It isn’t until you’ve tested several printers that you realise just how much the quality of output can vary from model to model. But a more striking discrepancy is the one commonly noted between the colours onscreen and those that are printed.

Why is this such a frequent issue? Because most users don’t take the time to calibrate their monitor or printer. The majority of us simply plug in the display and expect to see true, natural colours.

The default settings do work – to an extent. Windows XP’s hill is green and the sky is blue; most of us haven’t visited the region of Hawaii where the photo was taken, so we don’t know any better.

Similarly, the screen resolution seems satisfactory at the default settings but, particularly with LCD panels, you’ll get a sharper and more satisfying image if you use it at its native resolution – where one dot in an image illuminates one dot onscreen.

If you’re still using a CRT screen, the refresh rate – the number of times the image is refreshed each second – is crucial. It can make the difference between a rock-steady picture you can work with all day and one that flickers and gives you a headache after a few minutes.

These and other picture-quality adjustments are easy to make, although their options are often hidden away. Using Windows’ built-in settings, or those provided with most standalone graphics cards, you can configure your monitor to give optimal performance.

It’s possible to match both monitor and printer to the same colour profile – so what you see onscreen is exactly what you’ll get on paper. The process takes just 10 minutes to set up, and could save you a lot of anguish further down the line. We’ll show you how.

Optimise your monitor's display

1. To set your main display parameters, right-click anywhere on the desktop, then click Properties, Settings. Set the ‘Screen resolution’ slider to the highest setting supported by your display. Check the resolutions that are supported in your monitor’s manual or at the maker’s website.

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2. The ‘Color quality’ setting – a measure of the colours your monitor can display – can be ratcheted up to 32bit on all but the oldest of PCs. If you own an older system, give the 16bit setting a try – it could speed things up. Click Advanced to display the multitabbed monitor and graphics card properties dialog box.

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3. If you’re noticing a constant flicker on your CRT screen, check the refresh rate. Tick ‘Hide modes that this monitor cannot display’, then select the highest number in the ‘Screen refresh rate’ drop-down list. For an LCD monitor, there’s no advantage to setting the refresh rate above 60Hz.

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4. Now click the Color Management tab. Colour management is useful in calibrating your monitor and printer to achieve consistent colour – what you see is what you print. No profile is assigned by default. Click Add to select one. Good profiles to start with are the widely used sRGB or Adobe RGB.

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5. The software supplied with your graphics card offers further control over your display. We’re using ATI’s Catalyst Control Center, but the equivalent nVidia utility offers similar functions. Open Catalyst and select Displays Manager. Here you can set resolution, colour depth and refresh rate from the same screen.

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6. Click Color and the colour curve is displayed. Experiment with the sliders: Gamma (which bends the line up or down in the mid-ranges), Brightness (to move the line up or down its axes) and Contrast (to change the slope of the line and adjust contrast). The entire screen will change to demonstrate the effects.

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7. The colour controls adjust the colours for desktop and application display, but there are separate controls for the video overlay layer. Select Video, Overlay/Videovision to access sliders for gamma, brightness, contrast, saturation and hue. Adjust these to suit your needs.

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8. If you’re using your monitor for viewing TV, you might like to add 720p and 1,080i to the list of available screen modes in the Displays Manager. Select Monitor Properties, HDTV Support and tick the appropriate box(es). But check that your monitor can support these modes before trying this, or you could damage it.

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Set up an ICC profile

1. An ICC profile (named after the International Color Consortium) defines the colours your monitor can display. You need to install a profile created for your specific monitor. There may be one on the driver disc it came with, or a web search may turn one up.

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2. If a profile isn’t available, devise one yourself. First, set the gamma level. This is the relationship between a video input signal and a display’s luminance. Most software (including Windows) uses a gamma of 2.2. You can set gamma with a program such as QuickGamma.

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3. Set your monitor’s contrast to maximum and adjust the brightness until you can only just distinguish the black bar ‘A’ at the 2.2 level. Set the gamma levels for the three colours to 2.20. Click ‘Set Current Gamma as QuickGammaLoader Default Gamma’ and tick ‘Run QuickGammaLoader at Windows Startup’.

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4. Now create your ICC profile using QuickMonitorProfile, a companion program to QuickGamma. This tool reads important monitor parameters directly from its firmware, then creates an ICC profile from them. Select your monitor type from the drop-down list.

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5. The ‘Chromaticity coordinates’ field shows the values from the monitor and the table in the current profile. The best choice here is ‘Selected monitor’; otherwise, choose Adobe RGB. The media white point should be picked up automatically. If it doesn’t read D65 (6500K), you might want to change it to this.

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6. Check the target gamma reads 2.2, then give the profile a name. Tick the boxes for ‘Install profile’ and ‘Make default profile’, then click Create. You will now be able to see your saved profile in Display properties, Settings, Advanced, Color Management.

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