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HBO Max assessment: 10,000 hours of nice TV and films however nonetheless incomplete


HBO Max, HBO’s entry into the streaming wars, is a slick app chock-full of popular TV shows and movies. It’s got HBO’s entire catalog, along with favorites such as Friends, Rick and Morty, the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, and almost every Studio Ghibli film — making it a solid streaming collection for adults and children, with the ability to control ratings on kids’ profiles better than most other services. 

LikeLarge, varied content catalog for the same price as HBO NowSimple, easy-to-navigate interfaceLarge children’s catalog and customizable rating settingsAbility to see what movies and shows are coming and going

Don’t LikeHigh priceNot yet available on Roku or Amazon Fire TVNo 4K HDRCan’t import watch history or personalized recommendations

If you already subscribe to HBO or the HBO Now streaming service (or, let’s be real, mooch off someone else’s account), HBO Max is a great upgrade that gives you a nice new interface and loads more content for the same $14.99 a month. But if you’re a brand-new subscriber, that price is at the high end — especially if you already pay for Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus or all of the above.

Read more: Everything you need to know about HBO Max

At launch, HBO Max still lacks compatibility with the popular Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices and 4K HDR streaming, both of which are available on the competition. And aside from HBO’s original series its slate of exclusives is relatively thin at launch, especially with the delay of the highly anticipated Friends reunion special and no breakout hit like Disney Plus’ The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda. All of those shortcomings will likely change over time (maybe soon), but at launch they’re big disadvantages.

If you’re a big fan of HBO, Elmo or Friends, or are simply running out of good stuff to watch during lockdown, HBO Max is definitely worth your money. But until it grows up a little the newest streaming service falls short of the tough competition.

Streaming compared

HBO Max

Netflix

Disney Plus

Hulu

Monthly price

$14.99

Starts at $8.99

$6.99

Basic $5.99 with ads, Ad-free for $11.99, Live TV for $55

Ads

No

No

No

Yes, with basic tier

Availability

Now

Now

Now

Now

Top titles

Entire HBO catalog, Studio Ghibli films, DC films

Stranger Things, The Office, Breaking Bad, 13 Reasons Why

The Mandalorian, Avengers Endgame, Toy Story, The Simpsons

Handmaid’s Tale, Catch-22, Lost, Bob’s Burgers

Mobile downloads

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes (on Ad-free plan only)

4K available

No

Yes (on Premium plan)

Yes

Yes

HDR available

No

Yes (on Premium plan)

Yes

No

Number of streams

3

1 (2 for Standard, 4 on Premium)

4

2 (Unlimited with Live TV and a $10 add-on)

A high price ripe for sharing

HBO Max costs $14.99 a month (unless you took advantage of a preorder deal for $11.99 a month for the first year) — the same as HBO Now and HBO’s traditional channel when you get it through most pay-TV providers. At some point within its first year of operation, the service will expand to include another tier that includes advertising. We don’t know anything about when that would happen or what it would look like, but it would likely be cheaper, or even free. 

Some people who already have a regular HBO subscription or HBO Now will get Max for no extra cost — but not everyone. It’s confusing, but you can check out our full HBO Max FAQ for more information on how it all works.

HBO Max is not yet available on Roku or Amazon Fire TV devices.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Despite the large catalog of movies and shows, HBO Max is at the expensive end of streaming services — Netflix’s basic plan costs $8.99 a month, Hulu’s plan with ads is $5.99 a month and Disney Plus costs $6.99 a month. Of course, lots of people I know snag their HBO Go or Now access from friends or family members. HBO Max executive Tony Goncalves told CNET that its approach will remain the same — you can have up to three simultaneous streams going at the same time. Plus, the addition of up to five user profiles, a feature not available on the HBO Now or HBO Go apps, makes it easier to share an account. 

HBO Max is available on Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Apple TV). It’s also on gear that runs Google’s Android operating system for phones and tablets, as well as Android TV devices, Chromebooks, Google Chromecast and Chromecast built-in devices like Vizio TVs. The Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and recent Samsung smart TVs are also on-board. 

It’s still not available, however, on Roku or Amazon’s Fire TV products, which costs the service some points — Roku is the most popular streaming device in the US. 

A strong stable of shows and movies

HBO Max’s biggest strength is its large, varied TV and movie catalog, with content for adults and kids. At launch, it has 10,000 hours of content to stream, including everything on HBO, plus a selection of high-profile TV shows like Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Rick and Morty and South Park. 

HBO Max currently has six Max Originals and the biggest is probably the romantic series Love Life, starring Anna Kendrick. At first watch they’re… fine. Who doesn’t love Elmo? But nothing stuck out, and I found myself looking forward to summer, when more originals are scheduled to roll out. The service is on track to have 31 originals in its first year and 60 in its second, according to HBO. And unlike Netflix, it will typically drop its originals once per week, the way regular cable HBO does. 

