To my eyes these all look… pretty much the same. On one hand, that’s great for the Hydrogen because the Pixel 2 and the Note 9 both have great cameras. On the other, it makes the value proposition of the Hydrogen feel weak. The good news is that since the 2D pictures are pretty good the 3D pictures should be too.
Okay, but what about video? Will RED’s expertise in cinema cameras carry over to smartphone video?
Answer: not really–the video looks worse than that of the Note 9 and Pixel 2. The Hydrogen’s colors are a bit overcooked, and though it’s hard to see because of YouTube’s compression, there are serious video and audio compression artifacts in the original files.
I expected better colors in particular from a company like RED. There’s nothing wrong with the colors here, but I was hoping for either very muted colors that would be conducive to color grading in post-production or just great colors, like the kind that Fuji cameras produce. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but if all you’re getting is standard smartphone video, but using two cameras to do it, then that seems like a solution looking for a problem.
One place where RED could’ve gained major points in my book is the camera app itself. It’s ugly as sin, and I would’ve expected tons of filmmaker options, like control over bitrate, frame rate, and encoding format. You do get options for white balance, saturation, contrast, and brightness, but that’s it, and they’re buried in the settings.
One thing I’m sure many of you are wondering is: do I even want 3D media outside of the movies? I actually think so, but not like this. Rewind the clock to 1991 when a company called Nishika released its lenticular 3D camera. It captures four images on film at once, which the more tech savvy can combine to create GIFs with an effect colloquially known as “wiggle 3D.” The camera has had a resurgence on Tumblr. Just search “Nishika” and you’ll find an entire community posting these novel 3D slices of time.
When I look at 4V pictures on the Hydrogen, I get a very similar feeling to the Nishika images. There’s more context of time and place–time is frozen, but the separation between the subject and the background makes the scene feel more alive. It is actually really cool. But there’s a huge difference: I can share Nishika 3D images with you on this website, or in a group chat, or on Twitter, but I can’t share these 4V images with you anywhere. Photography, for most people, isn’t a solitary art.
I did try to manually extract the stereo pair of images taken on the Hydrogen and sort of hack my own wiggle 3D out of them, but there is no official way get both images. RED uses a proprietary method to embed the second image into the metadata of the first image, meaning there’s no DIY workaround. When I asked Jannard about this he said an official export tool could appear in the future, but it’s not something you can do today.
All these factors add up to a very compromised filmmaking tool.
4V video is, thankfully, a different story. The output file does use a proprietary .h4v container, and you can import these files into Adobe Premiere, but they need to be renamed to .mp4. This seems unnecessary and annoying, but hey, it’s a Hydrogen world and we’re just living in it.
There are other disappointing aspects of 4V. The first is that you’re limited to 1080p. This is understandable, to a certain extent, because the Snapdragon 835 wasn’t designed to handle the bandwidth of dual 4K streams. Still, this will probably feel like kind of a downer for someone who really wanted to create a low-budget film in 3D, which is ostensibly the point of this device. Even worse, these seem to be recorded at ~11mbps, which is brutally low. These videos are compressed to death.
All these factors add up to a very compromised filmmaking tool. 29fps, low resolution, extremely high compression, and no options to change these settings—these are the hallmarks of a consumer product, not an enthusiast camera.
If you really want to make a 3D film on an insanely low budget (and on a phone, for some reason) it would be cheaper to buy two Galaxy S9s and figure it out in post. Or you could get one of these discontinued Panasonic 3D lenses off eBay, slap it on a Panasonic G85, and go to town.
In summary, the Hydrogen isn’t meaningfully better than any other flagship phone for mobile photography or video. There’s nothing about the device that makes content creation easier except, maybe, that you can pop the SD card out without a SIM tool.
The rest of the Hydrogen
As a piece of gear, the Hydrogen is not unlikeable. Its gigantic, heavy, and it has the same energy drink industrial design as RED’s cinema cameras, but as a gear-head I do kind of like it. It feels like a device I could confidently take on a remote mountain climbing trip and not worry about breaking it. I like that a lot, and if Samsung had made an Active variant of the S9, I would’ve liked that too.
But as a phone, the Hydrogen falls down. The screen, even in standard 2D mode, looks bad. I can easily see the pixels (this is not a joke or a euphemism, I can literally see them), and there’s an internal light refraction that gives the whole screen a low-contrast look, very similar to older TFT monitors.
In 4V mode, the screen is actually quite a bit better than a Nintendo 3DS. It’s not lenticular, meaning that you can look at it in 4V mode vertically or horizontally, and I noticed when showing it to coworkers that the 3D viewing angles are actually pretty wide. But if you move the phone at all the image shifts and look unstable, just like any other glasses-free 3D display. It’s not terrible, but it certainly isn’t awesome.
One thing the Hydrogen really delivers on is battery life. The device’s humongous frame is padded with a 4,500mah battery that just keeps going and going. Enthusiasts have been asking for thicker phones with larger batteries for a while now, and those people’s calls have been answered.
Unfortunately, the AT&T review unit I received is full of bloatware. The launcher uses a weird 3D rotating animation as you swipe through home screens that harkens back to Android 5.0. Plus, RED’s suite of apps have extremely ugly grey icons that don’t match any of the other icons. Even though the Hydrogen runs Android 8.1, the software makes it feel like I’m using an ancient novelty phone.
Of course, there’s also the modular aspect to the Hydrogen. The company is planning on releasing a camera back for the Hydrogen in 2019. When I spoke with Jannard, he pitched an accessory with a large camera sensor that could accommodate real DSLR and mirrorless lenses. But by the time 2019 rolls around the Hydrogen’s Snapdragon 835 will be two years old, and even if this accessory is a half-inch thick, we’ll be talking about a package that’s uncomfortably close to the size of an APS-C mirrorless camera, like the Sony a6500. And since the Hydrogen doesn’t include any meaningful filmmaking perks like awesome colors, real-time grading, or granular shooting options, there just doesn’t seem to be a real value proposition.
As I said at the top, the notion of building a camera on top of smartphone hardware isn’t a bad one. But with an eye-popping price tag of $1,295, the Hydrogen is entering a market saturated by more affordable options with great cameras like the Galaxy S9, as well as excellent compact cameras like the Sony RX100. And given the fact that RED isn’t offering anything more to mobile content creators than an isolated 3D experience, I can’t recommend it.
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