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Red Hydrogen One review: No 3D glasses needed, just a big wallet

A Hollywood phone with a big budget and a disappointing ending.

5
Patrick Holland
5

Patrick Holland

Senior Editor

Patrick Holland has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing and fast-paced world of phones. He also is one of the hosts of CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast.

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11 min read

The Red Hydrogen One phone is now available to buy from Verizon and AT&T US stores as well as directly from Red. It comes out at a time when smartphones have a certain sameness about them. Most have a giant screen -- maybe with a notch -- inside a rectangular body that runs either Android or iOS software. But in 2018, we're seeing some welcome specialization.

Red Hydrogen One
7.9

Red Hydrogen One

The Good

The Red Hydrogen One phone is built like a high-end camera. The 3D screen really works, 2D photos are beautiful with an analog-film vibe and it has a giant battery.

The Bad

The 2D video image quality is just OK. The phone is expensive and lacks water resistance and wireless charging. There are no modules at launch.

The Bottom Line

The Red Hydrogen One is an exciting, eccentric phone aimed at creatives. But underwhelming video quality and rough software already have us pining for the sequel.

There's the new Palm, a petite companion phone, and the Cat S61, which packs a thermal imaging camera. Then there's the Razer Phone 2 and Asus ROG phone, aimed at gaming. And don't forget about new versions of old specialized favorites such as the Galaxy Note 9 with its stylus and the modular Motorola Moto Z3, which will get 5G cellular next year via a Moto Mod. Viva la difference.

And now, with the Red Hydrogen One, we have possibly the most specialized phone of them all. This 5.7-inch Android is the first phone from Red, a California camera powerhouse known for bleeding-edge video cameras used to film movies such as Crazy Rich Asians, Ant-Man and The Wasp and Deadpool 2.

As you'd expect, Red aims to deliver fantastic video, photo and audio quality that you can stash in your back pocket -- just not one in a pair of skinny jeans. It sweetens the deal by allowing you to add modules, including one for a cinema camera sensor and lens mount coming out in 2019. But it is Red's inclusion of a 3D display that makes the Hydrogen One so crazy unique. When it's not showing 3D content, the screen is a perfectly normal 2D phone display. As mundane as that statement sounds, this is truly a remarkable achievement. You need to see it in real life -- showing it in a 2D photo or video just doesn't do it justice.

Red Hydrogen One
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Red Hydrogen One

The edges of the phone are scalloped which make it easy to grip.

Angela Lang/CNET

But this sort of innovation doesn't come cheap. The Hydrogen One costs $1,295 (which converts to about £985 or AU$1,800) for the aluminum version I tested or $1,595 for a titanium version. Yes, that's more than an iPhone XS Max or Galaxy Note 9.

Besides the high price, there are a few things to consider about the Red Hydrogen One. Currently it feels more like a curiosity, one of those daring experiments to "revolutionize" the way we use our phones. 3D or "4V" photos and videos are effectively proprietary, and near-impossible to share at the moment. A slew of promised accessories are also proprietary, and won't arrive until 2019 at the earliest.

We've seen this kind of ambitious approach before from the likes of Lytro Light Field Camera and the Essential Phone. Both showcased cool technology that was rough around the edges in actual execution.

Similarly, the Hydrogen One has a "the paint isn't quite dry yet" feel to it. It was delayed multiple times, and at launch, Red's software feels like it's not fully ready. For example, the camera app can lag and freeze up.

The more I use the Hydrogen One, the more it seems like a 3D camera that doubles as a phone. And that's what truly differentiates it from previous 3D devices. The Hydrogen One isn't just about consuming 3D content. It's about creating it. And if that appeals to you, then it's definitely worth checking out.

If you're a Red cinema camera user who's excited about the possibilities of the Hydrogen One phone and the yet-to-be-realized cinema camera module, it's worth waiting to learn more about what the add-on will actually be capable of and its price.

But for nearly everyone else, it's hard for me to recommend the Red Hydrogen One phone at this time. That said, try to check it out in-person. Both AT&T and Verizon are planning displays for the Red Hydrogen One in their stores. Experiencing that screen will definitely make a few people cough up their credit card.

The Red Hydrogen One phone is black magic

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Editors' note, Oct. 31: Because of a glitch in our content management system, this review incorrectly reflected a rating of 8.0 (out of 10) or 4 stars, for more than a day after its original publication on Oct. 29. It has been updated to show its original, intended overall rating of 7.9, or 3.5 stars.

Red Hydrogen One's 3D holographic screen

The 3D screen is easily the most curious feature on the phone. It draws both dumbfounded looks from some and "how dare you waste my time" eye rolls from others.

