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3 color sensor gadgets to take the pain out of paint matching

These color-capturing gadgets scan your walls to put the perfect paint color in the palm of your hand.

Chris Monroe

My husband and I recently bought a house built just after World War II with rooms stuck in nearly every decade since. I couldn't wait to get my hands on it and make it our own. However, picking the right paint color or trying to match existing ones gave me major choice anxiety. Turns out, there's a tiny piece of tech here to save the day. 

Color sensors that measure and match colors among real-world objects aren't new, but the three I tried are among the friendliest and least-expensive options. Nix Mini, Color Muse and Palette Pico scan a spot on your wall, connect via Bluetooth to a companion phone app and show matching paint colors from multiple paint brands. 

Eager to find out if these could solve my paint problems, I put these color-reading gadgets to the test. If you're looking for a way to match paint on old walls or paint new walls to match the color of an object (you can scan nearly anything with a smooth surface), these handheld devices are a big help. The $100 Nix Mini won me over, and it's the sensor I'd recommend if you're interested in paint matching. Here's what I learned along the way.

The problem with paint

Paint doesn't stay the same color forever. Especially in rooms with a lot of natural light, paint pigments fade over time. That perfect shade of blue you painted the living room five years ago is likely a few shades lighter today than when it was fresh. Let's say you remember exactly what brand, color and sheen you purchased back in 2013. Good for you! Bad news is, if you touch up your wall with a fresh can of paint, it won't look the same. That's where a color matcher supposedly shines. Chances are it won't be the original color, and that's OK. The aim is to match the color to what shade the wall is now.

How these sensors work

I tested three color sensors: the Nix Mini, Color Muse and Palette Pico. Each is a little different in hardware and app design, but they work in a similar way. You press the sensor against the wall to block out light, then the sensor uses its own light source to read the color wavelengths of the reflected light. It then translates those into digital values we're more familiar with. Because branded apps such as Sherwin-Williams and the apps for these sensors use RGB (red, green, blue) primaries to define the colors for matching, that's what I went with in this comparison.

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The ABCs and RGBs of color value

RGB is a way of generating colors as defined by mixes of the three primaries; 0,0,0 denotes black, and in an 8-bit system 255,255,255 denotes white. For instance, pure yellow is composed of equal values of red and green, and adding increasing amounts of blue makes it increasingly lighter. RGB is an additive system, however -- like you learned as a toddler, red plus blue makes purple. Paint (like all real-world colors) is reflective, not additive, so its colors don't exactly map to RGB. The software assigns the closest color it can find. Since color sensors have varying levels of accuracy and the color reading translates the color of the paint on the wall to the not-directly-correlated RGB color scale, that's two ways errors creep in.

The difference between a color as represented by its values in a color space and that color as displayed in the real world is referred to by color scientists as Delta E. A smaller number is better; 2 Delta E is commonly thought of as the highest the difference can be before a sharp-eyed person will notice, or the "just noticeable difference." Here's a table of the most common ranges:

Delta E value

Meaning

0-1

A normally invisible difference

1-2

Very small difference, only obvious to a trained eye

2-3.5

Medium difference, also obvious to an untrained eye

3.5-5

An obvious difference

>6

A very obvious difference

Matchmaker, matchmaker

screenshot-20180529-150432-1

Companion apps like this one for Color Muse, display matching paint colors in a ranked order. 

Screenshot by Molly Price/CNET

What does all that have to do with the paint on your wall? The sensors and companion apps use Delta E to rank color matches.

Nix uses the categories "Excellent Match," "Great Match" or "Good Match." Color Muse uses a three-star rating to indicate matches less than 1 Delta E, a two-star rating for 1-4 Delta E and one-star for anything outside that. Pico uses similar categories with "Great Match" and "Good Match." Colors in the excellent, great and three-star match categories are so close (or even the same just a different brand) that you'd probably never notice a difference.

If there aren't any perfect match results, you can take the RGB values of the surface to paint stores like Sherwin-Williams, where they'll mix the color from a Sherwin-Williams base or tint a similar color to get it just right. Before we get into results, here's a quick rundown of each of the units I tested. 

