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RED Hydrogen One review: all hype

It’s obvious this is RED’s first phone

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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RED’s debut smartphone is such a mess that it made me question what fundamental parts of a phone we truly need. Does a great phone truly need a great display, great design, and top-of-the-line specs? What if it ditched all of those things in pursuit of something far more unique and special?

The Hydrogen One is defined by its ambition. It’s meant to revolutionize not just phones, but all of media with a “holographic” display and a camera system capable of recording into this 3D format. The phone is also expandable, and RED — one of the most esteemed names in digital imaging — plans to release an add-on camera sensor that’s capable of transforming the phone into a full-on cinema camera.

It’s an exciting prospect, but it all comes crashing down because of one immense flaw: the holographic display just isn’t very good. It’s a novelty. And while you can occasionally see glimmers of the potential that RED might have seen in this tech, it’s certainly not present in this generation of the phone, and it’s hard to imagine that potential being realized any time soon.

I’ll get around to talking about the “phone” parts of the Hydrogen One later, but for now, I’m going to jump straight into the display — because that’s all that matters here.

On the front of the Hydrogen One is a 5.7-inch, WQHD resolution LCD screen that contains the magic used to create RED’s extremely hyped holograms. As a regular display, it’s not great — particularly on lighter backgrounds, the pixel grid is clearly visible even at a comfortable viewing distance, and the display’s backlight bleeds out from the top and bottom edges.

But what’s important is that beneath the glass is a special piece of tech made by a company called Leia that’s able to switch the display into 3D mode. Leia calls the tech “Diffractive Lightfield Backlighting” and says that it works by placing a “nanostructured light guide plate” beneath the LCD. I believe that jumble of words just means that it can steer the direction in which each pixel emits light, so that your eyes can see different things and the illusion of depth.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to build 3D into a phone, but there are a couple things special here. For one, you don’t need glasses to see it. But the bigger improvement is that images have a bit more going on: where normal 3D is stereoscopic — there are two images, one for each eye — RED’s 3D has four images, so there’s a bit more movement as you look around. Because of this, RED refers to its 3D format as “4V,” or “4 View.”

RED has spent the last year building up expectations around this “holographic” screen. It’s only shown the phone to a small number of people — including director J.J. Abrams, who supposedly said the phone was “ground-breaking, barrier-smashing, bar-raising, and badass.” But mostly it’s been shown to RED fans who preordered the device sight unseen, as well as a handful of journalists. None of them were allowed to photograph or otherwise capture what the screen looked like, so it’s been a real mystery to most of the world. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ve been imagining icons floating above the display.

That’s not the case, though. Most of the time, you’re just looking at a regular, 2D screen. The entire Android interface, the web, and all of your normal apps will display as they always have. It’s only when you use one of a select few holographic apps that you pop into 3D mode.

And it’s pretty jarring when it happens. Not because it’s so striking, but because the display suddenly becomes a blur. Several people told me it made them dizzy.

The 3D effect isn’t very strong, and it made some people dizzy

Nothing ever pops out at you in holographic mode, despite what the name would imply. Instead, the mode adds a bit of depth into the screen.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to share what this looks like in a photo or video, because cameras don’t pick it up very well. But if you’ve used a Nintendo 3DS, you know the effect: it’s a pretty standard lenticular type of 3D, and I actually think the 3DS does it better. A more apt comparison would be to the postcards and lunch boxes that have those lenticular displays that make it look like they’re changing when you move them side to side.

The typical experience here is of a paper cutout being placed on top of a flat background. It creates some illusion of depth, but it’s very clearly artificial in most cases.

The bigger problem is that the screen is just blurry. It looks like the entire display has been smudged up when holographic mode kicks in. Any added realism you might get from the depth effect is more than taken away by the inability to clearly see what you’re looking at.

There are very few ways you can use this holographic display. RED includes an app store for holographic apps, but there’s little in it — about a dozen games and apps in total. I doubt there will be many more since developers don’t have much incentive to create a holographic app just to sell to the, I’m going to guess, small number of people who buy this phone.

I tried a couple games out, hoping they would make the holographic screen pop. But I found the effect minimally noticeable and suspect the extra rendering needed to make 3D work ends up slowing them down. One game I played, a holographic, Paddington-themed ripoff of Subway Surfers, would get choppy any time fast action was happening, which was basically always. A holographic version of Modern Combat 5 just looked like my weapon was printed out on top of the background.

