RED Hydrogen One review: rebirth of a fad that was never popular
Qualcomm MSM8998 Snapdragon 835
Octa-core (4x2.45GHz + 4x1.7GHz Kryo 280)
Adreno 530 GPU
5.7 inches LTPS TFT
1440 x 2560 (~515 ppi)
Gorilla Glass 3
128GB storage + microSD
Rear: 12MP + 12MP
Front: 8MP + 8MP
November 2nd, 2018
Aluminum or titanium
Android 8.1 Oreo
Before we get into the full review of this very unique Android phone, let’s start with the buying experience. I, a RED fandom outsider, originally ordered Hydrogen One back in August of 2017 when pre-orders opened for this new Android phone made by a high-end digital cinema camera manufacturer. At the time I had still been using a Nokia Lumia 1020 as my daily driver since nothing else out there was capable of even coming close to the image quality of that device’s camera. But of course that device was getting old and Microsoft had stopped supporting it and it was getting to be time to find something new. A smartphone from a high-end cinema camera manufacturer seemed to be just what I was looking for to upgrade my trusty old Nokia camera phone.
While I had never used a RED camera, I knew its reputation for very expensive high-quality imaging and I was pretty disappointed with what other camera makers like Hasselblad, Leica, Kodak, etc. had done in the mobile phone space.
RED took my money right away. That should have been a red flag since pre-orders should never charge your credit card until what you ordered actually ships (there are rules about this at the FTC.) The company, in this case, seemed to behave more like a Kickstarter company that didn’t know what it was doing. I figured, “That’s okay if they have my money right now, as long as it ships in like a couple months or so.“
Well, aside from the email confirmation of my order right after I had checked out, I received no communications from RED whatsoever until this past August. Seriously — a full year! At least on Kickstarter, the people trying to start a business actually communicate with their supporters!
Okay, technically I got some word before that. I had emailed RED in May to ask for my address to be changed — at the time email was the only suggested method of communicating with the company. I received an automated response, followed by nothing. Over a month later, I tried again with a “you never responded to this” email. This time, it took them 3 days to reply. I was successfully able to tell them the new shipping address, but after a year, there was still no sign of the device at my offices.
I finally did some searching and found a RED Hydrogen One users group on Facebook where people were sharing rumors about the device. This is where I would finally be able to get some second-hand information about what happened to my $1,200. The information? Delays. This was not shaping up well.
On August 6, 2018, I received my first actual message from the Irvine, California-based company, and it was about a “Houdini” program where I could forfeit my pre-order in favor of receiving a “beta” prototype early. The catch was that I wouldn’t be allowed to talk about it until the official release or else they would disable the device remotely. But this message was actually just a forward that had arrived at my inbox at 4am Eastern — all Houdini devices had been spoken for by the time I woke up anyway. I kind of wish they had accepted me as a Houdini tester so I could have told them about all of the problems that you’ll read about below. Selling unfinished devices to pre-order customers sounds kind of shady to me, and bypassing the sequence of pre-orders to give lucky volunteers early access seems pretty unfair as well.
When pre-orders were live more than a year ago, I could have chosen between a $1,200 aluminum version or a $1,600 titanium version of the Hydrogen One. At the end of this September, it was officially announced that the titanium version was going to be delayed. So, the people who ordered titanium phones would get an aluminum one as well as the titanium version. A $1,200 phone PLUS a $1,600 phone for $1,600! How is taking away stock and potentially delaying some of their shipments fair to the aluminum buyers? Shouldn’t they get a discount, too?
On October 3, I received an email from Hydrogen via this address:
That totally looks legit, right?
The email requested all customers to verify their shipping addresses and it included a link to a Google Docs form. Okay, definitely not a scam, then.
After some emails to RED support, they verified that this was something they sent out. The team also verified that my correct shipping address was on file and that I didn’t have to enter my order number and shipping info into the Google Docs form. Is this company so bad at eCommerce that they’ve lost customers’ original shipping addresses from the pre-orders and had to make a Google Docs form? Well, that question would be answered soon enough.
