HBO Max review: Great TV and theatrical movies, but not the best streaming value

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, Sesame Street, the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, and almost every Studio Ghibli film. It’s also the only service to debut first-run movies, including in 2021 Godzilla vs. Kong, Dune and Matrix 4, the same day they’re available in theaters for no extra charge. At $15 per month it’s expensive, however, and even the new ad-supported tier for $10 a month costs more than the base plans for most other streaming services.

Like

  • Large, varied content catalog that includes all of HBO
  • New theatrical releases from Warner Bros. Studios
  • Simple, easy-to-navigate interface
  • Lots of children’s shows and customizable rating settings

Don’t Like

  • High price, even with ads
  • Few original series beyond standard HBO
  • Can’t import watch history or personalized recommendations
  • $10 tier lacks first-run theatrical movies, offline downloads

If you already subscribe to HBO, HBO Max is a no-brainer upgrade that gives you a shiny new interface and loads more content for the same price. But if you’re a new subscriber that price can be a challenge to justify — especially if you already pay for Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus or all of the above. And if you’re thinking of saving $5 per month in exchange for a few ads, remember that the cheaper tier lacks access to those first-run theatrical movies, and doesn’t let you download anything to a phone or tablet to watch offline.

At launch HBO Max lacked compatibility with the popular Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices and 4K HDR streaming, but now apps for Roku and Amazon are now easily available. The 2021 Warner Bros. theatrical slate is premiering on the platform in 4K HDR (as are other titles, such as Zack Snyder’s Justice League), and if you have kids you’ll appreciate Max’s large collection for children, with the ability to control ratings on kids’ profiles better than most other services. 

Read more: Everything you need to know about HBO Max

Aside from HBO’s original series, the Max slate of exclusives remains relatively thin, especially with the delay of the highly anticipated Friends reunion special and no breakout hit such as Disney Plus’ The Mandalorian and WandaVision. That shortcoming will likely change over time, but for now, it remains the service’s biggest disadvantage.

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 probably worth your money. But if you’re looking to save money on streaming, its high monthly fee makes it easier to cut than many of its tough competitors.

Streaming compared

HBO Max Netflix Disney Plus Hulu
Monthly price $10 with ads, Ad-free for $15 Starts at $9 $7 Basic $6 with ads, Ad-free for $12, Live TV for $65
Ads Yes, with basic tier No No Yes, with basic tier
Top titles Entire HBO catalog, Studio Ghibli films, DC films Stranger Things, The Crown, Breaking Bad, The Queen’s Gambit The Mandalorian, WandaVision, Avengers Endgame, Toy Story, The Simpsons Handmaid’s Tale, Catch-22, Lost, Bob’s Burgers
Mobile downloads Yes (on Ad-free plan only) Yes Yes Yes (on Ad-free plan only)
4K available Yes Yes (on Premium plan) Yes Yes
HDR available Yes 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 $15 a month, the same as HBO’s traditional channel when you get it through most pay-TV providers. In June, the service added a new, $10 a month plan that includes ads, aptly called HBO Max with Ads

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. 

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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 $9 a month, Hulu’s plan with ads is $6 a month and Disney Plus costs $8 a month. Lots of people I know share account access with friends or family members and HBO Max executive Tony Goncalves told CNET that it will take a “fairly balanced approach” to this issue. 

With HBO Max you can have up to three simultaneous streams going at the same time. The addition of up to five user profiles, a feature not available on the previous 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. Xbox and PlayStation consoles and recent Samsung smart TVs are also on board. As mentioned, Amazon Fire TV and Roku apps are now available. 

HBO Max with Ads: More trade-offs than a few commercials

The $10-a-month HBO Max with Ads plan promises around four minutes of ads per hour of content watched. However, the number you see depends on what you watch. When I tried it out, I found that for shows that were under a half hour (like Friends and The Nanny), I saw one 15-second ad at the start, and had two more ad breaks for about 30 to 45 seconds each in between. While Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had nine ad breaks over its 2.5 hour runtime, Wonder Woman 1984, Tenet and Oslo had none. 

Overall, the ad breaks were pretty fast compared to watching something on cable, and even compared to Hulu’s ad-supported tier, which sometimes includes breaks up to 90 seconds long, and Peacock’s, which promises about five minutes of ads per hour. However, again, Hulu’s plan is only $6 a month, and Peacock has a free tier. 

Finally, it’s worth reiterating what else you lose by paying $5 less. HBO Max with Ads doesn’t allow you to download content to watch offline, or to watch the big-screen Warner Bros. movies when HBO Max starts streaming them the same day they hit theaters, including the upcoming In the Heights, Dune and The Matrix 4. 

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 had 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 just a handful Max Originals and the biggest are probably the romantic series Love Life starring Anna Kendrick and dark comedy The Flight Attendant starring Kaley Cuoco. Even a year after launch, nothing has stuck out or made the same pop-culture impact as Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit or Disney Plus’s WandaVision. And unlike Netflix, it will typically drop its originals once per week, the way regular cable HBO does. A number of originals — including the Friends reunion special, a spinoff of The Suicide Squad with John Cena called Peacemaker, a reboot of Gossip Girl and a revival of Sex and the City — are among the many titles in the works, so there should be more to choose from later in the year or in early 2022. 

HBO Max

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 are 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 were clamoring for more of 2017’s Justice League, HBO Max is now the home of director Zach Snyder’s cut.

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. (Your kid might be savvy enough to figure that passcode out, but it’s something.)

HBO Max

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. 

HBO Max

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 easily 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 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. 

…but 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 still not available, 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. 

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


Sarah Tew/CNET

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 before they were sunset. 

For brand-new subscribers, HBO Max is at the pricey end of the streaming service spectrum. But if you have $15 a month to burn and want to binge Friends, Game of Thrones or all of the Studio Ghibli movies, you’ll have plenty to choose from. And if you don’t mind a few ads — or the trade-offs of losing big-name movies and offline downloads — the $10 a month HBO Max with Ads plan might work well for you.

First published May 29, 2020.

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