Red is dead (the phone, that is)

We wanted to make wordplay on Red Dead Redemption, but everyone else already did.

Red Hydrogen: the idea that just couldn’t even

It’s rare that a company with so much delivers so little, but such was the case with the Red smartphone project, launched last year as Hydrogen One with a promise of modular camera options. Ars Technica reported Friday that after Red’s first product flopped badly last year, the promise of a sequel has now been removed from the table and nothing further is planned.

Red Digital Cinema is no wistful novice in the visual hardware space. Founded in 2007 with the objective of bringing professional 4K digital cinema cameras into mainstream, the company’s products were previewed and enthusiastically received by heavyweights such as Peter Jackson and Steven Soderbergh. Its first camera, Red One, recorded 4k at 60fps or 2k at 120fps, and the upstart company’s efforts were widely credited with forcing the complete transition away from analog video among professional hardware vendors by 2011 or so.

Red’s camera bodies retail squarely in the five-figure range, the same space where traditional heavyweights like Canon or Sony also play when offering production-grade video hardware. With that kind of revenue stream and solid experience in high-end electronic design, the Hydrogen seemed like something they could do. And then the hardware actually arrived.

A modular concept

Red’s original smartphone promise was a high-end, high-quality Android device that would modularly integrate with existing Red product lines and add a series of future mobile camera products built on Red’s expertise in the cinema space. (A holographic display mode somehow entered the mix, too.) The base smartphone was priced accordingly, US$1300 at launch. Unfortunately, it was delayed, launching in November 2018 instead of the first quarter of that year as originally planned, and the specs were similarly outdated.

The holographic display was a cheap trick at best that didn’t do much, and when it did, it made people dizzy. The modular accessory products never happened. According to Red as reported by Ars, the company encountered significant challenges in getting their Chinese ODM to match their vision, and the phone that Red finally ended up building was, proverbially, a day late and a dollar short. In retrospect, it seems like a too-classic case of a company thinking its expertise in one market would readily translate into another that had a very different dynamic in play.

What has happened instead

With this announcement, it seems conclusive the market for high end smartphone cameras will not, in the forseeable future, follow a modular concept. Rather, 2019 has been a blizzard of product announcements for phones that integrate multiple discrete cameras, so that the tiny lenses and sensors can be optimized for near and far. In some cases the results of both cameras are massaged with software magic that infers missing parts of the image in between.

As a quick sampling: Google’s Pixel 4 and 4XL now have two camera modules, one being a full-range 12MP and another being a 16MP telephoto with a 2x optical zoom. Several Samsung products from the Note 8 forward include dual cameras with various capabilites. A few others offerings of this concept include the OnePlus 7 Pro, a couple Motorola models, a couple options from LG, and a model from Honor. More to come, no doubt. And, of course, the latest Apple products feature two cameras or, if you buy the iPhone 11 Pro Max, you get three for a retail price of US$1249. That’s within spitting distance of the pricepoint Red was targeting.

To sum up…

Smartphone camera evolution has come a long way since the early days. Modern devices have become so effective that PC World was already noticing the destruction of the market for point-and-shoot digital cameras around five years ago.

In spite of that, we think it’s unfortunate that Red didn’t make any headway with their concept. In particular, a smartphone accessory camera with a decent-sized image sensor would be welcome to some photographers. There’s only so much that clever interpolation can do with light captured on a sensor smaller than a pencil eraser, and since the best camera you have is the one you have with you, something attached to a phone is more likely to be carried casually than a DSLR or mirrorless setup.

In the meantime, it looks like we’ll be watching the phones we already have march onward toward a tryptophobic’s nightmare.

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Aaron Vienot

Engineer by day, hobbyist by night, occasional contributor, and full-time wise guy.

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10 months ago

I’m surprise the Nokia 9 didn’t get a special call-out for its constellation of cameras.
Its got a total of 5 cameras, 2 color and 3 monochrome, and uses a DSP to create a single high quality image.

10 months ago
Reply to  Ikepuska

Good catch. I had missed that one, probably because Nokia isn’t too common in the US market these days.

10 months ago

They’ll probably deal with it in the same way they dealt with their other hard flops (i.e. everything they have attempted that is not a camera body): Delete the product page and any references to it from their website and try and pretend it never existed in the first place. e.g. their magical Red Ray disc format.

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