Towards the end of October, I had been getting pretty concerned that RED still had no estimate of shipping or delivery dates and that was a problem since I would be traveling soon and other Pocketnow colleagues were traveling as well. We had no idea where or when the phone was going be. I finally received an email that my phone had shipped via FedEx. Good news, right?
But guess what… it was going to the wrong address! And according to the RED Hydrogen Facebook user group, I wasn’t the only one.
Thankfully, an email to the woman whose name was listed on the FedEx tracking info allowed me to have the package held at the local FedEx center so I could pick it up. It was there on a Monday morning, but FedEx wouldn’t let me pick it up until Tuesday for some reason. Regardless, long before receiving the device, I have been met with a complete lack of professionalism from this company — something that ardent fans lurking on social media and in the H4Vuser forums seem to demand from the tech media.
At least now we can begin our review.
One of the big selling points of the RED Hydrogen One, at least in 2017, was going to be its modular capabilities. It was going to be similar to the Moto Mods that we’ve seen with the Motorola Z series where there would be some electronic contacts on the back of the phone and you could snap attachments on to add functionality.
There was supposed to be a battery module and a 2D cinema module which would allow for attaching removable lenses from manufacturers like Sony, Nikon and Canon depending on which adapters you bought. The phone was also going to be able to function as a monitor for other RED digital video cameras. I was very interested in the 2D cinema camera attachment as that was going to have a larger sensor to accommodate the larger lenses.
All of that sounded awesome to me! But none of that has been put out though, so what we’re left with is a modular phone with no modules. Maybe we’ll see these modules in 2019, as RED CEO James Jannard says. Maybe we’ll see them in another 18 months? Maybe never?
From what I hear, there are no functional prototypes around right now, so judging by their track record so far, I wouldn’t be holding my breath. In the meantime, we have to judge this based on what we do have.
For a phone that was announced in 2017, we’ve got mostly 2017-style hardware.
The RED Hydrogen One runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset (not the newer 845), but that’s still got eight cores so it should be fine. We’ve also got 128GB of storage along with 6GB of RAM and a microSD slot for adding more storage. The screen is 5.7-inch LTPS LCD with Quad HD resolution, topped with Gorilla Glass 3. You’ve got a fingerprint reader in the power button.
There’s also Bluetooth 5, NFC, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, aGPS, a USB-C charging/data port, a 3.5mm headset jack, and a hefty 4,500mAh battery. The dimensions are 164.78 x 85.71 x 10mm and it weighs 263g. For cameras there are two 12-megapixel sensors on the back and two 8-megapixel sensors on the front.
What’s in the Box
When the RED Hydrogen One finally arrived, I was very impressed with the packaging. First of all, this is a pre-order version, so the packaging from AT&T, Verizon or other versions will probably be different.
This model comes with a big glass & metal RED Hydrogen logo “coin” along with a note from CEO James Jannard saying how this is the “single most exciting project” he’s ever worked on. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with the coin thing. I guess it’s a paper weight.
The box inside the box is equally impressive and includes a crazy embossed logo with a clear red circular gem in the middle.
The charger isn’t generic either. It’s got RED logos on the AC adapter and cable.
The RED Hydrogen One feels like a weapon. Imagine brass knuckles or a heavy hunting knife — that’s what this feels like. It’s all black aluminum and it is heavy.
The back is a mixture of metal ridges and a rubbery texture along with that bold circular logo. Here you can also see the connections for potential expansion modules.
The left edge has big finger grip ridges along with enormous volume buttons in two of the ridges.
One of the ridges on the right edge is flat and that’s where the power button and fingerprint scanner are. Oddly, you have to actually press the power button in order for the screen to wake up and recognize the fingerprint. Unfortunately, there are no programmable fingerprint scanner gestures for controlling other aspects of the phone — something we’ve come to expect from phones from the Google Pixel series and others.
The ridged edges feel comfortable enough, but as you can see in the above, small specks of dirt and food tend to get stuck in there.
Another ridge on the right edge includes a camera shutter button which nicely has a half-press-for-focus function and captures with a full press. Unfortunately, the button does not always launch the camera, especially when the device is locked. Having to turn the phone on with a power button press, then move your fingers to the camera button and press that to launch the camera requires some finger acrobatics and that induces a greater drop risk.
