If you’re anything like me, you love working on a big, beefy desktop PC with as many monitors as will fit on your big, beefy desk. And if you’re anything like me, it also drives you crazy when the colors and image settings on those monitors don’t match exactly.
I won’t lie: getting your monitors to match each other is a tough chore, especially if they’re from multiple manufacturers or product lines. It’s doubly difficult if you’re trying for color accuracy, a crucial component if you’re working in media production. But there are a few tips you can use to get your multiple screens as close as possible.
Why Don’t My Screens Match?
There are a variety of reasons why the images on your different monitors don’t match each other. The simplest is that each monitor is different; production variables and assembly flaws can mean that even monitors with exactly the same model won’t have colors that match up perfectly.
Even if you buy identical monitors, it’s possible that they still won’t be close enough for your discerning eyes. The age and use of a monitor will affect its LCD screen, and manufacturers sometimes use multiple part suppliers for the same products—two “identical” monitors might have LCD panels that didn’t even come from the same country. And all of that assumes that there aren’t any flaws with the specific monitor units you’re using, which is certainly possible, since monitors are big, bulky items that are easily damaged when being packed or moved.
These problems are multiplied if your monitors aren’t the same model from the same manufacturer. Different types and qualities of LCD (TN, IPS, VA), backlight types and quality, brightness, connection type, contrast ratio, viewing angle and of course, size and resolution can all affect the colors that you see on screen. To put it bluntly, if you’re mixing and matching monitors, it’s almost impossible to get them to match perfectly. It’s a bummer, especially if you’re upgrading a setup over a few years and looking for deals along the way.
The Easy Way: Monitor Display Controls
This has probably already occurred to you, but you can manually adjust picture settings by using the control buttons on the front or side of your monitor. Yes, this is obvious. But don’t discount it: combined with the methods below, it’ll let you get much closer to parity between your monitors than any one method by itself.
(Note: With some monitors, you may also be able to adjust your screen’s brightness with an app like ScreenBright or Display Tuner, which will be much easier than using the on-panel buttons—though these apps won’t work with all monitors.)
The most crucial bit to adjust manually is the monitor brightness. Not only does this affect color brightness and tone, it’s pretty much the only thing that can’t be adjusted via software. So use the brightness adjustment tool in the hardware settings to get all of your monitors at roughly the same level of light output—you may need to adjust some non-obvious settings like “economy mode” or “game mode” to get the closest match possible.
If you want to go for crazy precision, set one monitor to a blank white screen (Google for a white image then set your browser to full screen for an easy way to do this), then turn off the others. You can use a photography light meter app on your phone to measure the light output. Hold your phone about six inches from one monitor, check the light level, then repeat the process with your other monitors. Match them as close as you can.
Once you have brightness matched up, adjust the rest of the color and picture values on all monitors simultaneously. A color pattern image, like the one below, can help. Move the window with the image onto each monitor as necessary, or just open it in multiple tabs and spread them out.
Check the following settings, and any other options that can affect the picture contrast, brightness, and color:
- Red/Green/Blue color values
- Color “Tone” or “Warmth”
- Gamma Setting
- “Display Modes” like gaming, video, etc.
This will take a while. If your monitors offer it as an option, it’s best to set the on-screen menu timeout to its maximum setting, so that the menu for one monitor won’t shut off while you’re working on another one.
The Hard Way: Your Operating System and Graphics Card Settings
Windows and macOS both offer OS-level color calibration tools that can be adjusted per monitor.
In Windows, this tool is Color Management, under the Control Panel. You’ll need to make a custom profile for each monitor: select the display from drop-down menu under Device, then click “Use my settings for this device.” Now click “Add.” You can choose from dozens of pre-set profiles. (You might even be able to find one for your monitor as a starting point.)
Now select the next monitor under “Device” and repeat the process, selecting the same profile.
