//RED Hydrogen One

RED Hydrogen One

We don’t often see artisanal smartphones. But the RED Hydrogen One ($1,295 in aluminum, $1,595 in titanium) is very clearly the vision of one man, company founder Jim Jannard. Red created the first mainstream 4K digital video camera, the Red One, and has since moved to 8K with its Weapon line. Coming from nowhere 19 years ago, it’s now a major Hollywood name. It has now built a giant, heavy smartphone with a massive battery, scalloped grips, and a modular expansion connector for professional video camera attachments. So far, so good.

But the early version of the device we’ve been looking at leans too much on a gimmicky 3D screen and camera to justify its price. That’s the wrong route to go in, and as a result, the phone seems misguided and unfinished. The phone’s advertising also lies about its screen being holographic, which makes me really cranky.

Note that this story doesn’t yet have a rating. RED has promised major software upgrades between the time we’re writing this and November 2, when the phone actually comes out. I’ll take a look again then. Even with improved software, though, this $1,300 phone is missing the one thing buyers will really be looking for: the promised RED camera modules. Without those, there’s no good reason to spend so much money on this device.

Physical Form

The RED Hydrogen One is a ridiculous beast—the largest, heaviest phone I’ve seen this year. Carry it around for a while and the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 will feel as flimsy as a piece of paper. It measures 6.5 by 3.4 by 0.4 inches and weighs a shocking 9.3 ounces. (I generally consider a one-handed phone to be anything under 2.8 inches wide.) It’s not pocketable, and you’ll need a big hand to hold it; when I gave it to a woman with smaller hands, she said she had trouble using it in two hands. It’s a good thing the phone has those scalloped finger grips built into the sides.

On the edges of the phone, there’s a power button/fingerprint sensor, volume buttons, a USB-C port, a headphone jack, and a dedicated camera button. The 5.7-inch, 2,560-by-1,440 LTPS LCD is on the front, of course; it’s big and bright, but without the poppy colors we expect from some other phones’ OLED screens. It’s flanked by two gigantic front-facing speakers. On the metal ridged back, you find a camera disk, a big RED logo, and magnetic pogo pins to attach future accessories.

RED says the phone is rugged, made of aluminum and Kevlar, but declines to give any specific IP or MIL-SPEC ratings for it; that might be because of the cost of certification, or because the Gorilla Glass 3 screen seems as breakable as any other.

Carrying the phone around for a weekend, well, it was unwieldy. It sat in my pocket like a large stone; I’d lift it out with a sigh, maneuvering my hands around it to turn the camera on. There was nothing quick or simple about it, the way whipping out a Pixel 3, Galaxy S9, or iPhone XS is.

Processor and Performance

In one of its most perplexing moves, the Hydrogen One uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor from 2017 as opposed to the current 845 model. That’s especially frustrating because the 845’s improved GPU could have fixed some issues with 3D gaming, and the 845’s multi-frame noise reduction would definitely have made a difference with low-light camera performance.

Benchmarking the phone resulted in numbers that look more like a midrange than a high-end device. We got 5033 on PCMark, 6654 on Geekbench multi-core, 167.67 on Basemark Web, and 12fps on the GFXBench car chase onscreen benchmark. That’s similar to the LG V30 from last year, and well behind the Galaxy S9, LG G7, Galaxy Note 9, and either the Google Pixel 2 or 3 on overall benchmarks. The Pixel 3 XL and Razer Phone 2 both push double that frame rate on the graphics benchmark, which is deeply concerning in a phone so focused on visual output and camera input.

Before you complain that benchmarks are synthetic, these results back up a lot of the other frustrations I have with the phone, whether they be HDR camera issues or gaming frame rates.

The phone will be released on AT&T and Verizon; we tested the AT&T version. The device has a great array of LTE bands, covering everything that AT&T and Verizon support, as well as 2G and 3G GSM and CDMA. (It doesn’t have T-Mobile’s band 71, but it isn’t available for T-Mobile.)

Call quality is excellent—the earpiece gets very loud without distortion, and the front-facing speakerphone gives you a direct, unmuffled sound. Signal reception on AT&T’s network was unremarkable. Other wireless standards here include dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 5.0.

Playing music, the phone’s powerful front-facing speakers distorted at high volumes and made its whole body vibrate, something the company will probably fix in a software update. With headphones plugged in, though, the sound is excellent—rich, loud, and deep.

The phone we tested has 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, of which 101GB is free, along with a microSD card slot. The $1,595 Titanium version has 256GB of storage. It runs Android 8.1 rather than the newer Android 9.0 because all of RED’s proprietary 3D technology takes a lot of work to program, and 9.0 wasn’t available at the time it was built.

There are some RED proprietary apps to showcase 3D content, as well as some AT&T bloatware. Leia Loft is RED’s tiny app store for 3D apps, the Hydrogen Network is where you get 3D content, and the RED Player is a gallery app that can show 3D.

AT&T’s special sauce here is the fact that it owns Warner Media, and can transform its 3D Hollywood films into 3D content for the phone. If you buy the phone from AT&T, you get downloads of Fantastic Beasts and Ready Player One in 3D for free.

We got 7 hours, 59 minutes of video streaming over Wi-Fi on the gigantic 4,500mAh battery. That’s much less than we expected (and far less than the 12-plus hours we got on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9), so hopefully, a software update will help with that.

