The RED Hydrogen One was first announced back in mid-2017. Over a year later and after a handful of delays, it has finally arrived. The device has always been aimed at a niche market, but after using it for a couple of days, I struggle to say it even appeals to them. Let’s take a closer look.

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HARDWARE |

Yeah, it’s a monster

As far as the hardware is concerned, this is a crazy device in every way imaginable. It’s built from aluminum with kevlar accents and grips all along the sides of the RED Hydrogen One. It’s absolutely massive, easily outsizing my Pixel 3 XL and Galaxy Note 9. It’s unapologetic in its size, and personally, I do kind of like it. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate a massive phone, though, need apply elsewhere.

There’s a ton of grip here and the heft is nice, but in daily usage such as being out on the town, this device feels like stepping back a few years in smartphones.

That’s not necessarily to say that this is a bad phone is terms of its design, it’s just a very niche and very unique design that honestly isn’t going to appeal to many people. The rugged looks are familiar to users of RED’s cinema cameras, and I think some of them might be interested in what the Hydrogen One has to offer.

I’ll definitely give RED some credit for the buttons on this device too. The power button/fingerprint sensor is in a good location and is surprisingly tactile, although adding some texture would have been appreciated. Accuracy is fairly good, though. The volume buttons are also located in a good spot and feel good, but my favorite bit is that there’s a dedicated shutter button on the right side which has a nice red accent color. I still don’t get why more phone makers don’t do this.

Elsewhere in the hardware, there’s a USB-C port for charging, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and also a SIM tray. Notably, that tray doesn’t need a tool to be removed as it’s a simple door that pulls out the tray with slots for your SIM card and also a microSD card. There’s also a notification LED up top if that’s your thing.

Along the back of the phone you’ll probably notice a handful of pins. These will, at some point in the future, support modular accessories. RED says that one of these accessories will by a RED-made camera sensor with a true lens mount. The CEO has said that this accessory will enable the RED Hydrogen One to shoot a “RED-quality movie” on the phone. Currently, there’s no word on when that will arrive or how much it will cost.

SOFTWARE |

Android without many changes

When it comes to the software on the RED Hydrogen One, I honestly don’t have much to talk about. There’s a pretty stock build of Android Oreo here which sees most of its changes in the launcher.

The launcher here feels like a spinoff of all the old launchers we all used years ago with transitions such as “revolving door.” It’s kind of fun, but it definitely doesn’t add any value. The AT&T unit I tested is also loaded up with plenty of bloat from the carrier, but RED’s own software doesn’t get in the way.

Performance on the Snapdragon 835 and 6GB of RAM is suitable, but nothing impressive. I noticed some frame drops here and there, but nothing particularly bad, but also not particularly good. It’s a happy medium, and I didn’t expect anything more. At $1,300, though, anyone buying this phone should expect a whole lot more.

CAMERA |

Not living up to what’s behind the RED name

There are two aspects of the RED Hydrogen One that sounded particularly exciting before launch, and one of those was the camera. When a cinema camera company whose name is right there with some of the biggest movies in the world, you’d be right to expect something pretty spectacular from its smartphone.

However, the cameras here aren’t anything particularly impressive. The dual-camera system gets the job done well and beat out some other devices, but they don’t quite match a Pixel or even a recent Samsung flagship. RED says that the phone just doesn’t have the needed power to use the same coloring that the company’s cinema cameras are capable of, but some shots just make me wonder if they gave up before really trying. A handful of samples are below.

With a name as big as RED and a price as big as $1,300, you can only be compared to the best of the best, and right now that’s the Google Pixel 3. I took the two phones side by side for a couple of shots and, well, the results speak for themselves…

RED Hydrogen One (Left) vs Google Pixel 3 (Right)

Hopefully, the coming modular accessories will help open up the capabilities of this device for photo and video. Two things I do quite like include RED’s camera app which is nicely laid out and has advanced controls. The other would be the physical shutter button which, as mentioned, I just love.

On the note of that coming module, I do think it could be a game changer. Currently, the Hydrogen One is a smartphone, plain and simple. When that module arrives, though, it’s going to change things dramatically. Instead of being a really strange phone, it will become a new entry-level to RED’s camera quality. At least, that’s the hope, and I’d gladly take another look at this device once that arrives.

