Review

RED Hydrogen One review: It's really cool

RED's Hydrogen One is definitely among the most unique devices to cross my desk this year. It was first announced in July 2017, promising a holographic display. The device is finally here, and it lives up to its promises.

You can create 4-View content with either the front or rear cameras, and there's plenty of content to consume. There are games like Asphalt 8 that can be played in 4-View, and there are lots of images and videos that can be found on the Hydrogen Network. AT&T will be offering more content at launch as well, such as Ready Player One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which are both free for the carrier's customers.

Unfortunately, I can't show you any of this in my review, as screenshots or taking a picture of the display won't show the 3D content. In fact, this is part of my biggest issue with 4-View, which is that you can't share the content that you create unless it's with another RED Hydrogen One user. You can't convert it into other 3D formats, or print it as some type of 3D image. There are third-party apps that support it (Facebook, Verizon Messages) with more coming, but still, the recipient has to have a Hydrogen One or else it will show up as a standard 2D image.

One thing I'll say though is that everyone I showed the phone to was absolutely amazed by it, with zero exceptions. It's certainly a "wow" moment, and you'll definitely want to head down to an AT&T or Verizon store to see this thing in person.

Specs

CPU Snapdragon 835
GPU Adreno 540
Display 5.7 inches, 2560x1440, 515ppi, 3D Display LTPS-TFT
Body 164.78x85.71x10mm, 263g (292g for titanium model)
Camera Dual 12MP, Front - Dual 8MP
Video 4K - 30fps, 1440p - 60fps, 720p - 120fps, 480p - 240fps, Front - 4K - 30fps, 1080p - 60fps
RAM 6GB
Storage 128GB (256GB for titanium model)
Battery 4,500mAh
OS Android 8.1 Oreo


Day one

Design

One of the cool things about the RED Hydrogen One is that it's not designed like other smartphones that you'll see on the market. We've all seen the iPhones and Galaxies of the world, which are glass sandwiches that make us instinctively feel like we need a case the moment we hold them because they feel so fragile.

The Hydrogen One is not that. Built of aluminum, or titanium if you choose that model, the device feels rugged, like you don't even need a case. There are grips on the sides of the casing, so it doesn't feel slippery, and it has a textured back that gives it a premium feel.

Beneath that textured back are pogo pins, which are there for modular accessories that are coming next year. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to test these, since the accessories aren't available yet. Right in the middle of the textured back though is the RED logo, which stands out against the rest of the product.

And above the textured portion is a flat black section with the dual-camera model. This is probably the one part of the design that feels a little bland, but that's perfectly fine.

Back to the grips on the sides, the buttons are sort of hidden in them, and it takes a little while to get used to it. On the right side, the power button and fingerprint reader is in the third grip from the top, and the dedicated camera button is on the bottom one. On the left, the volume rocker is in the second and third grips down. I found this very confusing at first, but got used to it fairly quickly.

Oddly, you actually have to press the fingerprint reader to wake the phone. This felt weird, and it might be the only modern phone left where you actually have to press the button for it to scan your fingerprint.

On the bottom of the device, there's a USB Type-C port for charging, and on top, there's a 3.5mm combo audio jack along with a slot for a micro-SD and a nano-SIM card. The SD/SIM slot doesn't require a tool to remove the tray, and I appreciate that given that SD cards should really be able to be removed whenever you need to.

The front of the device embraces its bezels, another thing separating it from the pack. This allows for front-facing 3D spatial sound speakers, which sound awesome. A big part of this device is the immersive media consumption experience, and the audio quality is phenomenal.

It's also worth noting that at 263g, this phone is exceptionally heavy, and that means that the titanium one is even heavier. The weight makes it feel sturdy, but if you were looking for thin and light, this is not the device for you.

4-View Display

This is one of the hardest parts of the review to write, because I can't actually show you what's happening. After all, it's still a 2D screen, and it just looks 3D. First of all, the 4V effect doesn't work on the home screen or the lock screen. During normal use, it's just a regular 2D phone.

