There’s no shortage of smartphones with good displays, fast processors, and plenty of RAM and storage. So when camera maker RED announced plans to build a phone that would sell for around $1200 and up, the company tried to focus on other features that make it special including a “holographic” display, support for shooting 3D video from the phone itself, and support for modular add-ons.
The RED Hydrogen One is set to go on sale this summer, and RED plans to show off the phone at an event in early June. But The Verge got an early look at the latest prototype, and reports that while it seems like a solid phone, you probably shouldn’t buy it if you just want a phone.
On the other hand, if you want a versatile photography/cinematography device that can also make phone calls and run millions of apps, there may be nothing else quite like the RED Hydrogen One.
Here’s the deal: it’s got a few built-in features that make it stand out from other phones, including a lightfield display that can give content a 3D or “holographic” look that lets you view objects and scenes from different angles by shifting your viewpoint. It’s an interesting gimmick that’s said to work better than the glasses-free 3D display on Amazon’s now-defunct Fire Phone, but I’m not convinced that a holographic display is going to sell devices unless we see some amazing content developed for the platform.
But the most important part of the RED Hydrogen One is the set of pogo pins on the back that will support modules that basically turn a phone with decent built-in cameras into one with professional-level gear.
For example, the first module is said to offer an improved camera sensor. In the future, the idea is to add a module that lets you connect any Canon, Nikon, Fuji, or Leica lens to the phone, giving you the kind of versatility you typically only get today from a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Those are the kind of features that might actually justify the high price of the RED Hydrogen One… for some people.
It’s not a phone for everybody. But it could be a phone for folks who want professional-level photographic gear that they can carry in their pocket.
After all, the best camera is the one that you have with you. I don’t know about you, but I take way more pictures with my smartphone than I ever did with my old digital camera, because my smartphone is always nearby. I can snap endless cat photos around the house, but I also shoot pictures of people, places, performances, and even things that don’t start with the letter P.
But for folks who aren’t satisfied with the image quality or controls available on the latest iPhone, Pixel, or Galaxy phones, the RED Hydrogen One could offer more versatility. If you’re going to carry a camera with you all the time, why not have it be one that can also use professional lenses or other add-ons so you don’t have to switch cameras to get better shots or transfer pictures or videos from on device or another to share them online or back them up to your cloud storage provider?
That said, this is all a little theoretical for now. RED says the phone will go on sale this summer. But the company hasn’t said much about if or when its modular add-ons will be available.
As The Verge points out, other companies with modular phone systems have a bit of a mixed record: there are a bunch of MotoMods available for Motorola’s Moto Z line of phones (some of which are useful, but most of which are overpriced compared to speakers, batteries, and other gear that you could just plug in or connect to via Bluetooth). But the Essential PH-1 only supports a single module: the 360 degree camera that was launched at the same time as the phone.
Will RED’s first smartphone be a widespread hit with consumers? I doubt it. But after reading The Verge’s article, I’m more convinced than ever that RED never really expected that anyway. The company’s not trying to compete with Apple, Samsung, or even Essential.
Instead, the Hydrogen One is a niche device for users of RED cameras who want a device that fits into the company’s ecosystem of products… or for folks who want a device that’s camera first, and phone second.
Since there’s not really much competition for that market, the company can get away with charging a high price tag. And since the company can charge a relatively high price tag, it might be able to make a profit even if sales volume is relatively low.
I wouldn’t mind seeing more of these expensive, low-volume smartphones aimed at very specific categories of users. But at a time when you can buy a pretty good smartphone for under $250, devices like the RED Hydrogen One might be a tough sell, even for enthusiasts. After all, a cheap smartphone + a good camera = probably still cheaper than the Hydrogen One.
Anyway, we’ll probably have to wait a little while for detailed reviews of the RED Hydrogen One to find out how well it delivers on its promises. But until then, head over to The Verge to get Dieter Bohn’s first impressions of the pre-production hardware.