Make it simple: press the camera button, launch camera instantly.
Yes, there’s a proper headphone jack at the top.
The microSD/SIM card slot doesn’t require a tiny metal pin tool to open, but the thin fingernail slot is very difficult to get a grip on. I had to use a knife to pry it open.
The front facing cameras have this interesting inset to them. They’re arranged so that 3D photos can only be taken in portrait mode.
To the right of the earpiece is a large port for a multi-color LED notification light.
The dual 12-megapixel rear cameras have a good amount of space between them in order to get that stereo depth effect and 3D imaging. There’s also a dual LED flash — which doesn’t work for 3D photos for some reason — and a microphone hole on this glossy circular protrusion. We’ve got nice big front-facing speakers on the front.
The 3D Screen
The big thing about the RED Hydrogen One is that it uses a new diffractive lightfield backlight screen from Leia Inc. that makes things look three dimensional without you having to wear polarizing glasses that filter the separate frames to each of your eyes. RED calls it a 4-View holographic screen, but it’s really just projecting a series of offset frames to users’ eyes. Giving credit where it’s due, the RED’s better than the HTC EVO 3D, LG Thrill 4G/Optimus 3D, and Nintendo 3DS because it projects four frames to create the 3D effect instead of just two. You can still see the frame offsets misalignment fairly often.
Just like when we had 3D glasses-free Android phones in 2011, the Hydrogen One suffers from a dearth of available content.
We can’t really photograph the full effect of the 3D screen since other cameras don’t shoot in 3D. These 4-View images can’t be displayed on websites or on YouTube either. And we can’t even share the files with you as the proprietary formatting requires a RED Hydrogen phone to peer into them.
The 3D screen is kind of cool in the small handful of games and videos that you’ll find in the Leia Loft app store and Hydrogen Network video store if you can get it to work. The artifacts and errors are much less noticeable in motion graphics.
With photos in 3D mode, the screen looks remarkably pixelated. It feels like using a 320 x 240 screen that we used to have on smartphones 15 years ago. I never really cared much about pixel density as long as I could read my calendar, maps, and email, but going back to something where you can see those little squares is really jarring. The detail is just so absent.
With still 4V photos, it’s much easier to see edges ghosting and sharpness problems. The screen splits the images into four views and your eyes are supposed to pick up two of them in order for your brain to put together a 3D image like they do in real life.
Unfortunately, the projection of these different frames to each eye is far from perfect. I showed this to a friend and she hated it. She couldn’t stand looking at 4-View photos as they were causing her eyes to “bug out”. I can see this problem too, both in the photos I took and the ones I found on the HoloPix social network. Often, I see more of the duplicated edges and stray particles than the 3D effect and that’s unfortunate.
The screen gets very dim in 3D mode. You’ll want to look at it in a fairly low-lit room. The screen reflects glare as well and that ruins the 3D effect pretty easily.
On first boot, the phone plays this loud sound effect with a voice that says “Hydrogen”. Well, that’s an impression made.
You then see a motion logo that animates in 3D. Next, it’ll check for updates, not find any, and then you’ll go through the normal Google sign-in screens. Even though this sequence didn’t find any updates, there actually is a big day 1 update to install so the first thing I did was go to the settings and search for updates again.
RED fan reactions to early reviews panned the media for using pre-release software when the company only bumped down final images a day before the embargo date. James Jannard dismissed these reviews as sensationalist. I disagree.
In any case, even after the update, I found it disappointing that we’re still dealing with Android 8.1 Oreo as other phones make the transition to Android 9 Pie.
The RED Hydrogen One is mostly stock Android with a handful of custom 3D programs and a custom 3D camera app.
The Leia Loft app store is where you’ll find compatible apps that make use of the 3D screen. There are 11 games available and 5 apps, 3 of which are already pre-installed. One of them is a feedback app and the 5th is below:
Holopix is an Instagram-style social network image sharing app that supports the H4V 3D photos. Weirdly, in portrait mode, all the photos are cropped to a square, but in landscape mode you can see the whole thing.
