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.
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.
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.
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."
- "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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 phone||iPhone XS Max||Samsung Galaxy Note 9||Google Pixel 3 XL|
|Display size, resolution||5.7-inch 4-View LCD; 2,560x1,440 pixels||6.5-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,688x1,242 pixels||6.4-inch Super AMOLED; 2,960x1,440 pixels||6.3-inch OLED; 2,960x1,440 pixels|
|Dimensions (Inches)||6.49x3.37x0.39 in||6.2x3.0x0.3 in||6.37x3.01x0.35 in||6.2x3x.03 in|
|Dimensions (Millimeters)||164.78x85.71x10 mm||157.5x77.4x7.7 mm||161.9x76.4x8.8 mm||158x76.7x7.9 mm|
|Weight (Ounces, Grams)||9.28 oz; 263g||7.3 oz; 208g||7.09 oz.; 201g||6.5 oz; 184g|
|Mobile software||Android 8.1 Oreo||iOS 12||Android 8.1 Oreo||Android 9 Pie|
|Camera||Dual 12-megapixel||12-megapixel standard, 12-megapixel telephoto||Dual 12-megapixel (wide and telephoto)||12.2-megapixel|
|Front-facing camera||Dual 8-megapixel||7-megapixel||8-megapixel||8-megapixel standard, 8-megapixel wide-angle|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 835||Apple A12 Bionic||Octa-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 titanium||64GB, 256GB, 512GB||128GB, 512GB||64GB, 128GB|
|RAM||6GB||Not disclosed||6GB, 8GB||4GB|
|Expandable storage||up to 256GB||None||512GB||None|
|Battery||4,500 mAh||Not disclosed||4,000 mAh||3,430 mAh|
|Fingerprint sensor||Right spine||None||Back of phone||Back cover|
|Special features||4-View (4V) display (no glasses needed), stereoscopic cameras capture 4V photos and videos, modular, ARCore enabled||Water resistant (IP68), wireless charging, dual-SIM (nano-SIM and e-SIM), Face ID scanning||Water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; S-Pen; Iris and facial scanning, Animoji||Water 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 titanium||AU$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)|