DISPLAY & 4V |

What’s absolutely the biggest “attraction” of the RED Hydrogen One is that it has a “holographic” 4V display. RED hyped this feature up big time, not allowing many who saw it before launch to even describe it. Now, we can tell you what it looks like. Some may have imagined a Star Wars (or Star Trek, take your pick)-esque hologram popping out of the display, but that’s just not the case. This compares most closely to the Nintendo 3DS, and only certain apps and content can pop you into the “4V” mode.

The 5.7-inch display on its own is fine, and when you’re in the 4V mode it does feel futuristic, but it also feels not quite finished. There’s quite a bit of content out there, including videos in the “Hydrogen Network” app.

You can also shoot your own photos and videos with the rear or front cameras by toggling the 4V mode. This is an area where I can see users actually enjoying the effect. It adds a new layer of creativity to your photos and videos, and you can even share them fairly easily with the HoloPix app. That fairly active community is full of what I think are some of the best examples I’ve seen of this feature in action. Despite that, though, I’m just not convinced by this feature.

Looking at the effect for anything more than a few minutes feels weird to look at and, at least in my experience, it sometimes gives you a headache. Perhaps that’s just an issue with my own eyes (which, admittedly, probably need a checkup), but RED has partnerships in place that intend to bring feature-length films such as Ready Player One to the device. At this point, I can’t imagine staring at the effect for even remotely that long.

RED said that the tech here isn’t supposed to make your eyes feel tired, but I found just the opposite to be true. By comparison, the Nintendo 3DS doesn’t give me a headache, but my eyes feel similarly strained looking at that effect.

Worse yet, the quality just isn’t great. It looks decent, better than most implementations of this technology, but it’s just not quite right. Where the standard display on the RED Hydrogen One is fairly sharp, the 4V effect takes away a lot of the quality. In some cases it looks really cool, but in others, it’s just a blurry mess.

It’s a shame that this falls flat, but credit is due to RED for giving it a valiant effort. For what it is, this effect works well and I’ve honestly been shocked at the amount of available content. Unfortunately, all of my issues with this technology are with the hardware, and that can’t be changed.

LITTLE THINGS |

– Battery Life

The RED Hydrogen One has a 4,500 mAh battery embedded within. Charged over USB-C, that power pack easily lasts a full day. I wouldn’t say there’s anything crazy about the battery life here, but it’s good enough for most users. Admittedly, though, I’ve only not been using this phone as my sole daily driver for long though, so I can’t tell you how good the battery will be over time. In my testing though, endurance seems pretty good.

– Speakers

There are two speakers on the front of the RED Hydrogen One, and they’re just plain awful. They do get loud, but the quality is lacking severely. That might be a result of the pre-production hardware I’m using, but at least on my unit, these are easily the worst speakers I’ve heard on a phone in years. A big part of that is the awful “Audio 3D” effect which is enabled by default. If you do pick up this phone, turn that off immediately.

FINAL THOUGHTS |

The RED Hydrogen One is not an easy phone to review. It’s not really meant to be compared to Google’s Pixel or basically any other Android phone out there. That’s what RED’s CEO says anyway. It’s supposed to be “its own thing.”

Looking at the Hydrogen One from that light, it’s not an abysmal offering. It has a lot to bring to the table with the modular attachments being at the top of the list. I think it will appeal to a small subset of customers that are megafans of RED, but that’s pretty much it. Even those who were intrigued enough to put in pre-orders ahead of the full reveal might not find that this device is right for them, at least until we hear more about the modules.

There’s something very important to note about this phone, though, and it’s something that hardcore fans will try to ignore. The RED Hydrogen One is going to be sold at major US carriers including AT&T and Verizon right alongside iPhones, Pixels, and other mainstream devices. With a starting price of $1,299, it’s important to actually look at the Hydrogen One compared to those devices. From that aspect, the one that really matters, the Hydrogen One is a unique device that basically no person should buy. It admirably tries to be something new, but falls on its face along the way.

The RED Hydrogen One will be available from AT&T and Verizon Wireless on November 2nd.

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