The Hydrogen Network app has about 16 videos in it that support the 3D screen. Some of the videos cost money, but most are short, free demos. There are options to download or stream the clip. In my experience, downloads get stuck at 1% and then the app crashes continuously. You have to go into the OS settings and clear all data for the app to get it working again. Streaming barely works too: with a 70Mbps downlink, streaming would stall after a few minutes. There’s no indication that it’s buffering either. It would just stop working.
What little content there is to be had on this phone is mostly inaccessible.
The Hydrogen One includes a good pile of Google apps as well as social network apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger. I kinda wish I could delete some of those, but no such luck. They’re baked in.
We also get a nice default background image as well as an icon pack for programs designed by RED. You can tap and hold icons on the home screen in order to edit their icon styles.
Before we get into the actual performance of the cameras, I want to point out a video that CEO James Jannard posted on the H4V user forum back in September. It is a review by a Hollywood film industry professional named Michael Cioni and it shows off the camera’s depth-sensing and background blur simulation capabilities.
The problem is that even in that video you can clearly see how terrible this filter (a.k.a. computational photography) is at masking and blurring the background properly. It’s embarrassingly bad! Then again, I feel that all phones attempting to do this are embarrassingly bad at it.
I can clearly see serious masking problems in all of those examples, yet this Hollywood professional is praising the RED Hydrogen One’s camera as having great simulated depth of field.
Above is another example from that video. The mistakes, which I’ve highlighted with red circles, are all over the place.
RED’s community fans and Houdini beta testers on the Facebook group and H4Vuser forum thought that these types of problems would be fixed in the final version. Or they didn’t even see these big blurry problem areas on their own photos. I was skeptical that it would be fixed because I know in order to do depth of field simulation correctly, you need a lot more z-axis height map resolution and blur capabilities that can go behind the subject without interfering with the edges.
So, let’s see how the final version does.
Above is a 100% crop of two photos from the Hydrogen One. On the left, the fake bokeh mode is turned on. Now this is a very basic shape, but still, you can see the edges are bleeding into the background blur. In the right photo (without DOF mode), you can see that the edges have tiny threads sticking out along with more texture in the blue part of the scarecrow. The DOF bokeh simulation clearly fails miserably.
As soon as you get a subject that’s a little more complicated, the effect becomes even worse.
The only way that depth-sensing background blur filter would be acceptable is if I downsample the photo to something like 640×480 so that there’s not enough resolution to make out all of the mistakes. Actually, the only other way the depth-sensing background blur filter would be acceptable is if it was non-destructable and saved as an alpha channel along with the full RGB image so that we could use it as a starting point for a good mask. That’s what Adobe does with their new subject selection tools since they know that “artificial intelligence” isn’t always going to be quite right, even if it’s its own Sensei engine.
RED’s DOF simulation is completely destructive and basically ruins the photos in all examples I’ve seen. If I was a professional camera maker building a phone, I would have deleted this feature and put more effort into professional-grade capabilities.
So, what about the fuller capabilities of those 12-megapixel cameras on the back? Well, for me, this is a huge downgrade since I’ve been using 40-megapixel cell phone cameras since 2013. I thought, “This is RED though, surely they must have at least a really good 12-megapixel camera, right?”
In the above 100% crop, we’ve got a 2D photo from the RED on the left. On the other side, we’ve got the same crop from 2010’s Nokia N8, the first phone with a 12-megapixel camera.
Look at the fabric in the Halloween decoration or even the neon lights in the letters towards the bottom. In all cases, the Nokia N8 is showing a cleaner, more detailed image. It also exposes better than the Hydrogen One, which blows out the highlights. You can’t even make out the neon light tubing.
What’s that? You think we should compare it to a more modern smartphone? Okay. Here’s the same RED sample paired with a 100% crop from the triple-camera Huawei P20 Pro on the right. We used the 40-megapixel sensor here, but shot in the native downsampled mode that outputs 10-megapixel images.