The 4V social network crashed every time I tried to log in

RED put together a library of videos you can watch in this holographic format, too, but I’m kind of bewildered by them. One I watched, a flyover of Mars’ surface, strained my eyes and made me feel kind of nauseous, without even looking that 3D. Another, showing highlights of Olympic athletes, didn’t appear to be 3D at all. Eventually, you’re supposed to be able to download real shows and movies in here, but it’s not at all clear to me that RED has the deals in place to make that happen. The AT&T version of this phone will include free copies of Fantastic Beasts and Ready Player One in 3D.

The store also includes an app called Holopix, which is supposed to be like Instagram for holographic photos captured on the Hydrogen One. Unfortunately, Holopix crashed every time I tried to log in, so I can’t say whether other people are taking better photos than me.

The other big deal on this phone is its cameras. Dual cameras on the front of the device (8 megapixels each) and dual cameras on the back of the device (12 megapixels each) allow you to snap holographic photos and record holographic videos right from the phone. RED is a camera company, after all, and it hopes to enable yet another wave of enthusiasts to create things that weren’t possible on traditional cameras.

But as you might guess by this point, the results aren’t amazing. Photos of people generally end up looking really goofy, with the person appearing as a paper cutout on top of whatever was behind them. Some of my co-workers figured out that by holding their arms out, they could create depth and make the photos look more interesting, but at most it just felt like another layer of paper placed on top. It’s more uncanny than it is 3D.

Landscape photos have a subtler effect, since there aren’t obvious cutouts on them and you get a clearer impression of space gradually fading into the distance. I found this was usually the case with videos, too — my own recordings were where the 3D effect seemed most evident and compelling to me. It’s here that I actually started to understand what RED might have been thinking, how you could start to see 3D as this rich new way of capturing the world.

That said, videos are still a pain to watch. The effect tends to flicker in and out and have lots of strange artifacts. It can hurt your eyes to watch, and it’s a little dizzying anytime there’s too much motion and the layers of depth are constantly changing. Plus, like everything else, the screen is still all smudgy.

Capturing photos and videos is kind of a pain, too. RED only figured out how to make it work when the camera array is side by side, so you can only record holographic footage from the rear cameras when the phone is turned sideways, and you can only record from the front cameras when the phone is held vertically. If you turn the phone too far, it’ll snap out of holographic shooting mode, then snap back again when you return to the correct position. I wanted to take a landscape holographic selfie so I could get another person in the frame, but the camera wouldn’t let me.

When you want to view your photos and videos in 3D later, you have to use the RED Player app, which looks like its interface was designed during the early days of Android — that’s to say, it’s chunky, ugly, and practical. It works, it’s just not the easiest app to navigate around. All of your 3D photos are also available to view in 2D, so you can share them with others who don’t own a Hydrogen One (i.e., the rest of the planet).

If you buy this phone, it’s very likely that the only way you’ll be able to show other people your 3D photos and videos is by handing the device over to them. They’re only viewable on the Hydrogen One, and while RED’s leadership thinks this tech will eventually come to laptops, TVs, and movie theaters, I wouldn’t bank on that happening any time soon, or ever.

Then there’s the rest of the phone. During a private event earlier this month, RED CEO Jim Jannard said “if you concentrate on what we’re doing that the other guys aren’t, you’re gonna love it. If you concentrate on a bug or a problem or Holopix crashes and write that we suck, then I’m gonna be mortified.” And it’s true — the Hydrogen One does not succeed when judged as a traditional smartphone. It’s not all bad. For the most part, things work and the specs aren’t terrible. It’s just that the phone isn’t anywhere close to being on par with what you can get if you spent your $1,300 elsewhere.

The biggest thing to talk about here is the design, because it’s unlike any other phone. There are two different textures on the back, and the sides of the phone dip in and out with a ribbed texture, offering grips for your fingers. The overall effect is something that seems to be designed for a ᴛᴏᴜɢʜ ᴅᴜᴅᴇ, and I don’t really care for it, but I’m happy to see RED trying something different.

The finger grips are a nice idea in theory, but they didn’t work out for me in practice. The sides of the phone are very grippy, so that’s nice. But you don’t usually hold a phone in this precise way with your fingers spread out along the length of it. Because buttons are embedded in some of the grips, you end up accidentally hitting them, too.

