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

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MSRP: $1,195.00

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.

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7.9 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Camera 7
  • Battery 9

Review Sections

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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