HBO Max has six original series at launch — but the highly anticipated Friends reunion special has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In the meantime there’s lots of movies, some new and many older. HBO Max has the full sets of The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies (though only two of The Hobbits), DC movies like Joker and Wonder Woman, classic films like The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca, and newer hits like A Star is Born and Crazy Rich Asians. Not to mention almost the entire catalog of Studio Ghibli anime films that have never been released for streaming in the US before. And if you’ve been clamoring for more of 2017’s Justice League, HBO Max will be the home of director Zach Snyder’s cut, since he stepped down in the middle of the film’s production.

Though HBO is known for its adult content, Max has a lot to offer kids too, including new Looney Tunes cartoons and Sesame Street episodes, and the Cartoon Network catalog. It’s also home to Doctor Who and the Lego movies. 

Parental controls are robust. You can customize kids’ profiles to decide which rating levels they can access, and create a passcode that locks them into their account, so they can’t jump over to their parents’ to watch anything inappropriate. (Of course, your kid might be savvy enough to figure that passcode out, but it’s something.)

Studio Ghibli films are available to stream in the US for the first time on the platform.

Sarah Tew/CNET
A visually appealing interface…

Scrolling through HBO Max is similar to the experience on Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services. When you open your profile, you’ll find Continue Watching and My List at the top of the page, followed by topics like Featured Series, Featured Movies and HBO Series: Editors’ Picks. 

I like the look of the menus better than many other streaming services. It has a dark purple and black theme that allows the text and images to pop, and shows fewer tiles on the screen at once with more breaks between them, to give your eye a rest. One downside, however, is that it can be tough to figure out at first what text is highlighted in the menus so you can make selections.

In the middle of the page you’ll see a mini-hub where you can access movies and shows from each of its properties: HBO, DC, Sesame Workshop, Turner Classic Movies, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, CrunchyRoll and Looney Tunes. It looks kind of like Disney Plus’s hub at the top of its page, but with less familiar names than Disney’s Star Wars and Marvel. 

The HBO Max mini-hub, where you can access content from different networks and studios.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You’ll also find curated collections of movies around a theme sprinkled through your homepage, like rom-com favorites and blockbuster franchises. Hit Browse at the top left corner and you’ll have the option to search by categories such as Series, Movies, Originals, Just Added, Last Chance and Coming Soon, along with genres like Action, Comedy, Crime and Documentaries. You’ll also find the mini-hubs in this panel, too. 

Unlike on Netflix, you can see what’s coming and going on the platform and watch accordingly. Mobile downloads are also available, and the app’s format is largely the same across TVs, phones and tablets. 

When it comes to searching, HBO Max lets you use abbreviations (like “GOT” instead of “Game of Thrones”). On my Apple TV, voice search worked pretty well — when I said “Watch Rick and Morty,” HBO Max opened the series landing page, giving me the option to choose which episode I want. After starting an episode of Game of Thrones and closing out, when I said “Watch GOT,” it jumped me back into the episode where I had left off. When I said “Watch Jaws,” the Apple TV opened all of the different options across other streaming platforms at the bottom of the screen as well. 

Selecting a show will take you to its landing page, where you can find every episode available in a nice clean format, and have the ability to add it to your list. When you start a show, the rating appears in the upper left corner. 

One downside: Unlike on Netflix, there’s no “skip intro” button. So if, for example, you’re binge-watching Friends, you’re going to hear that theme song a lot, unless you manually fast-forward through it.

…but 4K HDR and human recommendations are still MIA

One of HBO Max’s promises was that instead of solely using a recommendation engine to surface new content for users, it would also have curated content from celebrities, to bring a more human touch. These recommendations are not available at launch, however. It does curate content in ways that can be helpful — for example, highlighting the episodes of Friends that track Ross and Rachel’s relationship so you don’t have to go digging for them. 

You’ll find every HBO show on HBO Max — but you can’t yet stream them in 4K HDR. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Another major negative: HBO Max does not support 4K HDR video or Dolby Atmos at launch, though HBO’s catalog of shows alone would really benefit from the higher-quality streaming (we all remember how dark those Game of Thrones episodes were). For now, HBO Max has the same video and audio quality as HBO Now, HBO Go and the HBO TV channel — HD (1080p) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. It looks pretty good, but it can’t compete with 4K HDR. 

Should you get HBO Max?

If you already subscribe to HBO Now (or, you know, have someone else’s login), the automatic free upgrade to HBO Now is a no-brainer — it’s lots more content for the same monthly price. Plus, you can make your own profiles now, which you couldn’t do on HBO Go or HBO Now. You can try it out for free for seven days. 

For brand-new subscribers, HBO Max is at the pricey end of the streaming service spectrum. But if you have $14.99 a month to burn and want to binge Friends, Game of Thrones or all of the Studio Ghibli movies, you’ll have a lot to choose from. 

Here’s what HBO Max looks like on TVs, phones and tablets
See all photos

About the author: SubSellKaro

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