Palette Pico

Australian company Palette released Pico this year. Costing $49 (AU$65, roughly £35 converted), this paint-matching device sequentially bursts red, green and blue light onto the surface you scan. It then shares those results via Bluetooth in your phone's Pico app. Pico reports the RGB values and matching branded paint colors.

paint-samplers-4

Pico shines controlled amounts of red, green and blue light onto the scanning surface to determine the color value of your wall. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Color Muse

Color Muse costs $59 (about £45 or AU$85 converted). It's a Bluetooth-connected sensor that shines white light on the surface of your wall. Color Muse needs just 4 millimeters of surface to measure, and it transmits the results to the Color Muse app, where you can see color values and paint match suggestions.

paint-samplers-3

  

Chris Monroe/CNET

Nix Mini

Nix colors sensors are the priciest on the list. At $100 (roughly AU$130 or £75 converted), the Nix Mini is a Bluetooth sensor with two apps. The Nix Paints app is specifically for paint matching; the Nix Digital app reports colors in RGB values as well as CMYK (for print) and Hexadecimal (for web). The latter two are useful if you want to print or post matching colors. There's also the $350 Nix Pro, which has better battery life and color that scans down to the decimal point, aimed clearly at professionals who use color matching in their careers. I stuck with the entry-level model. 

paint-samplers-1

Chris Monroe/CNET

How I tested

To test these sensors, I painted three sheets of drywall with six different paints each. I chose paint from three different color families across six paint brands. I needed a few different color families to scan. Enter the pesky white trim in our 1940s colonial. The first board of drywall I painted was six shades of white, one of the toughest color families to match according to the sensor manufacturers and a large heaping of my personal experience.

paint-samplers-6

 

Chris Monroe/CNET

For the second board, I wanted a bold and visual primary color. Red came to mind because it's such a classic color that's tricky to get just right on a wall. Too deep and it appears almost purple, too light and it takes a turn toward orange, yet most people have an idea of what true red looks like.

I chose gray for my final set of colors. Grays are incredibly popular in interior design right now, and can appear cool or warm and everywhere in between. There are definitely more than 50 shades out there, and the "greige" trend just complicates matters more.

You might be wondering about the impact of sheen on the above results. The sheen of a paint can affect the way your eyes see color, but color sensors are designed to see through it to the pigment beneath. To test how high-gloss, matte or other variations in paint sheen affect results, I also measured different sheens across the colors I choose, as well as a sheen swatch. However, they reported the same color readings down the line from flat to high-gloss.

To prepare my test walls, I primed the 2-foot square pieces of brand-new drywall with Valspar's untinted drywall primer. It was the recommendation of the paint counter associate at Lowe's, and because it's formulated for brand-new drywall and untinted, it was unlikely to affect the paint colors on top of it. Next, I applied two coats of paint to each sample square, allowing each coat to dry for 24 hours before applying the next one. With my boards painted and dry, it was time to measure.

Disclaimers abound

They're everywhere. No matter which device you use, you'll be met with a range of disclaimers about light, mixing, texture and lots of other things that can affect how paint appears to your eye. The disclaimers are present on paint swatches from the store, on phone apps and on the sensor packaging. Here's what Color Muse has to say about using its device for paint matching:

Due to the variables in the measurement results, paint color swatch reproduction, paint mixing and the fact that paint on walls fades over time, it is challenging to get an absolute perfect "touch up" match. The match will be close but may not be invisible. We recommend testing this on a hidden section of your wall. Painting the entire wall will gain you optimal results.

It might sound hopeless, but it makes sense. Yes, of course painting your entire wall will give you the optimal result. That doesn't mean these sensors don't work. The colors they'll recommend to you are actually really close to the original paint, at least for the most part. 

App oddities

screenshot-20180523-095851

The Nix Paints app identifies colors well, but only allows matching one brand at a time.

