RED Hydrogen One review

Buy now, enjoy later? Red’s Hydrogen One lacks its most anticipated feature

The Red Hydrogen One’s ambition outpaces its quality.
The Red Hydrogen One’s ambition outpaces its quality.
The Red Hydrogen One’s ambition outpaces its quality.

Highs

  • 4-View screen is unique
  • Great battery life
  • Durable build quality

Lows

  • No Android Pie
  • Limited 4-View content and places to share
  • Bulky, cumbersome design
  • Cinema Mod won’t arrive for a year
  • Expensive

DT Editors' Rating

Red says the Hydrogen One is a phone the world “can’t stop looking at.” Yet we’re ready to put it down.

Perhaps the hype inflated our expectations, but we’re disappointed by the “better than 3D” display the company touted for a better part of the year. The technology is impressive, there’s no doubt about that, but the result feels jarring. Worse, many of the phone’s core features won’t be available until the end of 2019. While it’s undeniably the most interesting phone we’ve reviewed this year, it’s also among the least practical.

Editor’s note: We’ve updated this review after we received an over-the-air update.

Unique, loud, and cumbersome

No other phone looks like the Hydrogen One. Its unique and loud design often draws curious eyes. The back packs a massive dual-camera module at the top, with raised lines that lead into a flashy red logo, with gold pogo pins below. Kevlar panels lie here with a weave pattern for added protection and flair. Minimal it’s not, but it does resemble Red’s camera gear.

The edges of the phone are ridged for better grip. They don’t look pretty, but they do make this behemoth of a phone easier to hold. We like the lined texture, too, as it also helps with grip.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

There’s a camera shutter button on the right edge towards the bottom, an indented fingerprint sensor on the same side (which doubles as the power button), a USB-C charging port at the bottom, and a headphone jack at the top. The fingerprint sensor is quick to react and unlocks the phone quickly.

On the front, you’ll see an aesthetic similar to the Razer Phone 2. Chunky bezels at the top and bottom deliver A3D Spatial Surround Audio, which we’ll get into later. The top bezel also houses two cameras, with a LED light that flashes when notifications come through.

No other phone looks like the Hydrogen One.

There’s a little too much going on all around, and even people with large hands will find it cumbersome to use. We constantly had to shuffle it up and down just to be able to reach the top or bottom of the screen, and it’s heavy at 263 grams. Apple’s 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max weighs just 208 grams, while the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 weighs 201 grams.

The build quality, however, is excellent, as the phone feels like it can withstand its fair share of drops. The model we reviewed is made of aluminum, but a titanium version is also available (at $1,595) for an even heftier, more luxurious feel.

Mods are coming…next year

There’s a reason for the ridged lines and pogo pins on the back of the phone — the Red Hydrogen One is a modular phone. It’s not magnetic like Motorola’s Moto Mods, but mods will attach to the back of the phone in some way.

We say “will” because it’s currently a promised, not delivered, feature. Red hasn’t shown any finalized mods yet, but we know of three planned so far: A battery mod, an expandable storage mod, and a Cinema mod. The latter is the most interesting, as the company says it will have a Red imaging sensor, and you will be able to attach lenses from Nikon, Sony, Canon, Fujifilm, and a variety of other camera-makers to turn the phone into a proper DSLR.

red hydrogen one ridges
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

That sounds incredible. Just one problem. The earliest we expect to see the mod is a full year after the Hydrogen One’s release, in the fall of 2019. It also sounds like it’ll cost a pretty penny, on top of an already expensive phone. While we’re excited to see how it works, the long wait and high price are a serious issue. Most manufacturers will release an entirely new flagship smartphone by then, putting the Red Hydrogen One well behind the curve before you ever lay hands on the promised Cinema mod.

4-View display, A3D speakers

Two features excited us most when we received the Hydrogen One — the Cinema mod and the 4-View display. We won’t be able to test the former until the end of 2019, but the 4-View technology is built into the screen of the phone and available immediately.

4-view means the screen can display supported content in 3D, or as Red says, “better than 3D.” Red hasn’t allowed anyone to take a photograph or video of the screen all year because the company believes it’s something you need to see in person to understand. We agree. It’s difficult to describe the effect, and each person we’ve shown has had a visceral reaction. You should visit an AT&T or Verizon store showing off the Hydrogen One and look yourself, because it’s impossible to properly show in video or photographs.

