When the first iPhone was introduced by Steve Jobs in 2007, it propelled the phone market in a new direction that had competitors running to create something similar. A decade later, it's very much the same story with Apple's flagship setting the tone for what phones will look like if they want to be successful.
Ignore that and go in a completely different direction and you have the Hydrogen One, RED's first smartphone. It doesn't even remotely attempt to take inspiration from the iPhone, or any other Android phone for that matter, treading forward with a vigorous attitude of shaking the market with ambitious ideas that frankly no customer is asking for.
Regrettably, most of RED's ideas consist of features that make the device one disappointing gimmick.
Before I get into talking about the Hydrogen One's features, let me recap the exhaustive journey the device took on its way to release.
RED makes some of the most powerful 4K cameras in the movie industry, so it came as a big surprise when CEO Jim Jannard revealed in July 2017 that his company was diving into the difficult market of smartphones. He promised the mythical phone was going to introduce features no other smartphone offered and turn the smartphone market on its head.
When the Hydrogen One was introduced, it was revealed to be a device with an ultra rugged design that borrowed a lot of inspiration from RED's cameras, not exactly the point of reference you'd peg for a smartphone.
Among the specs the device features is a 5.7-inch 4V holographic display, Snapdragon 835 processor, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage with microSD expandability, front-firing dual stereo speakers, 4,500mAh battery and a 12MP dual-camera system. That was right in line with the best smartphones of the time—Galaxy S8, V30, OnePlus 5 and Pixel.
RED promised the phone would debut in early 2018. It didn't and the phone entered a year of nonstop delays. After missing the early 2018 window, RED pointed toward summer as the new release timeframe, even holding an event in May to give reporters a chance to see the phone for the first time, which we did, but as you probably guessed by now, it was delayed again. Fifteen months after being announced, the RED Hydrogen One is finally here.
About those gimmicks
Remember those gimmicks I mentioned earlier? Well it's two of them RED hopes can be the breakthrough features that make the Hydrogen One a hit: a 4-view holographic display and modular functionality. We've seen similar implementations of these features in the past, think of the HTC Evo 3D and Moto Mods, but RED believes its implementation is the real game changer.
It's kind of hard to take a 4V holographic display seriously. There's no other way to take it other than a gimmick similar to 3D. But RED did a much better job compared to what we've seen from HTC or Nintendo with its 3DS gaming console, although not significantly better.
RED's 4V technology does not use the common 3D method where two images are combined to create a three dimensional effect. Instead, is uses some very impressive engineering with the LCD panel by putting a layer underneath it that redirects light to multiple directions through a new lighting system it calls Leia. This, along with a special algorithm, is able to deliver a "4-view" image that pops with various layers of depth.
The effect is kind of odd but once the oddity wears away, it grows on you. Most pictures taken with the 4V effect display two layers of depth, but others display up to four making the scene look super deep and surreal.
RED is pushing 4V through multiple apps dedicated to this content. Among them is the Hydrogen Network which will house 4V content and an Instagram-like social media app called Holopix.
The Hydrogen One comes with 10-minute sneak peeks of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Ready Player One courtesy of AT&T, to see what the conversion of regular content to 4V looks like. Frankly, there's not much to talk about. It just doesn't look that great and I often wondered if the 4V mode was actually on. It was, but that's how subtle the effect is.
Unlike stills that deliver true depth, converted movies and videos don't deliver this same effect and the results are not that remarkable.
This brings me to the most disappointing aspect of 4V—its resolution. The Hydrogen One boasts a high-res Quad HD display, but when using 4V mode, it downscales to a much more pixelated resolution. I'm not sure the exact measurement, but I'd peg it to be around 720p, if not lower. Hurting its chances to be something worthwhile is that there is a clear separation between standard use and 4V use. A user could use the phone without ever knowing 4V content exists because it only works within a few select apps. And even with that, the library of 4V content is still significantly limited.
Although the 4V holographic display has a lot of potential given the things it can do, I don't believe it is a feature casual consumers are clamoring for. If you do use the Hydrogen One, it's a feature you'd forget about within a few days and never use again.
The other gimmicky feature is the pogo pins on the back of the phone that will allow for mod support. RED is working on a camera module and another that could turn the Hydrogen One into a display for its high end cameras.
Alas, RED hasn't released any of these mods so we don't know how well they will work. If history serves any indication, probably not that good. LG and Motorola both ditched support after only a few years of experimenting with mods because they were never hits with consumers. I suspect RED is going to run into the same road blocks.
