June 23, 2024


Sapiens Digital

HBO Max – Review 2020

13 min read

To survive the video streaming wars, a service must include exclusive shows and movies people can’t stand to miss. Even better is bundling content from several sources and promising must-watch future content. Enter HBO Max, the new streaming service from WarnerMedia Entertainment (WarnerMedia is owned by AT&T). HBO Max includes an excellent mix of premium HBO shows; new originals; a trove of popular and classic movies from AT&T-owned brands; and cartoon and anime shows. HBO Max also includes top video streaming features such as offline downloads, parental controls, and multiple account profiles. However, HBO Max costs more than most other on-demand streaming services, lacks 4K content, and doesn’t provide audio descriptions for its original content, as its top competitors do.

HBO Max vs. HBO Go vs. HBO Now

HBO Max is the third streaming service to include the HBO name, so you may be confused about how all these services differ. HBO Go and HBO Now are the services to get if you only want HBO original content. The difference between those two services is that HBO Now is an internet-based service for people who don’t or can’t get HBO through a cable subscription. If you do get HBO through cable, HBO Go is the service you can use to watch HBO content on other platforms. HBO Max, as I discuss in the next section, includes all HBO shows, plus a ton of content from WarnerMedia’s other media branches.

However, there’s no reason to stick with HBO Go or HBO Now, since HBO Max costs the same as both of them, is easier to sign up for, and offers more to watch. If you already subscribe to HBO Now or your cable package includes HBO Go, you get instant access to HBO Max for free. HBO Max’s site has the full details on eligibility requirements.

What Can I Watch on HBO MAX?

HBO Max’s deep library of content is comparable in size to that of Disney+’s, which is to say it’s expansive. The service combines current and classic HBO shows, new originals (called Max Originals), and select shows and movies from other WarnerMedia brands including Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, DC, CNN, the Turner library, Crunchyroll, Rooster Teeth, Looney Tunes and more. HBO Max also acquired streaming rights to other series and movies for the service. For the full list of streaming content, check out our feature on everything coming to HBO Max.

Starting with HBO’s existing originals shows, the list of available titles includes Barry, Big Little Lies, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Chernobyl, Deadwood, Gossip Girl, Game of Thrones, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, My Brilliant Friend, Oz, Real Time with Bill Maher, Sex and the City, Silicon Valley, Six Feet Under, Succession, The Sopranos, The West Wing, The Wire, Veep, Watchmen, and Westworld. This trove of premium content is the backbone of the service and may be tempting enough on its own to attract subscribers.

HBO Show Barry

HBOs Max also includes several Max Originals at launch, including Craftopia, a crafting competition show for kids run by Lauren Riihimaki; Legendary, a dance and fashion game show; Looney Tunes Cartoons, a new collection of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, and Wile E. Coyote cartoons animated in the classic style; Love Life, an Anna Kendrick-led anthology series of love stories; The Not Too Late Show with Elmo, a talk show featuring Elmo; and On the Record, a documentary about the sexual abuse and assault allegations against Russell Simmons.

Forthcoming original shows include entries in the Adventure Time: Distant Lands series, Doom Patrol (season 2), Perry Mason, Frayed, and The Dog House. Are these original titles enough to compete with the massive and ever-growing number of original series created by Netflix and Amazon Prime? Maybe not at this point. However, unlike services like Apple TV+ or Quibi, HBO Max can rely on its past content to attract potential subscribers at launch. Still, with its collection of past originals, HBO may not need a killer launch title to clean up in the streaming wars.

Other shows from the wider AT&T-owned mediascape on HBO Max include Adam Ruins Everything, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, the CNN Decades Series, Conan Travel Specials, and Rizzoli and Isles, among others. HBO Max also has streaming rights to other big-name shows such as Friends, Luther, Rick and Morty, South Park, The Big Bang Theory, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Whose Line Is it Anyway? Friends, in particular, should appeal to all the Netflix subscribers who bemoaned the loss of the show.

No video streaming service is complete without a library of on-demand movies. HBO Max is no slouch in this category either, thanks to content partnerships with in-house (New Line Cinema and Warner Bros.) and external content sources (such as Studio Ghibli and The Criterion Collection). Popular films on the service at launch include Alien (Director’s Cut), Aquaman, A Star is Born, Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Bridesmaids, Casino Royale, Cast Away, Fast Five, Fight Club, Gangs of New York, Godzilla: King of The Monsters, Good Will Hunting, Harry Potter (1-8), John Wick: 3, Joker, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Ponyo, Shazam!, Slumdog Millionaire, Snakes on A Plane, Spirited Away, The Dark Knight Rises, The Family Stone, The Shining, V for Vendetta, and Wonder Woman. The service will also be home to Zack Snyder’s cut of 2017’s Justice League movie, which should appeal to any hardcore DC Comics fans.

