It works • Battery life lasts long • Loud front-facing stereo speakers
‘Holographic display’ is garbage • Bulky • shoddily-built construction • So gargantuan it hurts to hold • Laughably outdated Android interface • Where the hell are the modules?
RED deserves credit for running in the opposite direction of mobile trends with the Hydrogen One. It’s too bad they made all of the wrong choices.
The biggest loser of 2018, the worst phone — no, worst product — released this year is, unfortunately, RED’s Hydrogen One phone.
Practically everything about the Hollywood cinema camera maker’s first smartphone is terrible.
The Hydrogen One has been one big disappointment after another since it was announced last year. If its gargantuan, design, dated specs, and exorbitant $1,300 starting price for the aluminum version ($1,600 if you bought the titanium version) doesn’t turn you off, everything else about this monstrosity will.
This review could have come months ago, but I wanted to give the phone and its gimmicky and not-at-all holographic “holographic display” a fair chance as shotgun to my iPhone (I’m a two phone guy — always an iPhone and Android).
For the first week ending in October, I really tried my best to give the Hydrogen One a shot as my daily driver (i.e. as my main phone).
While initial reviews slammed the phone’s camera for being complete garbage, I secretly hoped the handful of post-launch software updates might resolve many of the issues and maybe make the phone a sleeper hit.
Sadly, nearly two months into carrying the Hydrogen One phone, I must declare it the dud of the year.
At a press launch with carrier partner AT&T in late October, RED founder and CEO Jim Jannard candidly summed up the phone before it even launched: “We have no idea what we’re doing.”
Big and hefty
The Hydrogen One is technically a phone, but I didn’t get the sense Jannard cared for it as a device for making calls, or texting, or browsing the web.
As he re-introduced the Hydrogen to press and many who hadn’t seen it during the company’s limited preview events before, I could sense he was more enthusiastic at the idea of merely doing something different.
Jannard, after all, was advised by his friends and family he’d never succeed challenging Ray-Ban when he started Oakley sunglasses and he’d never supplant Hollywood film camera powerhouses like ARRI or Panovision with RED digital cameras, and look how that worked in his favor. His two companies ended up disrupting two industries.
While phone makers copy each other and race to the death to shrink the notch, remove it altogether, slim down the bezels, and build foldable phones, Jannard and company tried to dazzle by running in the opposite direction.
Instead of a thinner and sleeker glass-and-metal “sandwich,” the Hydrogen One is a thick and monstrous chunk of metal with aggressive-looking “scalloped” sides and a striking backside with a prominent RED jewel logo. The device is big, heavy, and such a menacing tank that I kept thinking of the phone as brass knuckles every time I gripped it. Seriously, you could probably bludgeon someone with it. And good luck putting them in your pants pocket — don’t be surprised if the phone rips your jeans.
At first I sorta appreciated the size. Typing on it was a good experience since your hands aren’t so cramped holding it. But the phone’s so darn heavy it started to hurt just using it every day. And about the scalloped sides — they’re supposed to make the phone easier to grip, but I ended up dropping the phone more times than devices made of more slippery glass.
I don’t have a problem with the bruises (mostly scratches and dents) from dropping or banging up a phone (I kinda dig the battle-scarred look), but this phone’s built like a tank. It should at least survive better in my filthy dirt and lint-filled backpack better than an iPhone XS or Galaxy Note 9. And yet it doesn’t.
My first review unit somehow acquired a long scratch right between the dual rear cameras. The glass is sapphire, which should be pretty darn scratch-resistant. You either need another piece of sapphire glass or a material that’s harder like diamond to scratch it, but that wasn’t the case. I had only unboxed it and pocketed it in my jeans and gone to lunch. When I came back it was damaged.
My second unit’s sapphire camera cover fared better, but the bruising from daily wear and tear has made me question its build-quality, especially for the price.
Mediocre at every turn
Like I said, if the unorthodox design doesn’t offend you, the rest of the phone will.
The bezels above and below the 5.7-inch display (2,560 x 1,440) are the biggest I’ve seen on any phone released this year. But they’re huge for good reason: They contain two very loud front-facing stereo speakers.
A big “forehead” and “chin” are fine when they’re purposeful (like on the Pixel 3 or Razer Phone 2), but on the Hydrogen One, the cutouts for things like the dual selfie cameras, proximity sensor, and speaker grills are sunken in and collect dust. As a result, sometimes my selfies have little speckles of dust around the edges.
There’s a dedicated recording button on the right side of the phone — in case it wasn’t clear what this phone’s priority is — which opens the camera if you long-press it. It’s cool, but a double-press of the power button on many Android phones does the same.
The phone’s marquee feature — its highly anticipated “holographic display” or what RED officially calls “4-View” — is horrible in every sense. It’s nothing more than a marginally better version of the glasses-free display on the Nintendo 3DS.
There’s nothing “holographic” about anything that pops off the display, which is to say it’s not delivering holograms in the Star Wars sense, where a person or object floats in mid-air. Instead, it basically tricks your eyes into thinking there’s depth to the image.