This one really isn’t fair, but here we’ve got the RED Hydrogen One against a RAW DNG shot from the Lumia 1020 on the right. Obviously, the Lumia 1020 is way ahead of RED’s camera capabilities, but the thing is Nokia did it for $900 cheaper over five years ago.
Take a look below at a few other photos shot with the RED Hydrogen One.
It seems this camera hardware is just some generic sensor. You know, something I’d expect to see on a $400 phone. I was expecting something much better from a high-end digital camera company that makes $80,000 video cameras for Hollywood movies.
The camera software isn’t professional-grade either. First of all, its user interface is pretty poorly designed.
The video/still mode switch icons are opposite of what they should be, as are the H4V and 2D image toggle switches. When the button says “2D” that means you’re in 2D mode — the conventional indication is that pressing the button will switch users over to 2D mode. If you’re in still photo mode, you will not find a camcorder icon. The button has a still camera printed on it, but that’s the one you have to press in order to switch to video mode.
There is no RAW capture mode either, so that’s a deal breaker for me. But the JPGs aren’t terribly processed if you turn off the HDR and fake bokeh filters and you most certainly should since those don’t do very well at all.
The RED Hydrogen One has one of the biggest batteries in a smartphone at 4,500 mAh and therefore has well more than a day’s use of battery life. Obviously, this depends on how much you use it, but this is a seriously big battery. There must be some efficiency issues, though, because the battery does go down a lot more quickly than my Huawei P20 Pro. The Huawei has a smaller battery but it stays near 100% after about 3 hours of use while the RED Hydrogen One is already down to 90% by then.
Since we pre-ordered the RED Hydrogen One almost one-and-a-half years ago, our price was $1,200. Today it will sell for $1,300 on AT&T, Verizon, and the RED website. And that’s for the aluminum version — the titanium version costs $1,600, but it’ll be rare to come by.
RED did a lot wrong with the release of this phone. It should not have been announced until James Jannard knew he was going to be able to sell it. The company should not have taken pre-orders until it was ready to be sold. It should not have taken pre-order money until it had shipped. It should have developed the phone and expansion modules at the same time so that both would be ready at the same time.
It shouldn’t have been a disaster.
I’m willing to bet that as RED continues developing the 2D Cinema camera module, it’ll find that some modifications to the phone would be necessary to make it work better. Do those expansion pins offer enough throughput? Is there enough processing power? Is the shape balanced and easy to hold? They probably won’t know until there’s a working prototype.
The built-in cameras are very disappointing too. For some reason, they added chintzy consumer filters that no self-respecting professional photographer would consider using for anything other than a lark.
Is this meant for mass market consumers or creative professionals? I really don’t know.
If it was for creative professionals, we would have seen RAW support, depth map saved in alpha channels, programmable tonal curves, bracketing, custom metadata presets, programmable file naming conventions, custom transparent PNG watermark overlays and maybe even something as basic as manual focus.
If this is supposed to be a 3D media machine, where is the media? 16 short videos and 11 games? Yeah, it records 3D video, but there’s no way to share it with anyone and to edit it you have to copy the file to a real computer and do this weird file renaming thing just to get Premiere Pro to open it.
It’s really sad to see something that I’ve waited so long for turn out so disappointing at such a high price. Part of me wants to keep this phone around as a joke. You know, like how a really bad movie can be so bad it’s good? A lot of the other RED fans are betting that this will be really good someday and that awesome modules will be available someday, so it might be worth keeping as an early adopter. Another part of me can’t wait for someday. It wants my $1,200 back so I can spend it on something far more superior like the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. And I think that part has won me over.
Jules Wang contributed to this article.
- New type of 3D screen that's better than the ones we had in 2011 phones
- New type of 3D photo/video format "H4V"
- Heavy/Hefty build quality
- Might have expansion modules someday
- No notch in the screen
- Headphone jack
- MicroSD card slot
- 3D screen is a gimmick that you'll probably lose interest in quickly
- 3D screen can make your eyes uncomfortable
- Very little 3D content available
- Cameras are not as good as a 2010 Nokia N8
- Very large & heavy
- Very expensive
- No modules available
- Poor software implementations