I dropped the phone on someone’s face and the red mark stayed for a week

The phone is also really big — because of its bezels, it’s larger in every dimension than the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max — and heavy. Like too heavy. While showing the phone to my fiancée, I accidentally dropped it about two inches, directly onto her face, leaving a red mark that’s stayed for days. Now, that’s my fault (and I feel very bad about it!). But plenty of people have dropped phones on their face in bed, and I don’t think they’re walking around with welts because of it.

Because the phone was supposed to come out last year, it also has last year’s processor — a Snapdragon 835 at a time when every other flagship has an 845. On one hand, who cares? The phone runs fine, and the 835 is still a great processor. But on the other, this is a $1,300 phone, and it’s missing something that’s in every other (decidedly cheaper) flagship Android phone currently available. It’s an unnecessary miss on a phone that’s already in the hole.

RED sometimes refers to this phone as a “media machine,” which is a really goofy way of trying to say that it’s more than just a phone. It’s not particularly great for consuming media, though: you can often see the lines between the pixels when there’s a light background, and the speakers sound distant and hollow. By default, something called “Audio 3D” is turned on, which made the phone get confused and only blare noises out of one speaker or the other (often switching mid-sound); I turned that off, and the problem stopped, but the sound quality wasn’t much better.

The phone’s strange design extends to its software, where you see a dark interface with big, screen-flipping animations. RED even made custom, grayed-out icons for a bunch of apps, but it’s weirdly inconsistent which ones have it and which ones don’t: Dropbox gets a custom icon, but Twitter and Facebook are still blue.

One area RED does better is regular, 2D photos. Now, you don’t exactly get RED’s color science here — Jannard told me the phone just doesn’t have the horsepower in it to apply the same kind of coloring done on the company’s cinema cameras — and you’re not getting a RED-made sensor, either. But in good lighting, you do get photos with some really nice, rich, and natural colors to them that I quite liked.

I wish RED had put its actual camera prowess into this phone

Unfortunately, that doesn’t extend to most of your photos, and it’s clear that RED doesn’t have the same software chops that its competitors have when it comes to making good use of a tiny sensor. The Hydrogen One falls apart in low light, and even in good lighting, it can’t match the dynamic range of the latest iPhones or Pixels. I often saw the phone blow out highlights that my Pixel 2 could capture. It really feels like a missed opportunity — it would have been wonderful to have a RED camera that fit in your pocket, but RED’s photography efforts instead went toward shooting 3D.

The phone also has a tiny physical camera button on the right side, embedded into the grip. I’m super into dedicated shutter buttons, but it’s a little tiny; and the phone’s big weight and size puts it in an awkward position. You can press and hold the button to launch the camera, which is nice, but it didn’t always work for me.

There’s one final big feature on this phone that I haven’t talked about yet, and that’s a series of small gold pins along the back. This is the Hydrogen One’s accessory expansion interface, and you’re supposed to be able to attach all kinds of things to transform the phone, much like Motorola’s Moto Mods.

The most exciting of those is a full-on RED-made camera sensor, with a lens mount that allows you to attach real lenses. It effectively turns the phone into a monitor for a tiny cinema rig, and Jannard says you can shoot a RED-quality movie on it. “If you were shooting an 8K Weapon on set as your A camera, this could certainly be your B camera,” he told me. “No question.”

The Hydrogen One isn’t meant to stand up to the iPhones, Pixels, and Galaxys

Unfortunately, that accessory doesn’t exist yet. And neither do any others. RED hasn’t even announced full details on the sensor, let alone its price — and you have to imagine it’ll cost more than the phone itself, given that RED’s cameras start at over $12,000. Given that the Hydrogen One is already a year delayed, it’s not at all clear that these accessories will launch any time soon.

And so, the three big things meant to set the Hydrogen One apart — its holographic display, 3D photo and video capture, and a powerful accessories port — all fail, and are ultimately the phone’s weakest points.

This phone isn’t meant to be compared against the iPhones, Pixels, and Galaxys. It’s supposed to be its own thing: rough in a few of the “phone” places so that it can wow in its own unique ways. It’s not meant for everyone. It’s for the RED fans and 3D enthusiasts who think smartphones should give us more.

But no matter what terms you review this phone on, it misses the mark. And with a $1,300 price tag, it’s impossible to justify how badly it misses.

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