Screenshot by Molly Price/CNET

Each of the apps includes a library of paint brands and even collections within those brands. Still, their operation isn't always straightforward. Within the Nix Paints app, you can only select one brand at a time. It won't display matches across multiple brands at once. Disappointing as that was, I decided to filter the Nix results to match the paint brand I used.   

The Pico app currently only includes two of the brands I tested, with more promised in future updates. Color Muse included all six brands and was also the simplest app to use. Because the Color Muse app includes such a wide library of US paint brands, I'd recommend filtering results down to just the ones you know you can get at stores near you. A few of my results included brands like Kelly Moore, which is unavailable east of Kansas City.

Scanning for paint color

Color sensors generally require calibration to produce an accurate result. Nix comes precalibrated and doesn't require any work on your end. Pico and Color Muse both come with a calibration cap with a pure white spot on it. Simply put the cap over the sensor, and allow the device to scan it. 

It's important to calibrate each time you pair these devices with the app. I measured each color in the four corners of its square and in the middle for a total of five scans per color, per sensor. Each of the sensors provided viable matches for all of the test colors. The apps displayed multiple matches to my colors, even when it didn't pick my exact color out of its library.

Device     Valspar Ultra White Benjamin Moore Simply White Sherwin-Williams Fundamental White Glidden Wedding White Olympic Commercial White Behr Roadster White

Color Muse

 0% 

 0%

 0%

 0%

40%

 0%

Nix Mini

100%

20%

0%

0%

0%

100%

Palette Pico

N/A

N/A

N/A

0%

N/A

100%

Whites

As I expected, the board of whites was exceptionally tricky. The Nix Mini correctly identified Behr's Roadster White every time, as well as Valspar's Ultra White. Color Muse correctly included only Olympic's Commercial White as a three-star match to itself. Pico also correctly suggested Behr's Roadster White on every pass, but it wasn't able to suggest Glidden's Wedding White.

DeviceGlidden Red DeliciousOlympic Red GumballBehr Flirt AlertBenjamin Moore Strawberry RedSherwin-Williams RebelliousValspar Brick Facade

Color Muse

0%

0%

100%

100%

100%

100%

Nix Mini

0%

100%

100%

100%

0%

100%

Palette Pico

0%

N/A

60%

N/A

N/A

N/A

Reds

Reds proved the easiest of the three boards. With these bright, bold pigments, they performed well identifying the correct paint colors. Nix fared the best, identifying four of the six shades correctly. Color Muse, which does pull matches across brands, included the correct color in its three-star matches for four of the six shades of red. Palette's Pico correctly identified Behr's Flirt Alert three out of five times, but didn't guess Glidden's shade correctly.

DeviceGlidden Seal GreyBenjamin Moore Galveston GrayOlympic Steeple GrayBehr Still GrayValspar Soulful GreySherwin-Williams Agreeable Gray

Color Muse

0%

0%

100%

20%

0%

0%

Nix Mini

0%

0%

0%

0%

40%

0%

Palette Pico

40%

0%

0%

100%

0%

0%

Grays

Grays were tough as well. The Palette Pico nailed Behr's Still Gray every time and Glidden's Seal Gray twice. Even Nix, with the correct brand already provided, only identified Valspar's Soulful Grey twice as the best match. For Color Muse, Olympic's Steeple Gray was the only color it identified correctly.

Scanning for RGB value

Before measuring my paint samples, I tracked down the official RGB values for each paint I used to see how accurate the sensors are. I sampled each color five times per sensor, and the table below shows the closest each came to the correct RGB value.

