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

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
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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.

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 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.

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
Google Pixel 3 XL
Samsung Galaxy Note 9
Apple iPhone XS Max


Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Red Hydrogen One phone
Google Pixel 3 XL
Samsung Galaxy Note 9
Apple iPhone XS Max


Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 single-core

Red Hydrogen One phone
Google Pixel 3 XL
Samsung Galaxy Note 9
Apple iPhone XS Max


Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 multicore

Red Hydrogen One phone
Google Pixel 3 XL
Samsung Galaxy Note 9
Apple iPhone XS Max


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 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
Pixel density 515ppi 458ppi 516ppi 522ppi
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
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
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
Connector USB-C Lightning USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack Yes No Yes No
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)

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