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REVIEW: RED Hydrogen One – 6 months in, is it still a disappointing experience?

It’s been a long while since I last posted anything, probably in a distant era when the UK was still part of Europe. During that time, I’ve changed jobs (twice) and bought a property, so a lot has changed. My sister (moonlightwalnut) is almost off to uni, so time has very much flown by.

Enough about the past few years for me, I thought I’d end this drought with something that I was meaning to write about back in November 2018 but didn’t get around to. Namely, a phone review – specifically the RED Hydrogen One.

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The announcement video showcasing the Hydrogen One’s “holographic display”

Never heard of it? Well, that’s not much of a surprise because whilst the phone was announced to quite some fanfare with promises of being the “most exciting and innovative new smartphone of 2018”, it has had a rather public tumultuous reception since. I guess a little backstory is needed (or skip forwards if you just want the review). Unusually with this review, I’m going to give my honest feedback after 6 months having the phone as my daily driver and my experiences with it as well as my thoughts on the phones much debated future.

I first heard that RED was making a phone through a colleague at work. He knew I loved films and filmmaking and that I dabbled in it some years ago. I had a look at RED’s announcement and pre-registration and was immediately drawn to the much-hyped modularity. The phone was promised a “holographic screen” amongst the ability to equip interchangeable lens with modularised adapters. It had an awesomely sized battery and looked as if it was moulded in the mountains of Mordor. Aggressive edges, grip moulds, large bezels and a menacing metallic frame, this thing looked different, but in a good way. Two versions were offered, one Aluminium ($1,295) and one Titanium ($1,595 – with also a larger internal storage). I decided to cough up a sizeable chunk for the Titanium. Part of me hoped that with the interchangeable lenses, modularity, and the fact that the phone is coming from creators of the RED One – the single most disruptive piece of technology to hit the filmmaking industry in decades; this was a chance for me to join the RED revolution that was now set to sweep through the smartphone industry. Plus, it will give me an excuse to retire my old Canon 60D DSLR kit. This was back in November 6th 2017 (I checked my order invoice for the pre-registration).

Fast forward to September 2018, still no phone or any semblance of a phone. News still consisted mainly of rumours and renders – there were some people that had received a Houdini (pre-pre order) production edition but were given NDAs to prevent any negative reviews. I had begun to grow impatient as my phone at the time (HTC U11+) had just failed. Then, on September 27th, I got word that RED was offering all Titanium customers a complimentary Aluminium model.

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The Titanium model that I originally ordered which arrived 18 months after my order

Almost a year after my original order, I finally got hold of a RED Hydrogen One, even though it wasn’t the model that I had ordered (I would not see the Titanium model for another 5 months or so).

Now the phone itself, packing a Snapdragon 835 SoC from 2017, 6GB RAM and 128GB internal storage, the phone isn’t a flagship class leader in any category. Whilst the chipset isn’t slow, it certainly does feel a tad laggier in 2019 than more recent flagships such as my dad’s iPhone XS Max or the Google Pixel 2 that I got a chance to use briefly. Aesthetically, the phone stands out in looks, but unfortunately in 2019 more for its chunky bezels than its brutalist looks. Having used the Mate 10 Pro and HTC phones prior, the slightly smaller feeling 5.7-inch screen on the RED Hydrogen One does become noticeable during everyday use. Also, with not the largest hands in the world, the phone is rather unwieldy with one hand and whilst the grips on the sides are meant to make it easier to hold, the Aluminium body becomes incredibly slippery.

I’ve always used phones with their own cases and screen protector glass, the RED Hydrogen One unfortunately had little to no support for either. Whilst the lack of a case wasn’t much of an issue due to the solid build of the phone (I’ve dropped it multiple times from not a great height, but the only damage visually is a distinctly minor dent), I can’t say that I’ve been totally comfortable with the lack of a screen protector. What happens if I drop this one day and the screen cracks, would I have to ship it all the way to California to get a new screen? And how much would that cost seeing as RED aren’t exactly the most wallet friendly company.

In everyday use, the UI is quite vanilla, which I quite enjoyed after having used Huawei’s and Sony’s bloatware heavy devices in the past. The only few proprietary apps that RED comes installed with are all for its H4V format for holographic content. Unlike other phones’ proprietary apps, these don’t feel very intrusive and are meant to complement the phone’s marquee functionality – the camera and screen. More on that later. In terms of support, RED for the first months was providing constant updates to the phone and its apps, but over the past 2 months, there have been far fewer updates coming which is a concern that I will address later alongside RED’s more recent announcements on the future of the Hydrogen One and its smartphones.

