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.

The Verge

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.

The Verge

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.

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11 replies on “RED Hydrogen One may be more camera than phone”

  1. This sounds like the HTC EVO 3D to me, just with modern flagship phone specs. What’s the difference between this phone’s “3D camera and display” and the one on the HTC EVO 3D?

  2. Doing some Internet searching of the front, this thing, overall, looks pretty ugly and chunky:

    The “4V”/”holographic” effect sounds pretty limited and gimmicky too. I doubt it’ll get used much after the initial “hey, that’s neat” effect wears off.

    I guess if the camera is as good as they claim, maybe photographers and videographers may buy it. There’s the occasional low budget commercial, indie film or wedding photos taken from smartphones I read about every now and then.

    1. $1200+ for this phone to use for shooting pictures and video? I don’t know — sounds like one would be better off just buying a good digital camera.

  3. I was at the event yesterday. They really should stop calling that screen “holographic”. It’s barely looks better than Nintenso 3DS’s 3D look.

    1. Depends: you mean the old 3DS where you couldn’t move an inch without the picture falling to pieces and penetrating your brain, or like the new 3DS where it works just fine for hours? BTW what does the front look like? All screen? Notch? Bezels? Buttons?

      1. The screen looks like a clearer version of those lenticular prints for deluxe toy packaging and such. You can see clear defined steps of angles as you shift your view. It’s not a smooth “hologram” like 3D representation. And most of the content they showed, the steps were like maybe 3 or 4 images at most when shifting angles. And only in one axis.

        I think for realtime generated content, it might be better, but for the built in camera 2D images, or converting 3D movies, the steps are too abrupt and few.

        I did talk to their games ppl who were demoing their SDK on Unity, and basically the SDK makes the game render 4 different angled pixels per pixel. But the GPU bandwidth is not destroyed since the games will be rendering at much lower resolution than the screen. Basically, 1/4th the screen res, so it’s almost a wash.

        BTW, showing any 3D content, the screen res looked very low. Just like if it was doing quarter of the nativescreen resolution. They refused to say what the current hardware specs were (they did say that the demo units are 4 revisions away from final version), but the demos looked something like 960×540 or so. I think these prototypes had 1080p screens.

        1. Thanks for the clarification! BTW are you a tech blogger or journalist that you got invitation? Or you could just walk in from the street here?

          Guess it does not have eye-tracking? The new3DS has a second black-only screen layer in front of the actual screen, that does not do pixels, but have some really fine vertical lines, to block the underlying pixel to each eye, and the eye-tracking aligns this front layer to follow your eye. It also only needs to render two images from two camera positions instead of 4.
          I find their explanation curious too that each ‘pixel’ gets rendered 4 times, as in 3D you don’t decide what pixel displays what bit of a 3D object, rather you ‘render’ the 3D object that determines what pixel it will end up on (basically what ‘rendering’ mean). So given that you have 2 eyes you’d only need to render 2 camera positions, not 4. That is unless you have 4 predetermined positions you want to show and don’t care about where the user looks at all, which is more like how the ‘old’ 3DS did it’s trick.

          1. I’m guessing a couple reasons they’re not using the standard 2 image 3D technique could be because they don’t want to do face tracking and/or they want the the 3D effect to be visible by multiple people.

            The “old” 3DS required the user to look at the screen from a specific spot. The “new” 3DS tracks the user’s eye position to dynamically move this “sweet spot” and provide a more 3D feeling environment but it’s still a single user experience. Although, from Shogmaster’s description, this 4 position 3D sounds pretty jerky and generally a sub-par experience.

            I have a 3DS and after the 1st week, I never turned 3D on. I’d rather get a little bit more battery life after the cool factor faded. I’m guessing the same will happen with Red’s phone like with the past 3D gimmicks on TV/phones/devices.

  4. Huh. A glassless 3D screen on a modern flagship phone. Maybe it’s time to port the Citra emulator to Android?

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