At the end of the day, you’ll need a supported screen to see content in 4-View.

The Lightfield Display powering the technology is made in partnership with Leia Inc., and it doesn’t require glasses. 4-View’s 3D is much more convincing than Amazon’s Fire Phone, and slightly better than the Nintendo 3DS. Images don’t “pop out” of the screen like a hologram, but you can clearly see depth, which helps makes the subject of an image or video stand out. The effect isn’t perfect, though. It can look fuzzy, doesn’t look great at angles, and we often found ourselves with a minor headache after staring into the 4-View screen for more than few minutes.

What can you watch in 4-View? If you take 4-View photos and video in the camera app, you can look at them in the Red Player app. Red also created an app called Holopix, which is a bare bones Instagram-like app that (strangely) isn’t pre-installed. You’re able to share 4-View photos and videos there, but they can only be viewed on the Hydrogen One phone. The company said it’s in talks with Facebook and Instagram to support the 4-View file format, but at the end of the day, you’ll need a supported screen to see content in 4-View.

The Red Leia Loft app is a curated store that houses apps and games that support 4-View technology. There’s not a lot of content yet, with only a handful of games available. We played games like Flippy Knife in 4-View, and we hardly felt like the effect was being used. It didn’t add anything to the game or the experience.

There’s also the Hydrogen Network, which is basically Netflix for 4-View content. You’ll can stream movies and shows with the 3D effect on the phone. Warner Brothers Studios has released several films on this network in 4-View format, like Ready Player One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (these two films will be free for the first 10,000 people who buy the phone from AT&T). There’s a decent selection of films at the moment, but content is still very thin. The 4-View effect looks surprisingly solid here, but it can still feel a little disorienting at times, and we still would prefer to watch the movie in 2D.

RED Hydrogen One game
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The technology that makes 4-View possible is impressive, but it doesn’t feel like more than a gimmick. Some photos and videos (that we captured) looked great, but we weren’t awestruck by the screen. After months of waiting for the reveal, we were a little disappointed when we laid eyes on the Hydrogen One’s screen for the first time. It made us do a double-take because of its novelty, yes, but it wasn’t as revolutionary as was implied. It’s jarring, and we can’t imagine watching anything more than a minute or two long before putting the phone down.

Beyond 4-View, it’s a typical 5.7-inch display with a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440. It looks good in day-to-day use. It’s sharp, delivers strong colors, and we had no issues viewing the display outside in broad daylight, but it’s not going to beat an iPhone XS, Samsung Galaxy S9, or other flagship phones from major brands. It doesn’t get as bright as we’d like.

Sound is provided by stereo speakers that include A3D+ Sound from Red. The company says it’s an algorithm that “frees the stereo files,” making them sound “spatial, immersive,” with or without headphones. We thought audio had solid volume with good highs — and it does provide a spatial 3D sound that travels from one speaker to the other — but it also sounds muffled. We compared it with the Razer Phone 2, and much preferred the latter.

Decent performance, stock Android software

The Red Hydrogen One is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipset — a processor from 2017. Most 2018 flagship smartphones use the Snapdragon 845 chipset, but Red says the 845 wasn’t ready before the company had to finalize its hardware. There’s 6GB of RAM, as well.

Don’t expect this phone to speed through every task.

We initially ran into some problems with performance, as we encountered an overall sluggishness operating the user interface and some stuttering. A recent update has fixed many of these problems, and performance is a little better. Apps open relatively quickly, and moving throughout the Android OS is fluid, but it’s definitely noticeably slower than phones with the Snapdragon 845 processor.

Here are our benchmark results:

  • AnTuTu 3DBench: 178,026
  • Geekbench 4 CPU: 1,877 single-core; 6,039 multi-core
  • 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme: 2,099 (Vulkan)

These scores put the Red Hydrogen One in line with 2017 phones that had the same processor. You can expect it to handle almost every task, but you may notice a few stutters or lag here and there.