I showed the Red Hydrogen One to a bunch of friends and coworkers to get their reactions:

  • "Holy shit! It's 3D without glasses."

  • "I don't want to look at it. It makes me sick."

  • [laughter]

  • "This is absolutely one of the coolest things I've seen from a company in years."

  • "I'm not really impressed."

  • "How? How? How? How is it doing this?"

  • "It hurt my eyes."

  • "This is really good."

  • "This is really bad."

When I ask people to look at a 3D phone, there's a tiny moment where I can almost see them put on their 3D critic's hat. For example, if I told you to look at a 2D photo of a cat, you'd likely focus on the cat itself rather than image noise, moire or aliasing -- no matter how bad the image quality might be. But if I asked you to look at a picture of a 3D cat, you'd likely fixate on the effect more than the subject.

There are people, and I work with some of them, who see 3D as nothing more than a failed gimmick. They quickly cite as proof the Amazon Fire phone, Nintendo 3DS and every 3D television ever made.

But if Apple held a press conference and told every iPhone user their screens support 3D starting today, people would flip out. There would be 3D videos, 3D FaceTime, 3D games and 3D Memoji everywhere.

Red Hydrogen One
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Red Hydrogen One

Photos and videos in this review of the Hydrogen One can't show off the 4V effect of the screen. I recommend seeing it in person to experience the 3D effect.

Angela Lang/CNET

Part of the problem for "3D" is that it is worshipped and hyped as the beginning of a new product category, instead of being looked at as a tool for expression. Red seems to embrace the latter approach.

The Hydrogen One's screen is part 3D and part hologram which Red calls 4-View (4V). Under the 5.7-inch 2,560x1,440-pixel LCD screen is a nano light field that produces the effect. It's neither Princess Leia being projected by R2-D2 from Star Wars, nor is it as simplistic as the hologram sticker on the back of a credit card.

Instead the 4V effect gives a layered depth to 4V photos and video. It reminds me of seeing a play or opera in a proscenium theater where the scenery is flat but gives a three-dimensional illusion. Red's 4V effect is oddly reminiscent of lenticular printed 3D baseball cards -- that might be one of the reasons nearly everyone I showed the phone to moves it side-to-side.

Of course if you have a 3D screen, you're going to want to watch 3D content on it, so Red smartly created a mini ecosystem for 4V content. There's the Red Hydrogen Network app to find 4V films, videos and shows. For playing 4V games, there's the Red/Leia Loft app. (Leia, no relation to the aforementioned princess, is the company behind the 4V screen technology.) There's even an Instagram-style app called Holopix for posting 4V photos. Back in May, Red also demoed a video messaging app that allowed you to chat in 4V. No word on if or when that will be coming out.

There's one more way to get 3D content: Make it yourself. The cameras on both the front and back let you take 4V photos and videos.

Red Hydrogen One
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Red Hydrogen One

The dual rear cameras allow the Hydrogen One to capture 3D photos and videos.

James Martin/CNET

Red Hydrogen One cameras can capture both 2D and '4V' photos and videos

On the back of the phone are two 12-megapixel cameras that are exactly the same. Unlike the iPhone XS or Galaxy Note 9, the second camera isn't for zooming. The two cameras are paired stereoscopically -- kind of like binoculars -- allowing you to capture 4V photos and video.

The Hydrogen One smartly saves a 2D version of any 4V photos you take so there's no FOMO. After some time shooting with the phone, I sought out angles and framing to show off more depth in my pictures. Instead of just taking a photo of a friend standing, I had them hold their glasses in front of their face knowing it would look cool on the 4V screen.

Curious enough, 4V photos taken with the rear cameras have to be in landscape orientation and 4V selfies can only captured in portrait mode. And yes, there are two 8-megapixel front-facing cameras used to create 3D selfies which I found especially fun for group shots.

Normally, when I write about the photos from a camera, I'd include sample pictures for you to look at. But I have no way to share 4V content that lets you experience it like I do. I can't post the photos here or share 4V video with friends and family because they don't have a Red Hydrogen One phone. I can upload 4V videos to YouTube and you can watch them using a VR headset, but that still isn't the same.

2D photos look good. They don't have the digital perfection of Pixel 3 photos or Smart HDR photos from the iPhone XS. Images have an analog film quality, like taking a photo with a film camera. Pictures look more natural and feel more realistic. However, photos taken in low-light suffered heavily from noise and softness.

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I took this photo in 4V mode but this was the 2D version.

Patrick Holland/CNET
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I really like the way colors turned out in this photo. The Hydrogen One didn't oversaturate the colors, or try to make the overcast sky appear blue.

Patrick Holland/CNET
img-20181019-10403126

Hotel workers striking at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The phone nails the exposure of the man in the middle, but you can still read, "One job is enough" on the signs in the shadows.

