Editors' Note: On Oct. 29, 2018 CNET published an in-depth review of the Red Hydrogen One phone.
One of the most anticipated phones of 2018 isn't from Apple, Samsung, Google or any major phone maker. It's the Red Hydrogen One, by cinema camera company Red and it's out this week. According to Red, preorders for the Hydrogen One will start shipping this Thursday, Oct. 18.
The phone costs $1,295 (which converts to about £985 or AU$1,800) for an aluminum version or $1,595 for a titanium version -- at least that's how much preorders cost. To put that in perspective, a brand-new iPhone XS Max costs $1,099 for a 64GB model or $1,449 for the 512GB version. Yep, the Red costs more than the most expensive iPhone.
But there is room in the phone market for more expensive niche phones, especially ones made by a high-end camera maker.
You might not be familiar with Red or its cameras, but if you've watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Hobbit, Straight Outta Compton or pretty much any Netflix original show (Stranger Things 2, Jessica Jones), then you've seen what the company's high-end cinema cameras are capable of capturing.
The Hydrogen One eschews design trends found on other flagship phones. There's no notch, no glass back and the headphone jack is still in place. Where Apple and Samsung prioritize thin, curved bodies, Red opts for a thicker squared-off body with scalloped edges.
Probably the most intriguing part of the design is its 3D screen, which you'd be forgiven for feeling "meh" about, especially if you saw how 3D was implemented on the Amazon Fire Phone or Nintendo 3DS.
I got to see a prototype of the phone a few months ago and came away beyond impressed. The Red Hydrogen One phone has a "holographic" display called 4-View (4V) that provides a glasses-free 3D image. There are dual cameras on both the front and back, which can shoot 4V photos and video. What's ingenious here is you can create and share 4V photos and videos on YouTube (with some conversion) or a new service Red is creating. You can also play video games in 4V, which, from the demo I saw, can make mobile phone gaming more appealing.
Initially what got much of the attention was the phone's "holographic" display. A previous effort at a 3D phone, the Amazon Fire Phone, used four motion-tracking cameras on the front to create its 3D-like experience. The result wasn't impressive.
Red is doing things a bit differently. The 5.7-inch 2,560x1,440-pixel 4V "holographic" screen is made in partnership with the company Leia and uses "Diffractive Lightfield Backlighting" that displays different images and textures in different spatial directions to give the appearance of depth. For example, human skin might reflect light in one direction while a texture like metal might reflect it in a different directions. It can display content in 3D or 2D.
On the 3D device spectrum, the Amazon Fire Phone would be on the bad end. The prototype of the Hydrogen One phone I saw would be on the good end. And the Nintendo 3DS is somewhere in between.
The early prototype CNET saw in May had a working 4V display and it was impressive. It's part hologram and part 3D. It's not that the image hovers over the screen, like R2-D2 projecting Princess Leia in the original Star Wars film. Rather the screen had layers of depth to the image kind of like the depth of a proscenium stage gives a play or live music. Unlike a 3D film at a movie theater, you don't have to wear glasses.
The Hydrogen One lacks many of the design features widely incorporated in phones today. It doesn't have a glass back, thin forehead and chin and (for better or worse) a notch. The phone is unabashedly chunky and about the size of an iPhone 8 Plus inside a case.
The sides of the body are scalloped, mimicking the lens mount lock on the company's cinema cameras while the back has vertical ridges that look like the fins of a heat sink on a hard drive.
The power button doubles as a fingerprint sensor and is located on the side like the original Razer Phone, but the Hydrogen One's scalloped edges might make it easier to find than the Razer's sensor, which sits flush.
The Hydrogen One comes with 128GB of storage by default and will be available in an aluminum body that's black or gray and a titanium model that's gold colored. The titanium model has been delayed because of manufacturing complications.
There are dual 4K cameras on both the front and back that can capture both 2D and 4V photos and videos and even broadcast "3D" video chats -- think 3D Skype or FaceTime.
Red is known for the gorgeous images its cinema cameras can produce, and for that reason there's heavy expectations that the Hydrogen One will be at the top of the phone camera food chain. Red is working to compress images and videos less than other phone makers to retain more detail and image information. I should mention that most flagship phones are able to take and save RAW images, but the same can't be said of video. It will be interesting to see what Red is able to accomplish here.
Early photos taken with a developer version of the phone by YouTuber Marques Brownlee (MKBHD) look promising.
In 2019, Red has promised a cinema module that will add a larger image sensor and a camera mount to the phone making it the most affordable Red cinema camera you can buy.
In the US, the phone will be available on Verizon and AT&T and Red says that it will support Google's Project Fi cellular network. At this time, Red hasn't announced plans for carrier support in other countries but the Hydrogen One is rumored to support dual-SIMs.
Red founder and chief executive Jim Jannard told CNET that when people see the display they'll want to buy the phone. To make that easier, Red is working with Verizon and AT&T on unique in-store displays.
"We have little carbon-fiber display kits for AT&T and Verizon," Jannard said in May. "It's like a little carbon-fiber theater. They are going to put them in the windows. When you walk up, you see 4-View content without glasses."
Similar to Moto's Z line and the Essential Phone, on the back of the Hydrogen One are a series of copper pins that support modules for more functionality. Red's idea of modularity, however, is more akin to a fire hose as opposed to the garden hose mods from Motorola and Essential.
Red will be offering a cinema camera module in 2019 that has a sensor and an interchangeable lens mount to attach lenses from Canon, Nikon, Sony and Leica among others. Such a module would bring Red's high priced cinema imaging within reach of video hobbyists and enthusiasts.
Red will launch an 8K Red cinema camera that captures 3D content and uses the Hydrogen One as a monitor. The camera is geared toward indie filmmakers, professionals and anyone looking for high-end 3D content capture.
Currently, when you record 3D content, you can't see what it actually looks like in 3D unless you wear a VR headset. You're basically shooting blind. The Red Hydrogen One phone's modular design lets it work as a 3D viewfinder for the upcoming camera -- no headset needed.
On Aug. 31, Red held a private party. It handed out preproduction samples of the Red Hydrogen One phone nicknamed "Houdini" to developers and some lucky people who preordered the phone.
Houdini marks another step forward for the company ahead of the phone's November launch.
MKBHD published the first unboxing video of the Red Hydrogen One phone. You can watch his video below.
It turns out that the display isn't the only 3D aspect of the phone. CNET got to listen to a demo of the A3D Spatial Surround Audio on a prototype Hydrogen One back in May. The Hydrogen One can directionally move sound to match what's happening on screen.
And then there's the Red Hydrogen Network. It's exactly what it sounds like: A service to share and view movies, shows, games and original content made or adapted for the phone's 4V display.
The demo CNET saw seemed like a cross between the iTunes store and YouTube for 3D content. But we'll have to check it out once it's formally launched. We're excited to get our hands on a phone to test. In the meantime, we'll keep updating this story as new details are revealed.
Originally published Aug. 1, 2017.
Update, Oct. 17, 2018: Added latest details.