Considering this phone is sold by AT&T, expect a lot of carrier bloatware, most of which can be removed. Otherwise, the phone runs a relatively stock version of Android 8.1 Oreo. There’s no word on Android 9 Pie yet. There’s a bit of customization available that’s quite similar to what you’ll find in third-party app Nova Launcher.

There’s 128GB of internal storage, as well as a MicroSD card slot, in case you want to add more space. The titanium model comes with 256GB of storage.

A decent but average camera

The Hydrogen One has four cameras in total, two on the front, and two on the back. You can take 4-View photos and videos with both the front and back cameras. There’s a button in the camera app that lets you go into “4V” mode to capture them, or you can stick to 2D. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to share these pictures except for the Holopix app which, as mentioned, only works with this phone. We can’t show these photos to you, and you would need a screen that supports this technology off to see it anyway. If you send a 4-View photo through some other medium, they will receive the 2D version of it.

Note: Images are converted from 4-View

4-View photography is best with an isolated subject or object, as it helps make the image pop a lot more. The photos can look pixelated, as if you’re looking at them through a virtual reality headset. They’re fun to capture and share when you’re with a group of people that can see the results at the same time, but it’s not a feature we were inspired to use every day. We’d rather take great 2D photos. One downside with 4-View is the images tend to look not as good when they are converted to 2D.

The 2D photos captured by this phone are good, but nothing special. There’s solid HDR (when it decides to kick in), and photos can look detailed with good colors. Low-light photos can be blurry and grainy, though if you’re perfectly still you might snag a shot that looks good.

We’re not fans of the Portrait Mode with the rear cameras, as the images looked washed out and lacking in detail. However, the front-facing cameras took great Portrait Mode photos in good lighting; in low light, a lot of grain ruins an otherwise good picture.  A Pro Mode is available, but it’s basic. Red said a more robust version is in the works.

In the end, the camera isn’t a strong point. It usually takes solid photos and works quickly, but we expected more from a camera company. It’s simply a standard smartphone image sensor inside, not a Red imaging sensor, which is disappointing. It’s not as precise, detailed, or fun as the cameras on the Google Pixel 3, the iPhone XR/XS, and the Huawei Mate 20 Pro.

Great battery life

The Hydrogen One’s best feature is its battery life, which comes courtesy of a massive 4,500mAh battery packed inside. With medium to heavy use, including taking pictures and video, playing 4-View games, and streaming music and video, we frequently ended the work day with a little under 50 percent left by 6 p.m.

You don’t need to worry about battery life on this phone — it can easily go two days.

With light usage, we managed to end a day with around 70 percent left by 5 p.m. You don’t need to worry about battery life on this phone — it can easily go two days. Most flagship smartphones last one day at most, so Red is the clear winner here.

Price, availability, and warranty information

The Red Hydrogen One starts at $1,295 for the aluminum model, and $1,595 for the titanium. It’s now available from AT&T for $43.17 a month for 30 months on AT&T Next. It is also available through Verizon for $53.95 a month for 24 months.

Red offers a standard one-year limited warranty that covers manufacturer defects.

Our Take

The Red Hydrogen One is the most interesting phone of the year, but also the most disappointing. Red CEO Jim Jannard said people will want to buy the phone when they see the screen. We must disagree. This is clearly the first effort of a company that lacks smartphone experience. We’re excited to see how Red progresses, however, and can’t wait to take a look at the Cinema Mod when it arrives next year.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes, plenty. If you’re looking for an excellent all-around phone, the iPhone XS is an easy choice. It’s our top pick and it will still be less expensive than the Hydrogen One. The Pixel 3 is our Android favorite, and it has one of the best cameras around. Check our best smartphones guide for more.

How long will it last?

This phone should last you three years. It’s running a year-old processor already, and it’s on last year’s Android software. We’re not sure when or if it will be updated to Android 9 Pie. The body of the phone will likely be able to survive a drop, which is good, because you won’t want to add a case to this massive, thick phone. There’s no water resistance, however, so be careful near the pool.

Should you buy it?

No. There’s a lot you need to wait for, such as the Cinema Mod coming next year, which may elevate the Hydrogen One and make it truly special. Until then, this is an interesting phone that’s worth keeping an eye on, but not buying.

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