Patrick Holland/CNET
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Low-light photos proved to be a weakness for the Hydrogen One. There is so much noise in this photo.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Take a look at the pictures above. The one from the Pixel 3 made everything look perfect by upping the color saturation and contrast. On the other hand, the Hydrogen One photo nails the colors. Also, notice the detail in the wood table in the Hydrogen One shot.

Take a look at 2D portrait mode photos of my friend taken with the Pixel 3 and Hydrogen One above. In the Pixel 3 photo, her skin looks softened and shadows are boosted, giving the image a brighter overall look. In the Red photo, there's more detail in her skin and the image has more contrast. I really like Red's color approach here.

Red's camera app is wonderfully organized. I can quickly take manual control over photos and videos. The transparent "adjust color" pop-up is brilliant for quick changes to color temperature, brightness, contrast and saturation.

But during my time with the phone, there were occasions the app was laggy to open and even froze -- this usually happened switching from the rear cameras to the front ones.

redphone
Watch this: Red Hydrogen One phone costs more than an iPhone and has a 3D screen
Red Hydrogen One phone costs more than an iPhone and has a 3D screen
6:44

Disappointing video quality at launch

Red is known for the high quality video from its cinema cameras. Look, you had one job Red: To make a phone with great video.

In daylight, 2D video looks good. I love being able to use RGB histogram and film in 4K at either 24 or 30fps. But I can't film in 4K at 60fps like with the iPhone XS or Galaxy Note 9. In many medium- and low-light situations, image quality looks noisy and soft, especially when compared to video from the iPhone XS. I tried to correct footage in Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro X, but that didn't help much either.

Slow motion supports 2x and 4x record speeds. Footage captured at 120fps comes in with 720p resolution and doesn't look great. The iPhone XS and Galaxy Note 9 can capture good-looking slow-motion at 240fps in 1080p resolution.

As disappointed as I am with the video out of the Red Hydrogen One, it's better than most midrange Android phones. But that seems like a low bar for a $1,300 phone made by a cinema camera company.

The Hydrogen One is a solidly built phone

As I hold the Red Hydrogen One phone, its scalloped edges feel like a pair of brass knuckles. (Yes, I've worn brass knuckles before -- it was for a play.) It has an aluminum and Kevlar back and a wonderfully chunky chin and forehead that house dual front-facing cameras for 3D selfies and two of the loudest speakers I've heard on a phone -- we're talking louder than the iPhone XS and Galaxy Note 9 and right up there with the Razer Phone 2.

Red Hydrogen One
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Red Hydrogen One

The aluminum and Kevlar back of the Red Hydrogen One.

Angela Lang/CNET

The Hydrogen One is satisfyingly dense and solid in the way a Leica M-10 camera is. If I drop the phone, I'm not worried about it being damaged. Even when I'm not using the Hydrogen One, I keep picking it up. Its scalloped edges, which mimic the look of the lens mount lock on some Red cinema cameras, fit my fingers like a well-worn glove.

On the side of the phone nestled between two of those scallops is a fingerprint reader. Finding it without looking at the phone is a breeze. Next to the top corner of the phone is a raised circular record-shutter button. A long press when the phone is in sleep mode will open the camera. I should mention that there were a few times when the button failed to open the camera app. Restarting the phone seemed to resolve things.

The Hydrogen One has a headphone jack, a USB-C port for charging, support for expandable memory and those copper pogo pins for yet-to-be-released modules.

Red Hydrogen One has pogo pins for attaching modules

Red cinema cameras are modular by design. You buy the pieces you want and build up the camera to fit your specific needs. When the Red Hydrogen One was announced, one of the most exciting features to me was that it would be modular.

Other phones from Motorola and Essential have also been designed to be modular. But Red's idea of modularity is more akin to a fire hose than the garden hose mods from Motorola and Essential.

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The Hydrogen One is shown off with a prototype cinema camera sensor module attached.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Red promised a high-performance battery module and cinema camera module in 2019. The cinema module would have a large image 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. And this is probably what I am most excited about when it comes to the Red Hydrogen One phone.

At launch, there won't be any modules available for the Hydrogen One.

The Hydrogen One is a solid 2017 Android phone

It runs a close-to-stock version of Android 8.1, but there's no word whether Red has plans to update the phone to Android 9 Pie.

Inside the phone is a giant 4,500mAh battery. The first weekend I had it, the phone lasted on just one charge. In our battery testing for continuous video playback on airplane mode, the phone clocked in an average of 14 hours. For perspective, the Razer Phone 2 which also has a large 5.7-inch LCD screen and 4,000-mAh battery, lasted an average of 9 hours and 16 minutes.

