardware and software are easy to use and the digitising features of the Design and Photo software make it an indispensable tool for those who need to match colours to paints, fabrics, and other physical objects.

Product ColorMunki 1.1
Rating 4.5
Pros Easy to use; nice integration with design applications; device price and performance is very good.
Cons Button on the measuring device is too easy to accidentally trigger; AppSet needs tweaking with Photoshop CS4.
Company X-Rite
Price as rated $US149 ($A190), Create; $US499 ($A625) Design; $US499 ($A625) Photo. Design and Create have a one-seat license with unlimited educational licensing available. Photo comes with an unlimited seat license.
OS compatibility 10.4 (Tiger), 10.5 (Leopard)
Processor compatibility Universal

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