Hands-on with the RED Hydrogen One, a wildly ambitious smartphone

We have just seen the next RED Hydrogen One smartphone in an event aimed at "RED Pioneers" (read: superfans). It is, without doubt, one of the most ambitious smartphones in years of a company that is not called Apple, Google or Samsung. It's an Android phone with a 5.7-inch screen and first-rate phone specifications, but that description does not do justice to what RED is trying to achieve here.

The company best known for the high-end 4K cameras with names like "Weapon" and "Epic-w" is not entering the smartphone game just to sell you a better Android phone (although it does have Verizon and AT & S signed) T to support it). No, this phone is meant to be a piece of a modular camera system and other media creation equipment: the company claims it will be "the basis of a future multidimensional media system."

Photo: Dieter Bohn / The Verge

To that end, it has a large set of pogo-pins on the back to connect it to the other RED cameras and also to allow users to add modules (next appearance), including lens holders. If it were simply a modular smartphone, we would be talking about whether we really expected the company to produce enough modules to support it. Other phones have had mixed results in that department: Moto has released a lot, Essential has not.

RED is planning to start with a module that is essentially a large camera sensor: the company is not ready to give exact details, but the plan is definitely more towards the DSLR size than the size of the smartphone. Then, according to CEO Jim Jannard, the company wants to be joined by a traditional large-chamber lens. Responding to a question from a fan, he joked that the lens holder will be "quite limited", working "alone" with Fuji, Canon, Nikon, Leica and more.

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Photo: Dieter Bohn / The Verge

The Hydrogen One is very large. The prototype used that we saw was larger than an iPhone 8 Plus, complete with a USB-C plug, stereo speakers and a headphone jack. It is also a RED product, which means it is incredibly industrial. It comes in aluminum (pre-order price: $ 1,195) or in titanium (pre-sale price: $ 1,595) and is not shy about metal in any of the models.

It's covered in metal fins and ridges: the sides have "scallops" to make it easier to hold with one hand, and the power button on the right is where you'll find the fingerprint sensor. The company's camera can be called a "weapon", but it definitely feels like you can do some damage with this.

I could not do the standard things that you normally do with a smart phone in your hands. I could not test the cameras or spend a lot of time testing the speed and responsiveness. These are also definitely prototypes of devices. There were the kind of adjustment and finishing problems you would expect with such old devices.

The internal processor will be a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 slightly outdated, but it seemed fast enough in the few demos that I could try. Honestly, though, if you're looking to do this just like a phone, you're probably making a decision based on the wrong metrics. It is probably a perfectly trained phone, but at this price what you are buying is the ecosystem of the module.

The other innovation in the Hydrogen One is a new and elegant display technology that the company calls "4-view". It will allow users to change the 2560 x 1440 screen from a 2D to 3D standard to a "holographic" view. Unfortunately, it's not the kind of thing you photograph well, so much so that the company issued a blanket ban on taking any photo or video from the front of the phone.

I tried two different demos of 4 views. In the first, I saw a cycle of several different videos and what I saw was a big step on 3D in other phones. Essentially, I was able to move and tilt the phone without the 3D effect breaking. It worked both in landscape and in portrait, and the depth of 3D was also better than what I've seen in a phone before, but, of course, that is not a very strong compliment.

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Photo: Dieter Bohn / The Verge

The last phone that really succeeded in having a 3D screen was the Amazon Fire phone, which of course was a failure. With that phone, the combination of bad 3D and little reason for it to exist turned the whole company into an industry punchline. For Hydrogen One, RED plans to create a streaming service to provide holographic content.

The second demonstration was also impressive. With a Hydrogen One, I was doing a simple video chat with someone on the other side of the room. But this was a "Holo chat", so both my face and theirs were shown as a hologram in real time. There are two front cameras, since you need two to create a 3D effect.

Regarding how RED is making this effect happen, it's complicated to the point of sounding like wavy sci-fi stuffed by hand. Jannard told me that there is a special layer under of the LCD screen that, when enabled, can direct light in multiple directions instead of the two standard ones that occur with lenticular displays. RED is also doing more than combining two images to make standard 3D. They told me that they are trying to use an algorithm to combine multiple angles from those two lenses to create the effect.

It's basically a hologram, but it does not really appear outside of the screen as much as it gives depth inside. I would not describe this screen as the reason to go out and buy this phone, but it was ordered.

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Photo: Dieter Bohn / The Verge

RED has also been a great game about the audio of this phone, beyond the built-in stereo speakers (and, again, the headphone jack). The company's claim is that it can do for the audio what it is doing for the images: it creates a virtual surround sound effect through its algorithms. In the demonstration, the "A3D" sound had a large stereo separation only from the phone's stereo speakers, but they were mostly super noisy.

However, with headphones the effect is much more impressive, they tell me. I have not had the opportunity to try it yet (I'm looking for updates), but fans at the event described it as good as Dolby 5.1 Surround. They said that it made you believe that you heard noises directly behind and even above you.

RED is absolutely running the RED playbook: a lot of exaggeration, a lot of great promises an incredible technology and honestly, many questions about whether all this adds up to a real product that many people will want to buy. But what happens is that it does not have to be the last thing: RED cameras are only for a small niche of people, after all.

I left my time playing Hydrogen One thinking that, as a phone, its robust design and without problems is likely to be polarizing. I also think that most people will find it more useful to get something cheaper. As a machine to make and see holograms, it is a solid technical improvement over what I have seen before, but it is still unknown if someone really needs or wants that in a phone. As a basis for a system of telephone modules, there is still a lot to try and a long history of competitors that tested and rang.

The most convincing part of Hydrogen One is not the phone itself Honestly, it's the RED ecosystem of cameras. If the company can find a way to make it an essential part of a filmmaker's team along with their other cameras, they could have a successful niche product in their hands. Beyond that, however, we will have to wait for more final devices to actually say it with certainty.

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