When you're viewing 4V content, it's wild, because it totally looks 3D. Most displays like this are lenticular, the Hydrogen One is not, and I've been assured that because of this, your eyes won't get tired of looking at the display. We've all had that moment when viewing 3D content where we just want to look away after 20 or 30 minutes, even if it's instinctual and we don't even realize it. We'll be watching a 3D movie, take our glasses off for 30 seconds, and put them back on.

This seemed to be accurate in my testing. The movies that AT&T will be offering aren't available yet, so I haven't had the chance to give it a full two hours of staring at the screen, but I did play Asphalt 8 for long periods of time, and I never found that my eyes got to be uncomfortable.

I will say, however, that the gameplay experience is much better in regular 2D. It's cool to play in 3D, but it also makes parts of the game harder to see. Photos and videos are great, but as far as playing games goes, it seems to need a bit of work at times.

The device seems to work by placing two images on top of each other. When it's in 2D mode, as you can toggle between 4V and 2D most of the time, the display doesn't even know that the additional layer is there; it's just a regular LCD.

Again, I highly recommend going into an AT&T or Verizon store to check out this device, because there's only so much that I can tell you about it. Take a picture of your friend and look at it. It's amazing. I often experimented by taking pictures of friends without telling them what it's for and then showing it to them. The response was always that they were just blown away by how awesome this is, with no exceptions at all.

Camera

Even without 4-View, the camera is pretty good, and it has some great features. The device has a Snapdragon 835 chipset, which means that 4K 60fps video capture is out of the question. You can do 1440p 60fps video capture with the rear camera though, which is nice. What's also impressive is that the front camera can capture video at 1080p 60fps or 4K 30fps, both of which are rare features.

When you shoot in 4V though, there are fewer options. Basically, you can only shoot in 4K, whether it's a still photo or a video, and only 16:9. Due to the way that the lenses are configured, you can only shoot 4V in landscape with the rear camera, and portrait with the front camera. This disappointed me, as I prefer to take all photos in landscape.

Let's take a look at some samples. The 4:3 ones were shot in 2D, while the 16:9 ones are shot in 4V, but appear as 2D on your pedestrian, 2D display. Also, as noted, it's easy to toggle between 4V and 2D on the device, while taking the picture and while viewing them.


One of the reasons that I took the same picture multiple times was because I was trying to decide if there's a difference in quality between a 4V image that's showing as 2D, and an image taken in 2D, other than the image resolution options. The biggest thing I came up with is that the device takes longer to capture an image in 4V, so moving objects can be a bit blurry. It was actually a really windy day, so it was perfect for testing this.

Portrait mode comes out quite nice as well though. It was suggested that I try this out, as I was tempted at first to just capture everything in 4V. It handles borders of objects very well, with no immediately visible distortions.

Taking pictures of my friends, or more importantly, my friends' dogs was a delight, but that's where the real problem comes in. I can show my friend this stunning picture of his dog, but I can't send it to him, at least in the form that he wants it. He needs a RED Hydrogen One for that.

As I see it, 4V is a new form of content, and when it comes to a new form of content, that needs to be sharable. We can't all assume that everyone is going to be carrying around a Hydrogen One, especially when RED is a brand new contender in the smartphone space. Personally, I think it would be cool if the company licensed the display technology so we can view this content on larger screens.

Otherwise, RED gets trapped in its own ecosystem. It's almost like taking the Apple route. Apple has lots of services that only work with other Apple products, but the difference is that Apple products are absurdly popular. RED is just getting started, and if the Hydrogen One doesn't take off, then this content format is DOA.

Again, the good news is that all of it still works as 2D. You can still send these images and videos to your friends, but it will just show up as a regular image. Still, 4V is the differentiating feature of this camera.

4V apps, services, and content

As I've said a few times, it's not just about content that you create with the camera. There's plenty of content that's available already, and the phone isn't even out yet (coming on Friday).

First, we have the RED|LeiaLoft app, which is where you can find apps and games that support 4V. Games include Asphalt 8, Modern Combat 5: eSports FPS, and Flippy Knife. Right now, the only apps are from RED and they include Holopix, Hydrogen Network, RED Player, RED Hydrogen User Feedback, and RED Camera.

