One question I often hear from readers is "Why doesn't my color printing look like the colors on my monitor?" Many reasons can exist for this discrepancy, and although I can often answer the question when it includes the specifics of the user's monitor, software, and printer, generally there's no easy or direct answer. Typically, to get the best color rendering, you need to select accurate color profiles and make sure the right color profiles are loaded.

Windows XP offers users the built-in Image Color Management (ICM) 2.0 system--an API that lets applications and hardware take advantage of your system's printing capabilities. ICM meets the compliance standards for the International Color Consortium color management system and allows accurate printing of colors as they're displayed on the screen. For full technical details about ICM, visit http://msdn.microsoft.com/library/default.asp?url=/library/en-us/dnanchor/html/anch_ICM.asp .

For the end user, the important part is that hardware and software will install ICM profiles on your system that let you render colors more accurately. Serious graphics designers or image editors will also need to calibrate the monitor they use for editing. This calibration allows the creation of a custom ICM profile and requires third-party tools to accomplish. But for the majority of users, installing the ICM profiles that come with their monitor and printer will be as far as they go.

When I ask users what profiles they've installed, the usual response indicates that they aren't sure what I'm talking about or that they installed whatever profiles came with their printer. The problem is that just because the profiles were on the installation disk or copied to the computer, it doesn't mean that they've actually been applied or are in use.

To determine which color profiles are in use on your XP system, Microsoft has made available the Microsoft Color Control Panel Applet for Windows XP (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/digitalphotography/prophoto/colorcontrol.mspx ). This applet lets users see the ICM profiles that are available on their computers and apply them to the appropriate devices. It doesn't add any new features, it simply collects all the color management controls in the OS into one location so that the user can better understand the color-management functions available. Like most specialized OS add-ons, the applet isn't officially supported by Microsoft, but you can find support in the Microsoft newsgroup forums.

Because many color profiles are device specific (or even paper-specific in the case of higher-end photo printers), the user needs to make sure that the correct profiles are applied to get the best color rendering possible. When you download and install the applet, you'll be surprised by the many ICM profiles already on your system that are available for your display hardware and printers. With a little effort, what you see on your screen will be what you get on your printer.