Whites

Paint Color Actual RGB Value Color  Muse Nix Mini Palette Pico

Valspar Ultra White

253,252,243

253,254,252

253,252,250

254,253,251

Benjamin Moore Simply White

247,247,238

250,251,246

246,244,237

247,244,237

Sherwin-Williams Fundamental White

247,247,241

240,243,240

239,237,234

243,241,235

Glidden Wedding White

239,235,227

241,243,237

236,234,225

223,231,221

Olympic Commercial White

239,237,233

243,242,235

241,236,228

243,238,230

Behr Roadster White

225,224,216

229,233,228

225,225,218

225,224,216

 Reds

Paint Color Actual RGB Value Color Muse Nix Mini Palette Pico

Glidden Red Delicious

157,22,46

148,64,70

141,50,56

148,56,40

Olympic Red Gumball

190,53,60

176,55,61

178,32,53

148,56,40

Behr Flirt Alert

190,59,56

203,54,56

203,26,49

 217,73,46

Benjamin Moore Strawberry Red

196,62,62

197,70,70

198,53,62

212,85,66

Sherwin-Williams Rebellious

183,78,79

197,82,86

198,69,77

213,96,87

Valspar Brick Facade

179,81,68

189,81,73

188,70,65

199,91,74

Grays

Paint Color Actual RGB Value Color Muse Nix Mini Palette Pico

Glidden Seal Grey

125,126,125

139,141,142

128,133,128

126,126,123

Benjamin Moore Galveston Gray

154,150,141

156,153,147

152,146,139

154,148,141

Olympic Steeple Gray

140,148,150

138,146,150

133,139,141

139,141,145

Behr Still Gray

171,169,161

173,174,167

167,168,158

166,165,159

Valspar Soulful Grey

194,190,177

189,187,177

187,180,171

190,184,173

Sherwin-Williams Agreeable Gray

209,203,193

211,212,206

209,205,198

209,205,202

What it all means

Of all the sensors, only the Palette Pico sensor was able to read the correct RGB value for a given paint color. Surprisingly, that color was Behr's Roadster White, not a bright red or dark gray. All the readings for the three color groups were inconsistent at best. I saw values sometimes 30 or 40 points different than the color's actual RGB, and others were nearly perfect.

At no point did I test red and get a result for pink or measure white and get a result for gray. The color sensors were able to get within what my eye would call a shade or two of the actual color, even when the values seemed pretty far off.  

If you're going to give one of these matching systems a try, I'd recommend the Nix Mini or Color Muse. While the Nix Mini performed the best, it's also the most expensive and it requires two apps. You won't need to calibrate it like the Color Muse or Palette Pico, though, and both Nix apps are easy to navigate. Color Muse is a close second both in its results and ease of use. Calibration is easy and having color data and paint color matches in one app is a lot more convenient than the Nix Mini and half the price. Palette Pico is just getting started, and while it performed well I'm not ready to recommend it until it has a broader paint brand library.

App alternatives

screenshot-20180529-145155

The ColorSnap app by Sherwin Williams provide detailed color data for each shade of paint in the collection. 

Screenshot by Molly Price/CNET

Most major paint brands offer a mobile app for iOS and Android devices. While the apps are largely intended for you to get color inspiration and browse palettes, you can also use them for color matching, if you're careful. I tried out apps from Behr, Sherwin-Williams, Valspar and Benjamin Moore.

With a paint brand app, you can match the color to a photo from your phone's camera roll. This is tricky though, since all camera apps process photos to make them more pleasing rather than accurate. If you do manage to get a perfect picture of the wall or item you're matching, the app will then tell you what paint color from that brand matches best.

These apps aren't as effective as using a sensor, but they're free. And at the low cost of $0, it's not a bad way to get at least within the ballpark of the color you need. It could save you a sample or two of paint from the store, and might help you to recreate a specific look. Let's say you find a photo online of a room with a stunning wall color. Save that photo to your camera roll or phone's storage, and through the paint brand's app you can match that color.

The verdict

For DIYers picking entirely new colors for walls, I can see these devices helping transform inspiration into information. The sensors are designed to work on a range of materials. As long as there's a small, flat area on an object, you can read the color on clothing, furniture, flooring or your favorite knick knack. Have a favorite team logo, flower, piece or art or furniture you really want to pull a color from? These devices definitely get close enough to accomplish the look you're after.

Yes, they might cost as much or more than several paint samples from the store. After all, I paid $3.48 for each pint-sized sample of paint used for this testing. If you're only trying to match the paint on a single wall, you might not be not ready to purchase a sensor just for that. But if you're matching multiple walls or grabbing color inspiration from something you love, these little gadgets are indeed helpful.

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