Why and how to calibrate a monitor in Windows

If you feel that the blacks and the other colors on your monitor don’t look the way they should, you may be right. Just like any image device, monitors too have to be calibrated in order to produce the best image they can. Fortunately, all modern versions of Windows include a “Display Color Calibration” wizard that can help you calibrate your monitor for the best possible color display. In this article, we'll discuss how to use that wizard to set everything to your liking.

NOTE: The process is exactly the same in Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and in Windows 7. The illustrations we used are from Windows 10.

Important technical notions: gamma & color balance

In order to understand what the “Display Color Calibration” wizard does, there are a few important concepts you need to know:

  • Gamma can be a bit difficult to understand. Our eyes don't see things the same way that electronic devices do, so the devices need to translate what they see into something that looks natural to the human eye. This is called "gamma encoding." Monitors do gamma correction so that what we see on the screen resembles what we would see in the non-electronic world. The pixels on a monitor are either red, green, or blue (often referred to as RGB), and the mixture of these colors is what gives us the colors that we see. Monitors are more sensitive to certain RGB values, and if they were portrayed as the monitor sees them, the images on the screen would be somewhat distorted, especially at color boundaries. Gamma takes the RGB values and scales them so that the monitor represents all colors appropriately. If you'd like a more thorough explanation, see this article: Understanding Gamma Correction.
  • Color Balance is an adjustment to the way the various intensities of colors are displayed on your monitor. Many of us have seen images where the color balance is not correct, resulting in a screen that appears to have too much or too little of a particular color. It's especially important to have proper color balance when you view neutral colors, because you don't want your white or grey screen to look pink, for example. And if you are using special filters for your images (to give them the look of old sepia photographs, for example) you want to be sure that what you see on the screen is actually what you will get with your image. Here is a Wikipedia article on Color balance that may make the concept more clear.

Having these two parameters configured correctly will lead to more realistic color rendering on your monitor. And now, on to the “Display Color Calibration” wizard.

How to start the “Display Color Calibration” wizard

In Windows 7,Windows 8.1, and Windows 10, if you are using more than one monitor, be sure that your focus is on the monitor that you wish to calibrate. This might seem obvious, but it's best to be sure.

In Windows 7, the easiest way to bring up the wizard is to type calibrate into the Start Menu search box.

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You can also go to “Control Panel ->Appearance and Personalization -> Display” and click on “Calibrate Color”.

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In Windows 8.1 type directly into Start screen, the word “calibrate”. Click or tap the ”Calibrate display color” search result.

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Just like in Windows 7, you can also go the long way through the Control Panel. If you choose this path, go to “Control Panel ->Appearance and Personalization -> Display” and click on “Calibrate Color”.

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In Windows 10, enter the word calibrate into the search box on your taskbar. Then click or tap on “Calibrate display color”.

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If you prefer, in Windows 10, you can also use the Settings app to get to the “Display Color Calibration” wizard. Start by launching the Settings, with a click or a tap on its shortcut from the Start Menu.

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Open the System settings category. Make sure that Display is selected on the left, and then click or tap on “Advanced display settings” on the right side of the window.

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Now scroll down and click or tap on the “Color calibration” link from the “Colors settings” section.

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A third alternative way to open the “Display Color Calibration” is to use the old fashioned Control Panel. Open it, go to “Appearance and Personalization -> Display” and click on “Calibrate Color”.

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NOTE: You may have to tell User Account Control in Windows that yes, you do want to use this program.

How to calibrate your monitor using the “Display Color Calibration” wizard

Regardless of the method you choose to follow to get to the Calibrate Display Color” wizard, in the screenshot below you can see what it looks like. The only difference between its Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 versions is the different border color and style. Other than that, the wizard is the same in all Windows operating systems.

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Here’s a closer look at the information on the screenshot above.

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Click Next to continue. You'll then see a screen that asks you to press the Menu button on your monitor, and points out that if you don't know what button that is, it's time to go read the owner's manual. Note that a laptop, a 2-in-1 computer or a tablet may or may not have an equivalent to a Menu button for its screen. Consult your manual to be sure.

There are also recommendations for using the monitor's own menu to set its properties for best results with the “Calibrate Display Color” wizard. Once you've followed those instructions, click or tap Next.

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You'll see a helpful explanation of adjusting gamma. Make sure you read this screen and understand what it is you'll be looking for, because it's important for you to remember the pattern that indicates good gamma. Press Next to continue.

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On the left you'll see a vertical slider that will allow you to adjust the gamma till the graphics on the screen most closely resemble the example on the previous screen. Take some time to play with this, because having the gamma set properly is vitally important to the settings that come next. Click or tap Next when you're finished.

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On the next screen, you're given the option to “Skip brightness and contrast adjustment”, but we don't recommend it. As you'll see when you continue, having the brightness and contrast set properly can make a big difference in the way your graphics look. So click or tap Next to go on.

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The next screen gives you the instructions for the procedure that will be used to adjust the brightness. Be sure you read and understand them before clicking/tapping Next to move on.

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The adjustment for brightness and contrast use the controls on your monitor. What happens depends on your individual hardware, so be sure you've read the directions for your monitor and proceed accordingly. Since everyone's display is different, our screenshots just show the instructions and not the results. Also take note that if you're using a laptop or a similar portable device, you may or may not be able to adjust these attributes.

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The next step is to adjust the color balance, and this is a software adjustment the wizard can walk you through. Be sure to read the instructions before you press Next.

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You will be using sliders under the red, green, and blue elements to try to achieve a neutral shade of grey. Take your time with this and move all the sliders around until you get the result you want.

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Once you complete the color balance, you're done with the wizard. If you'd like to see the changes you've made, you can toggle back and forth between your previous settings and your new ones.

NOTE: There is an option for starting the “ClearType Tuner” on this screen, but that has nothing to do with color calibration and is beyond the scope of this tutorial. We’ll talk about it in detail, in another guide, soon.

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Conclusion

Displays change over time as they age, and often this happens so gradually that we don't notice it. The Calibrate Display Color wizard lets you see what has happened, and adjust your display to turn back the inevitable changes. Although it's not perfect and it does have its limitations, it's well worth going through the steps to see what kinds of improvements can be made. Have you used this wizard to adjust your monitor? Did it work as well as you hoped? Did you have any problems with it? Do you know of another free utility that does the job? Please let us know in the comments below.

About the Author: Codrut Neagu
Codrut is a Senior Editor on Digital Citizen. He's passionate about technology and he is fluent in working with several operating systems, including Windows and Linux. He likes to test security products and he feels like at home when digging through the registry, optimizing things or having fun on Telnet.