It wouldn’t be as disappointing if the 3D was at least spectacular, but it isn’t. It’s mediocre. Viewing angles, while slightly better than a Nintendo 3DS’s display, are poor when viewing holographic content anywhere outside of dead-center. And the resolution of the holographic content is extremely low.
The screen is so bad some people said it hurt their eyes looking at the holographic content. At least on the Nintendo 3DS there’s a physical slider to adjust the intensity of the 3D depth if the maximum setting is too much on your eyes.
The “holographic display” is mediocre.
You know how everyone always says “content is king?” Well, it really needed to be true on the Hydrogen One more than any other device, and it failed. Holographic 4-View photos look bad and you can only take these special 3D photos in landscape mode and not portrait. You also can only view them in 4-View within the RED Player app and not Google Photos. And on the topic of limited viewing, the depth in these 4-View pics can only viewed on another Hydrogen One.
Holographic apps are downloaded from the RED|LeiaLoft app; games like Asphalt 8 support the special display but not many others. And take it from me, as good as a game as Asphalt 8is in 2D, it’ll give you a headache and make you wanna puke in 3D.
Then there’s the Hydrogen Network, a place to rent and buy “holographic” movies. There are some big films like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ready Player One, and The Avengers, but I’d advise you to steer clear of these just like the crappy holographic games.
The traditional 2D viewing is equally bad. The screen’s too dim and you can actually see the pixels that are used to create the 4-View effect. If you thought a display with a PenTile pixel array was bad, the Hydrogen One’s display takes it to another level.
And it gets worse. Yes, it really does. Though I have no problems with the responsive fingerprint sensor/power button sunken into one of the right scalloped sides, or the fast charging, or the headphone jack (nice!), or the easily accessible microSD card and nano SIM card tray (doesn’t require a SIM ejector tool), I have to tell you the software is unacceptable.
It’s not only that the Snapdragon 835 chip is already over a year old at this point and can’t keep up or that the software is based Android 8.1 Oreo and not 9 Pie, but that RED chose to give the interface such an egregious skin.
I get that the red, silver, and black icons match RED’s branding, but together with the 3D flipping animations when you switch homescreen pages, the whole UI just looks like we got knocked back to the early days of Android when the Motorola DROID ruled supreme.
Now to be fair, RED did modernize a few things with the latest software update. But still, the whole phone feels alien in 2018. Even the sounds the phone makes when you lock it with the power button or tap the shutter button are cringe. I swear a pack of tourists freaked out when they heard the loud shutter button fire off when I was taking a sunset shot at Brooklyn Bridge Park back in October.
Oh, and how about its cameras? They’re so crappy, I’m gonna quickly gloss over this section in lieu of my usual comprehensive camera comparisons.
Photos from the Hydrogen One’s dual 12-megapixel cameras look okay at first, but blow them up and compare them to shots taken with an iPhone XR, XS, Pixel 3, or even a OnePlus 6Tand you’ll find they lack dynamic range, contrast, HDR stinks, and images are usually grainier. In low-light, the cameras completely fall apart.
Here are some initial photos I shot…they’re not pretty.
Software updates seemed to have increased contrast a little and warmed up the color temperature, but as you can see in the comparison below, the cameras aren’t worthy of $1,000+ phone.
IMAGE: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE
IMAGE: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE
IMAGE: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE
IMAGE: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE
It’s a little nuts that RED, a camera company known for making the best digital video cameras, failed to make a phone with the best camera for photos and videos.
About the only thing the Hydrogen One gets right is battery life. This thing’s 4,500 mAh battery is one of the largest on any 2018 phone and it just lasts and lasts.
So many unfulfilled promises
It was a long shot to expect RED to make a groundbreaking phone — these days anyone can go to a factory in Asia and cobble together great parts and slap their name onto slab of glass and metal — and the Hydrogen One proved me right.
In the end, the RED Hydrogen One and its gimmicky “holographic display” left me with more emptiness than I had hoped for. The phone’s disappointing on every level and at this point, holding out for the promised modules that are supposed to transform it into a cinema-grade camera with features like a larger image sensor and mount support for virtually any camera lens seems like fraud.
Besides their word, nobody outside of REDs seen this camera module, which makes it as good as vaporware. And by the time it gets released (if it ever gets released), the Hydrogen One 2 (or will it be Hydrogen Two?) will probably be out by then.
Which leaves the Hydrogen One as one of the most hyped and ill-conceived phones in years. It’s a miracle RED even shipped it.
With all respect to Jannard and RED, I will always root for the underdog, especially when it comes to trying new things in a stale product category. I love seeing David versus Goliath scenarios. Jannard told press at its launch event “if you concentrate on what we’re doing that others aren’t doing, you’re gonna love it.”
I tried really hard to care about the Hydrogen One’s special features — the “holographic display” and weird design — but I just couldn’t. The bottom line is: If you want a great portable camera, just go and get a great little camera like a Sony RX100 VI or a slightly larger, but still small-ish mirrorless camera like the Sony A6500 or Panasonic GH5. Both shoot 4K video really well and take fantastic photos.
Just don’t spend your money on the Hydrogen One. It hurts to say it, but the Hydrogen One is so much fail and as such, is the rightful winner of the worst tech product of 2018.