HBO Max features classic films too, such as 2001: A Spacey Odyssey, An American in Paris, A Streetcar Named Desire, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice (both the 1940 and 1995 versions), Rebel Without a Cause, and The Wizard of Oz.

Studio Ghibli Hub on HBO Max

Classic and contemporary animated series also make an appearance on HBO Max such as Adventure Time, Dexter’s Laboratory, Teen Titans, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, and Steven Universe. Over time, we hope more of the classic cartoons from AT&T-owned properties make their way onto the service.

If you want to watch anime, HBO Max has some, but not nearly all of, Crunchyroll’s content. Top anime series at launch include Erased, In/Spectre, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, Kill la Kill, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and Rurouni Kenshin. That’s a decent list, but dedicated anime streaming services offer far more content. Even Netflix and Hulu feature more expansive libraries of anime content. VRV is the best choice for dedicated anime fans, which incidentally is owned by Otter Media, a subsidiary of AT&T.

Speaking of properties owned by AT&T, it’s not yet clear what the future holds for DC Universe. Some shows, including Doom Patrol (the first season is included) and Teen Titans seem to have made the move to HBO Max, but others, such as Harley Quinn and Batman: The Animated Series are not present at launch.

HBO Max Pricing and Platforms

HBO Max costs $14.99 per month. There are no other pricing tiers with better streaming specs or a cheaper ad-supported version. We prefer video streaming services with this simpler pricing setup. You can also sign up for a free seven-day trial, but this requires you to add a payment method. I signed up for a trial for testing.

You can subscribe to HBO Max directly, via a mobile app store (App Store, Google Play), another video streaming service (such as Hulu, YouTube TV), or cable and broadband partners (including AT&T, DIRECTV, AT&T U-Verse, Spectrum, and Verizon Fios).

Most other on-demand video streaming services we’ve reviewed cost less than HBO Max. Amazon Prime Video costs $8.99 per month, while Netflix’s Premium plan (the minimum tier we recommend) is $12.99. Hulu’s and CBS All Access’s ad-free plans cost $11.99 and $9.99 per month respectively. British services Acorn TV ($5.99 per month) and BritBox ($6.99 per month) are much cheaper. Disney+ is only $6.99 per month.

In addition to a web interface, you can download HBO Max on mobile devices (Android and iOS), TVs (Android TV, Apple TV, and Samsung TV), and gaming consoles (PlayStation 4 and Xbox One). Aside from the Chromecast, the support page doesn’t mention other media streaming devices such as Fire TV Sticks and Rokus. I reached out to an HBO Max contact for more details and will update the review with new information.

Web Interface

HBO Max’s web interface uses an elegant, dark design with purple and white accents. The large thumbnails of shows and movies stand out and aren’t overcrowded on pages. You navigate HBO Max via a left-hand menu. Sections include Home, Series, Movies, Originals, Just Added, Last Chance, Coming Soon, a variety of different genre pages (each with a Featured, A-Z, Series, and Movies section), and hubs for all the other content on the service (such as DC, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network, and Crunchyroll). Annoyingly, while the Coming Soon page details when new content is arriving, the Last Chance section does not give dates for when shows and movies are leaving.

HBO Max web interface

At the top of the page, you also get a persistent search bar and a profile icon. You can search by movie or show name, as well as by other terms that appear in a title’s description and details sections (such as cast members, directors, and writers). Clicking on your profile icon reveals access to My List, a way to organize things you want to watch, and the Continue Watching sections. You can also manage your account and billing details, see what devices are logged in with your credentials, change parental control settings, and switch, edit, or create new profiles. HBO Max allows you to create up to five profiles. Disney+, by comparison, allows you to create six.

When you see something on HBO Max you want to watch, hover over it to add it to your list or to view details. Alternatively, you can just click on the show or movie thumbnail to get to its details page. For movies, this page includes the parental rating, basic audio and video streaming specs, a description, the release year, and the run time in the upper right corner. The video player takes up most of the screen. A list of cast members, directors, and any other crew members appears beneath the player. The landing page for TV shows looks identical, except that you can browse seasons and individual episodes at the bottom of the page.

Mobile Apps

I downloaded the HBO Max app on a Google Pixel 3 running Android 10 and had no trouble logging into my account. The app matches the color scheme and design of the web interface. I didn’t encounter any performance issues or lag when browsing content or launching streams.

You navigate the app via three icons in a bottom menu: Home, Search, and Profile. The Home section is functionally identical to the web version’s Home section; it displays featured shows and movies, plus curated categories of content as you scroll down the page. A hidden left-hand menu enables you to sort by content type and genre, as well as launch one of the service’s specific hubs.

HBO Max Android app

The Search section recommends Series and Movies based on what you’ve already watched, but you can’t quickly add them to the My List or download them from that screen. The Profiles section is where you create, switch, and manage viewing profiles (including changing parental control settings). This section also includes the My List feature, a list of all the titles you’ve downloaded for offline viewing, and a Continue Watching list. HBO Max makes it easy to manage all the entries in these lists or get rid of everything at once.