Click the “Advanced” tab, then the “Calibrate Display” button. This will open a wizard that will let you adjust more advanced controls for the selected profile, like the gamma, brightness, and contrast…though it’s mostly a series of reference images. You can use this process to re-do the section above with hardware controls, checking the various color profiles available for matching and accuracy.
Once all of your monitors are using the same profile, you can go back to the first section and fine tune your settings with the hardware controls.
In macOS, click the System Preferences icon on the dock (the grey gear on the right), Then click “Displays.” Clock the “Color” setting on the right.
You can click all of the available profiles and see how they apply to the screen immediately (or grab one for your model monitor). When you’ve found the one you want, click “Calibrate.” Thankfully, macOS has a neat step-by-step calibration wizard that will walk you through all of the applicable settings and let you adjust them one by one.
Just click “Continue” and follow the process through to the “Target White Point.” Un-click the “Use native white point” option to adjust this manually, matching up with your other displays. Click “Continue” until you’re all the way through the wizard. Repeat this process for all your connected displays.
Graphics Adapter Settings
For more exact options on Windows, you’ll want to dive into the settings application provided by your GPU maker. For most laptops and inexpensive desktops, this will be Intel (because the graphics adapter is integrated into the CPU), though AMD machines will have something similar. All of them can be accessed from the context menu on the desktop—this right-click menu.
For Intel integrated graphics, right-click an empty area of the desktop to open the context menu, then click “Graphics properties.” The next steps will vary depending upon your model and its Intel GPU, but you’re looking for the main display menu.
From here, click “Color Settings.” This screen allows you to adjust settings like brightness, contrast, gamma, and the individual RGB levels. It’ll select your main display by default—choose other screens my clicking the “Select Display” menu. Repeat the process on multiple screens, and combine with hardware controls to get the closest match you can.
If your PC has an NVIDIA GPU, right-click the desktop, then click “NVIDIA Control Panel.” (If you don’t see this option, you may need to install the correct driver for your graphics card.) In the menu on the left, click “Adjust desktop color settings.”
This screen will allow you to select your monitor at the top, then make adjustments to the picture at the bottom. Make sure the option for “Use NVIDIA settings” is enabled, then make adjustments as you like. Note that you can use the “Color channel” drop-down menu for even finer controls based on Red, Green, or Blue channels.
Keep an eye on the reference image on the right. You can switch between reference images, and move the window between monitors to check your changes. Click “Apply” to save your settings for the current monitor, then select a new one and repeat the process.
If your PC has an AMD GPU or APU, right-click the desktop, then click AMD Radeon Settings. If you don’t see this option, download the latest graphics card driver and install it. In the Radeon Settings menu, click the “Display” tab, then the “Color” icon on the right.
From here you can adjust the Color Temperature, brightness, hue, contrast, and saturation values. The controls aren’t quite as fine as NVIDIA’s, but you can still use the reference images on the right to check the colors against other displays and move the window back and forth.
Click the Display button at the top of the window and repeat the process for each monitor.
The Hardest (and Most Expensive) Way: Dedicated Hardware Calibration
If you need seriously accurate colors, like if you work with photography, printing, or video media and your job depends on colors matching perfectly, you might want to consider a dedicated color calibration device. These dedicated machines allow users to adjust their monitors to specific color conditions, typically with the aim of getting them to match print outputs exactly.
They’re designed to match a monitor to a printer or other professional-grade equipment, but the digital tools work equally well for matching color profiles between different monitors. But make no mistake: these are professional-level tools, and each one requires a certain amount of experience to use. They also come from different manufacturers, with different setup styles and approaches to the calibration process, so we can’t really guide you on how any specific model works.
They’re also expensive. The cheapest of these USB calibration gadgets is around $100, with more elaborate, feature-packed options quickly climbing much higher. But if you simply must have the most accurate and consistent display possible on multiple monitors, this is the ultimate solution.
This article from graphic design site Creative Bloq breaks down the most common models, their features, and current prices. Check it out if you’re interested in a considerable investment in color accuracy.