A Disappointing Camera

The phone has dual 12-megapixel cameras on the back and dual 8-megapixel cameras on the front. It can capture 4K video at 30 frames per second, a limit of the 835 processor; other high-end phones can capture at 60fps already. The phone’s 2D images are 4,056 by 3,040, while 3D images are 3,840 by 2,160.

Image quality is worse than you’d expect from a $1,300 smartphone made by one of the world’s leading camera companies. In good light, photos are…fine. As I was testing, the Hydrogen One had more frequent focus issues than a Google Pixel 3 I was using to compare. Skin tones, in a portrait close-up, looked smoothed out, where the Pixel was able to maintain skin texture. And as the lights went down, things got worse and worse.

Take a look at the sky in the shots below, with the Hydrogen on top and the Pixel below. The Hydrogen not only shot at lower shutter speeds to get the same brightness—in one case 1/33 to the Pixel’s 1/100—but there’s massive, visible, and unattractive artifacts in the low-light shots, much more aggressive than the shots taken with the Pixel.

RED Hydrogen One vs Pixel

Here are the shots zoomed out, with the RED on top and the Pixel below:

Red Hydrogen One Camera Sample

Red vs. Pixel, Pixel Shot

4K video taken with the phone is well stabilized and smooth in good light, but in low light, it’s dim and noisy. The camera maintains its frame rate, to be sure, but the results look like they were taken with a midrange phone. There are also strange audio artifacts, like wind rushing by, even in videos taken in a quiet indoor location. I’m definitely hoping that gets fixed in a software update.

Recording video in 3D can be a dizzying, vertiginous experience. In low-light conditions, the scene gets extremely noisy and can have trouble resolving. At one point, while recording a table in a dark room, I really felt like I was seeing double, and the resulting video was a blurry mess.

Betting on the Wrong 3D Horse

Without the camera modules available, RED seems to have doubled down on its 3D—oh, sorry, “4-view”—screen as a sales point. But once I got out of RED’s reality distortion field, I found 4-view to be just as frustrating and disappointing as the last round of failed 3D phones.

I’m going to rag on this especially hard because of all the overpromising RED is doing. The company says this is “holographic,” which is completely false. It uses two traditional lenses and combines parallax views just like every other consumer 3D product ever. There is nothing holographic about this—no lasers, no 180-plus-degree viewing angle, no perspective that shifts naturally as you move around an object.

On a more visceral level, holographic images and movie-theater 3D films appear to pop out of a display, while lenticular images appear to fall into it. Lenticular images look like dioramas. This phone’s screen looks like a diorama. It isn’t “coming at ya,” as they used to say about old 3D movies.

4-view, like previous glasses-free 3D screens, uses a filter to direct light to each of your eyes, fooling them into thinking a 2D image is 3D. RED says its filter is better than previous generations, and that it’s using four images rather than two, making for a more realistic picture with better camera angles.

While 4-view definitely has better viewing angles than, say, the HTC EVO 3D did, it still has the fuzzy, shifting quality of lenticular 3D, and it has serious color-shift issues along its narrow viewing angle. RED says this is a 3D you can look at for long periods of time and which doesn’t tire out your eyes, but I found it considerably more dizzying and nausea-inducing than a good VR headset, especially in a fast-moving game like Asphalt 8.

Low resolution certainly has something to do with it. In 4-view mode, the 2,560-by-1,440 screen effectively becomes 640 by 360, as it needs to divide itself into four. Capturing images in 4-view reduces their resolution, to 8 megapixels as a standard JPEG or 960-by-540-by-4 as a 3D image. The images also appear very dark on the screen. As there is no other device in the world I can view them on, I can’t tell whether that’s a problem with capture or display.

The phone suffers, very badly, from the proprietary format problem. Once you’ve recorded your 3D photos, you’ll only be able to view them on another $1,300 RED phone. (They appear as 2D JPEGs to anyone else.) 3D videos are in a unique H4V video format that no one else has ever used.

There are, to start, 11 3D games and some short nature videos available. Shockingly, that’s even less content than the HTC EVO 3D or LG Thrill 4G had back in 2011, because they at least had access to 3D YouTube videos. RED is in its own world, and it’s a small world.

The 3D games are dizzying and have serious performance problems. The tilt controls on Asphalt 8 in 3D aren’t sensitive enough, and the endless runner Paddington 4V drops bucketloads of frames for a sometimes skippy, jerky experience.

Promises, Promises

We cannot advise buying a $1,300 phone that is full of bugs and is missing key differentiators. RED could very well fix a lot of the bugs we saw with the promised software updates coming on or around launch. But 3D, 4-view, or whatever you want to call it, is a weak gimmick that should have been left in 2012, and the thing we expect from a RED phone—a truly epic video camera—simply isn’t here.

I see a vision in this phone. It’s the vision of a go-anywhere, pro-quality connected movie camera that effortlessly captures massive files and uploads them easily, probably using 5G. I know RED’s Jim Jannard shares this idea, because at the phone’s launch he said that he wants his phone to be used as a second-unit camera on shoots.

The back of the Hydrogen One says “media machine.” As we use more 4K TVs and 8K displays—don’t think home TVs, but think projectors and billboards and industrial signage—we’re going to need more super high-resolution, super high-quality content, and those huge file sizes will drive 5G adoption. That content is going to need to be stable, bright, and in an 8K industry standard format, not in some proprietary 3D format.

The pogo pins on the back of this phone speak to this idea, but the idea hasn’t been realized yet. You should hold off on buying any RED phones until it has been. For now, the iPhone XS has the best moviemaking software, and the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are the Android camera phones to beat.