Now the screen, it isn’t the greatest if I’m being honest, and it gets significantly worse when running an app or viewing content in its holographic H4V format. What I’ve been told and read online is that due to the way RED has designed the holographic display, pixel count is quite literally halves or quartered (depending on where you read) and the screen becomes visibly pixelated. Whilst watching content it is still impressively immersive for a phone, it does bother me somewhat that the holographic display isn’t quite a futuristic Star Wars-esque floating hologram. On the topic of content, being in the UK, I have a major gripe with the phone’s H4V content available on RED’s own app store (Hydrogen Network); there just isn’t any. I’m not talking about a limited content library, I’m talking about literally NO content library for users outside of the US and Canada. It appears that RED has never gotten round to negotiating rights from the major studios to convert their content for all other regions which means the only available footage is compilations created using content created from other users of the Hydrogen One. Considering the phone is sold on the fact it is a “Media Machine” it’s been a massive disappointment. I will admit that I’ve VPN’d multiple times to the US in order to check out the content available and whilst there are a few dozen films on the library, there’s certainly nothing to shout about, especially how much RED charges for these movies ($30 each). This is an area which I think RED really has to address but I have massive doubts about it ever being resolved due to the lacklustre sales of the phone and mediocre reviews which has indisputably left a permanent taint on its smartphone ambitions.

Then we get to it’s supposed pièce de resistance – the camera. Sporting just two lenses on the back in an era when the number of lenses demonstrated a smartphone’s photographic ambitions, the Hydrogen One had to have a lot going for those two lenses if it stood any chance of standing up against the big guns of Samsung, Google and Huawei. I honestly came into this with a lot of hope and expectation, and have to admit defeat that the phone’s supposed key component simply was not up to scratch. The pictures were often out of focus and lacked any sharpness. With a smartphone camera, there comes an expectation that images will be instantly refined yet the Hydrogen One’s has that greyish colourless tinge lingering on all pictures. It’s photos in the dark was simply unacceptable in 2019 and probably even 2017 given that the Mate 10 Pro which came out that year produces undoubtedly better results. With the ability to view “holographic” images also comes the ability to take “holographic” images and videos. It is noteworthy that all content produced on a RED Hydrogen One can only theoretically be viewed at present on another RED Hydrogen One. The H4V format simply cannot be translated onto another non related device. The images and videos produced, like with the standard 2D features, are not that impressive either and more similarly resembles gimmicky holographic apps found for free on the Play Store. But hold on, wasn’t there talk of modularity earlier and the ability to have interchangeable lenses? Potentially a new sensor maybe as well? Actually, that’s where my concern for this phone’s future comes into play.

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The now removed diagram showcasing the modularity of the camera component.

Roll forwards to April 2019. I have finally taken ownership of the product I ordered back in November 2017; a whole 18 months prior – the Titanium RED Hydrogen One. This was just a few weeks in fact after Jim Jannard, CEO of RED, had made a distinctly opaque announcement and withdraw on the RED Hydrogen One product page. It appeared images of modularity simply vanished overnight and after some “ums” and “errs” on the Hydrogen One community forums, it appears RED has decided to venture away from the Hydrogen One and will delve into a more ‘pro’ version of smartphone. Considering many owners of the phone had splashed the hefty 4 digit figures for the Hydrogen One, I, alongside many others have felt rather abandoned by RED and in many ways mis-sold a product. If this had been a crowdfunded product which often overpromises and underdelivers, then that’s quite acceptable as that’s one of the risks you have to take. However, with a well-established and respected brand such as RED it never occurred to me that I was taking a risk at all.

Tantalizingly, this ‘new’ version with its ‘pro camera’ will offer many of the features that I had come to expect from my RED Hydrogen One. Overall, I do like my Hydrogen One. There’s a distinct charm about owning a phone that isn’t edge to edge screen or notched. It is still a good conversation starter and is my daily driver still, so I can’t say that I will be retiring it anytime soon. But despite only feeling 6 months old, its features and camera show their age due to how long RED took to produce the phone. It is more comparable to a iPhone 7 or a Samsung S7 than its class of 2018 peers and that in itself is a shame because I had honestly felt this was a gamechanger for me. Solid sound, a headphone jack, expandable storage, clean OS, massive 4500 mAH battery, it ticked most of my checkboxes when it first was announced.

Would I recommend the RED Hydrogen One? At the price point RED was charging? Certainly not, however seeing as the phone has also achieved records in becoming one of the fastest depreciating smartphones in history (you can already pick up new unboxed Titaniums for around $500 on eBay), it’s current marketplace prices do make it a solid buy. Am I disappointed in RED? Yes, whilst they provided and allowed Titanium owners to have an Aluminium model free of charge to keep, that generosity certainly wasn’t extended to Aluminium owners of the phone. It was a great gesture for me sure, but in the end, all Hydrogen One owners would have lost out because many of us purchased this phone with ambitions of using it for photographic and filming purposes and for both, it just isn’t good enough. That announcement of modularity not being supported is also certainly a kick in the teeth.

5/10

PROS:

  • Good sized battery
  • Headphone jack
  • Clean OS
  • Efficient customer service and support forums – Jim is very contactable
  • Expandable storage
  • Reasonably good audio
  • Rugged solid look and feel

 

CONS:

  • Dated Snapdragon 835 chipset
  • Lack of content for Hydrogen Network store outside of US/Canada
  • Lack of content on the Leia (App) store with support for H4V
  • Poor cameras
  • Lack of IP Rating
  • Pricing, it is just too expensive for what it delivers on
  • Discontinuation of modules before they even became available
  • Significantly higher depreciating value
  • Occasional laggy user experience

 

NEUTRAL:

  • The holographic screen. It’s great ambitions with average implementation
  • Bezels, love it, hate it, I personally don’t mind it, however I do notice the smaller screen

 

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