All of the games are also available from the Play Store, but you'll have to download them from RED's store to get 4V.

Hydrogen Network is where you'll find movies and such. There are channels from Red Bull, The Mars Channel, and Moving Art, and this is also where you'll find Ready Player One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when they're available, along with other movies that you can purchase.

And then there's Holopix, which is where you can find user-generated content. It's almost like an Instagram for 4V content. This part is pretty cool. You can follow people, comment on their pictures, and just discover images. I'm a big fan of Doctor Who, so I found some sweet Karen Gillan images on there in 4V from the Philadelphia Film Festival.

But unfortunately, I can't share them with anyone. I keep coming back to this, because I see it as a huge problem. Instinctively, I saw those pictures and thought, "Hey, I should share these sweet 3D pictures of Karen Gillan with my friends." But I can't do that.

The bigger problem is that if the RED Hydrogen One doesn't take off, that means that 4-View content doesn't take off. And that means that things like Holopix and the Hydrogen Network become virtual ghost towns. It's really great that the Hydrogen One offers so much third-party content in the way of apps (presumably coming soon), games, movies, images, and videos, but if all of that stops coming, that means that we're just left with user-generated 4V content that we can't share with anyone.

Performance

RED's Hydrogen One is the newest phone to have Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 chipset, and it will probably stay that way. Indeed, this device is shipping over six months after devices with the Snapdragon 845 started coming out. The reason for using last year's hardware is because the device has been in the pipeline for so long.

But there's a reason that I save performance for last in my reviews. It's because it really doesn't matter. That Snapdragon 835 is backed up by 6GB RAM, and you're not going to notice a difference. If anyone that doesn't know the specs of a device can play a game on a Google Pixel 3 XL and play the same game on a RED Hydrogen One and tell the difference in performance, I'd like to meet that person.

As far as everyday use goes, the performance is great, and I didn't have a single issue. The Snapdragon 835 has a Snapdragon X16 modem, which supports 4G LTE speeds of 1Gbps, which is still well in excess of what carriers offer in the vast majority of markets.

The main thing that you're missing out on, on a device like this, is 4K 60fps video capture, which isn't supported by the chipset, and is supported by the Snapdragon 845. Presumably, this will be remedied in the next model, as it's a very camera-centric device.

For benchmarks, I used Geekbench 4, AnTuTu, and GFXBench. First up is Geekbench 4, which tests the CPU.

As you can see, the scores are on par with last year's devices, if even a little bit lower. Next up is AnTuTu, which tests a little bit of everything.

Again, the scores are a bit lower. This is fine though. We're living in a time when flagship phone hardware offers a lot more power than we need, and when most people do just fine with the performance of a $300 smartphone like the Moto G6, and this is still well beyond that.

Finally, GFXBench tests the GPU.

The results are once again, as can be expected.

Conclusion

The RED Hydrogen One is a great all-around phone. It has a massive battery that will get you multi-day use, awesome front-facing speakers, and a unique design. And then, of course, there's the 4V display and cameras, which is where the $1,200 price tag comes in.

The 4V camera is one of the coolest new features I've seen on a smartphone in a long time. Like I said, the reaction from friends that I showed it to was universal. For me, that's a great way of testing if a feature is exciting or not, to show it to friends and see what they think. They all absolutely love it, and they would surely like to see it on their next phone.

But I have to once again voice my concerns, which is that you can't share 4V content as 4V, unless you're sharing it with another RED user. I'd love to believe that the Hydrogen One will reach Apple levels of popularity, but that doesn't seem realistic. It's almost like if LG came out with a unique feature like this, so you bought the LG phone. But how many of your friends are using an LG? And if 4-View doesn't take off, then content stops showing up in RED's apps and services, and the value of the device drops, and the feature becomes a gimmick.

Personally, though, I love the device. It has that cool factor, where people will ask about it when they see it. Then you get to show them what it can do, and it's always a fun moment.

 

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