HBO Max’s offline downloads feature works similarly to those of other services, including Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix. You can download up to 30 episodes or movies at one time. You get 30 days to start watching an episode or film and 48 hours to finish watching it after you begin playback. HBO Max limits you to five copies of the same show or movie across all of your devices. I downloaded and watched an episode of The Wire without issue.

The app’s Settings page also lives in the Profile section. From here, you can manage your account and billing details, set streaming and download preferences, opt out of notifications, and manage all the devices logged with your credentials. HBO Max should add a storage section for monitoring how much space downloads take up on your device, as Quibi and Netflix do.

Playback Experience

HBO Max’s playback screen on the web is fairly standard. Aside from typical playback and volume tools, you get a 15-second rewind button and closed caption options. However, there’s no way to select a streaming resolution, which is disappointing. As mentioned, HBO Max only lists vague streaming specs. I only discovered that the service supports up to 1080p streams on browsers by looking through the help pages. Apple TV+, Netflix’s top-tier plan, and Amazon Prime all support 4K content and Dolby’s high-end codecs. HBO Max’s mobile app has a similar playback screen, with the added benefit of a 15-second fast-forward button. Again, there’s no way to select the streaming resolution. You don’t get anything similar to Prime Video’s IMDB-powered X-Ray feature that lists all the cast members that appear in a scene, along with other show details on either platform

HBO Now was never clear about whether the service restricted simultaneous streaming and HBO Max isn’t either. I did confirm that I could stream on at least three devices simultaneously (two different browsers and an Android phone).

The service does specify that you need internet speeds of at least 5Mbps (download), which shouldn’t be a problem for most users. I tested streaming performance over my home Wi-Fi connection (140Mbps download) and, as expected, did not experience any issues with buffering streams. Vague video and audio streaming specs aside, an episode of Westworld looked crisp and sounded great.

Accessibility and Parental Controls

HBO max’s closed captioning options are available right from the playback screen on both the mobile and web interfaces, which is convenient. You can change options related to the font (style, color, and size), background (color and opacity), and window. BritBox also makes the closed captioning settings available from the playback screen. Apple TV+ goes one step further with tons of language options.

HBO Max does not provide audio descriptions for its content, something Apple TV+, Disney+, and Prime Video all include for some original content. When you enable audio descriptions, a narrator audibly describes what is going on in a scene, including changes in setting and character movements. We hope HBO Max adds this feature in the future.

HBO Max Profile Management

Parents should be pleased with HBO Max’s parental control options. The first thing you need to do is create a Kids profile, which entails creating a secret PIN and adding your child’s birth month and year. HBO Max then customizes the profile with suggested content restrictions, but you can also manually specify what TV shows and movies your child can watch by rating. This flexible approach is ideal and something that Netflix also offers.

Your child can’t switch profiles without entering the PIN you used to create the account. However, I did notice that HBO Max only locked some content rather than omitting it entirely from the Kid’s experience. For example, even if you set up an account for a very young child, the left-hand menu allows them to browse (but not watch) titles available to different age groups, such as 13+.

HBO Max and VPN

A VPN is an excellent privacy tool for protecting your internet traffic from the peering eyes of your ISP or any other malicious actors lurking on a network. An added benefit of a VPN is that you can use it to spoof your location online. This creates potential problems with video streaming services that offer geographically locked content. HBO max is only currently supported in the US and some US territories, so this poses a problem for any interested viewers outside the country.

Nonetheless, I tried streaming content from HBO Max while connected to a US-based Mullvad VPN server on both a desktop browser and from my Android test device. I was able to stream content on both devices without issue. Even if you do find that your VPN and video streaming service exist in harmony, that d
oesn’t mean they will continue to do so. Video streaming services are constantly working on new ways to detect and block VPN traffic.

HBO and Much More

HBO Max is one of the last two giants to enter the video streaming gauntlet (the other being NBC’s upcoming Peacock). With HBO now firmly embedded within AT&T’s massive network of entertainment brands, it’s no surprise that HBO Max arrives with a varied content library including classic HBO shows, popular movies, anime, and much more. Combined with the well-designed apps, the lack of ads, offline downloads, and multiple viewing profiles HBO Max is impressive from a technical standpoint, too. Still, HBO Max is more expensive than most other video streaming services, doesn’t include 4K content, and lacks audio descriptions for its original content.

While HBO Max is a better value than the standalone HBO Now ever was, Netflix remains our Editors’ Choice pick for on-demand video streaming services, due to its top-notch streaming features and popular originals. YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV are our Editors’ Choice winners for live TV streaming, because of their broad channel lineups and value.

HBO Max Specs

Starting Price $14.99 per month
Concurrent Streams Unlimited
Live TV No
On-Demand Movies and TV Shows Yes
Original Programming Yes
Anime Yes
Ads No

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