Four cameras, okay pictures
I separated talking about the camera too much while talking about the 4V display because it deserves its own section given the importance we place in mobile cameras nowadays. With that disclaimer, the 12MP dual-camera system goes hand in hand with the holographic display because it's the primary medium you'll consume 4V content.
RED tries to leverage its knowledge of high end cameras with its implementation of a mobile camera, but it seems its focus was too much on developing a gimmicky 4V feature that stunted the overall quality, because the camera isn't anything to be impressed by.
With a well lit setting, the camera takes solid pictures. Detail is sharp, processing is good and the dynamic range is adequate, but without the perfect conditions the camera begins to show its shortcomings. Low-light photos come out looking noisy with major loss in detail.
Things don't improve with the 8MP front-facing dual camera. It's equipped with the same 4V photo-taking functionality and similarly produces solid results in good lighting but stumbles with low-light images.
You can switch between different camera modes such as regular, 2x optical zoom, 4V and Portrait Mode. Like most other smartphone cameras, Portrait Mode on the Hydrogen One puts the subject front and center and blurs the background. The results were on a par from what you'd see with the LG V40, a solid smartphone camera but certainly not the best.
As for the 4V photos and videos, they are a unique parlor trick, but the novelty wears off real quick. After playing around with the features for a while, I lost interest. Another negative is that the 4V photos you take with the camera are stuck on the phone. If you send them to another person without a Hydrogen One phone, they'll just come out looking like normal photos.
For a middle of the pack smartphone camera, the Hydrogen One is fine, yet it never stops being disappointing because RED is a camera company and its smartphone camera doesn't come close to matching the iPhone XS and Pixel 3. If there was one area you'd think a RED phone would be good at, it would be photography; that, unfortunately, is not the case with the Hydrogen One.
No silver lining here
If you were waiting for a silver lining, I can't give you one. After the novelty of the 4V holographic display (and camera) wears off, and it does, you're stuck with an expensive heap of metal that has a really disappointing display and so-so camera. I've talked about the shortcomings of the camera, but the display is just as disappointing with the most unpleasant Quad HD display on a phone.
Because RED chose to go with the 4V holographic display, it had to find a way let more light shine through the pixels. In the development process, it decided it was a good idea to make big squares of pixels really noticeable and the result is a display that isn't that sharp with an ugly faux pixelated look. I'm okay with trying gimmicks if I can ignore them after they stop being useful, but if it compromises a key function of the phone, then it stops being worth the trouble.
As I reviewed the Hydrogen One, I could not figure out why RED chose to include a Snapdragon 835 processor when the newer 845 processor is available. Maybe it's something to do with the architecture of the phone that probably would have cost more money to re-engineer with the 845 processor, but it makes the phone dated upon arrival essentially cutting off a year of its lifespan.
Fanning my concerns was stuttery software performance. At multiple times, the phone's performance was super janky with normal operation. That's concerning because it's running virtually stock Android 8.1, not a heavily skinned version. Holding on an app to activate more controls was constantly slow and games had missing frames. Performance did improve when a new update was pushed out during my testing, but it didn't solve all of the minor performance issues affecting the phone.
Then there's the gaudy hulking design of the phone that looks unique but feels like you're holding a slab of metal instead of a premium smartphone. I'll give RED credit for at least incorporating ridged metal sides for better grip and kevlar panels for an added touch of opulence, but it doesn't cut it for me. It never stopped feeling overweight and impersonal in the hand.
To add insult to injury, the over-industrial design of the Hydrogen One cuts off a key feature every modern flagship has: wireless charging. Is it a necessary inclusion? Not really. Yet when you pay what you're going to have to pay for the Hydrogen One, it better have every modern smartphone feature underneath the sun and then some to justify the price tag, which leads me to my next point.
Don't buy it
The straw the breaks the camel's back is the Hydrogen One's outlandish price tag. Starting at $1,295, that price eclipses the starting price of the iPhone XS Max, Galaxy Note 9 and Pixel 3 XL—all of which are better phones.
RED doesn't really seem to understand the smartphone market here. That's the only justification I can make for it to come in with its first smartphone at such a ridiculous price point. Consumers had a tough time paying $1,000 for the iPhone X last year, what makes RED think it can make a better pitch to customers?
I'm not saying this because smartphones shouldn't be expensive. On the contrary, they are expensive and will only continue to get more expensive in the years to come. But what RED does is exclude necessary and expected smartphone features for questionable gimmicks and the value proposition never evens out, leading to a device that I cannot recommend.
The Hydrogen One is a badly missed first attempt on RED's part. Credit the company for being unique and aiming for something more, but it fails to meet the bare minimum of modern smartphone quality.