The Hydrogen One runs a 2017-era Snapdragon 835 processor which, if it was released last year or early this year, would have made it the third-fastest phone we've tested -- only the iPhone X and LG V30 would be faster. But pretty much every other flagship now has a newer, faster 845 processor, so the Hydrogen One's performance doesn't look as stellar in comparison.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Red Hydrogen One phone 4,579Google Pixel 3 XL 5,946Samsung Galaxy Note 9 6,344Apple iPhone XS Max 8,375
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Red Hydrogen One phone 42,594Google Pixel 3 XL 62,199Samsung Galaxy Note 9 59,436Apple iPhone XS Max 77,200
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 single-core

Red Hydrogen One phone 1,942Google Pixel 3 XL 2,386Samsung Galaxy Note 9 2,406Apple iPhone XS Max 4,774
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 multicore

Red Hydrogen One phone 6,372Google Pixel 3 XL 8,388Samsung Galaxy Note 9 8,827Apple iPhone XS Max 11,191
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

But by no means is this a slow phone. Apps open fast and Android animations are smooth. I didn't have any issues with the Hydrogen One in daily use aside from Red's camera and Holopix apps which were occasionally unresponsive and needed to be closed and reopened.

The screen isn't the only thing 3D on the Hydrogen One. It has A3D which turns stereo audio into essentially surround sound over the phone's speakers or headphones. Its performance varied, but Red made it easy to toggle the effect on and off.

As a whole, the Red Hydrogen One has a flagship price and flagship ambitions. But it still needs more polish. I look forward to seeing the company refine the software experience on the phone further and testing those modules when they come out.

Spec comparison of Red Hydrogen One, iPhone XS Max, Galaxy Note 9 and Pixel 3 XL


Red Hydrogen One phoneiPhone XS MaxSamsung Galaxy Note 9Google Pixel 3 XL
Display size, resolution 5.7-inch 4-View LCD; 2,560x1,440 pixels6.5-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,688x1,242 pixels6.4-inch Super AMOLED; 2,960x1,440 pixels6.3-inch OLED; 2,960x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 515ppi458ppi516ppi522ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.49x3.37x0.39 in6.2x3.0x0.3 in6.37x3.01x0.35 in6.2x3x.03 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 164.78x85.71x10 mm157.5x77.4x7.7 mm161.9x76.4x8.8 mm158x76.7x7.9 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 9.28 oz; 263g7.3 oz; 208g7.09 oz.; 201g6.5 oz; 184g
Mobile software Android 8.1 OreoiOS 12Android 8.1 OreoAndroid 9 Pie
Camera Dual 12-megapixel12-megapixel standard, 12-megapixel telephotoDual 12-megapixel (wide and telephoto)12.2-megapixel
Front-facing camera Dual 8-megapixel7-megapixel8-megapixel8-megapixel standard, 8-megapixel wide-angle
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 835Apple A12 BionicOcta-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz), or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz)2.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
Storage 128GB aluminium, 256GB titanium64GB, 256GB, 512GB128GB, 512GB64GB, 128GB
RAM 6GBNot disclosed6GB, 8GB4GB
Expandable storage up to 256GBNone512GBNone
Battery 4,500 mAhNot disclosed4,000 mAh3,430 mAh
Fingerprint sensor Right spineNoneBack of phoneBack cover
Connector USB-CLightningUSB-CUSB-C
Headphone jack YesNoYesNo
Special features 4-View (4V) display (no glasses needed), stereoscopic cameras capture 4V photos and videos, modular, ARCore enabledWater resistant (IP68), wireless charging, dual-SIM (nano-SIM and e-SIM), Face ID scanningWater resistant (IP68); wireless charging; S-Pen; Iris and facial scanning, AnimojiWater resistant (IPX8), wireless charging, Pixel Buds USB-C headphones included
Price off-contract (USD) $1,295 aluminium; $1,595 titanium$1,099 (64GB), $1,249 (256GB), $1,449 (512GB)$1,000 (128GB), $1,250 (512GB)$899 (64GB), $999 (128GB)
Price (GBP) Converted: £985 aluminium; £1,245 titanium$1,099 (64GB), $1,249 (256GB), $1,449 (512GB)£899 (128GB), £1,099 (512GB)£869 (64GB), £969 (128GB)
Price (AUD) Converted: AU$1,800 aluminium; AU$2,250 titaniumAU$1,799 (64GB), AU$2,049 (256GB), AU$2,369 (512GB)AU$1,499 (128GB), AU$1,799 (512GB)AU$1,349 (64GB), AU$1,499 (128GB)
Red Hydrogen One
7.9

Red Hydrogen One

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Camera 7Battery 9
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