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HBO Max Review: It's Not TV ... It's So Much More

AT&T and WarnerMedia may be late to the direct-to-consumer streaming game, but they've got a worthy platform on which to build

HBO Max

Source: CordCutters (Image credit: CordCutters)

Those of us of a certain age remember when HBO truly was an indulgence. When it was bolted on alongside a cable subscription and got you things you truly couldn't find anywhere else on TV. Movies. Sex. Nudity. Swear words. Nowadays? You get much of that on traditional cable channel after 7 p.m.

More recently when you hear those three letters — H-B-O — you think premium. You think quality. You think Game of Thrones and The Wire . You think The Sopranos . Sex and the City . True Blood . (The list goes on and on, of course.)

Now we have HBO Max . And with it we have to expand our way of thinking. HBO no longer is a niche player that preferred quantity over quality. Actually, stop right there. HBO still very much is that. It's not going anywhere, and it's not sacrificing quality for anything. (Not yet, anyhow, though we're definitely all watching its new parent company, AT&T, out of the corner of one eye.)

It's maybe better to think of HBO Max as a brand, and an umbrella. It's the new streaming home for WarnerMedia, which is AT&T's entertainment brand born from the combination of Time Inc. and Warner Communications. That beget WarnerMedia, and swallowed up Turner Broadcasting and other entities, and here we are.

You wouldn't be wrong to say that WarnerMedia was late to the game with HBO Max. But it's the first in what we might call the second wave of streaming, following what Netflix and Amazon were able to build. (Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ would make up a parallel track, as would Apple TV+, to a lesser extent.)

And making things even more interesting is how parent company AT&T has flexed its muscle to get HBO Max to as many people as possible — including a don't-call-it-an-upgrade scheme (that's really just an upgrade from the legacy HBO service), and offering service to some AT&T wireless or internet customers for free . (Full disclosure: I'd been paying for HBO for years and watched it through Hulu. But I recently switched ISPs to AT&T Fiber and will receive HBO Max for free.)

For many, HBO Max is a must-have service. But others will be wondering if it's really worth $14.99 a month. For that, we offer this full review of HBO Max.

HBO Max

Source: CordCutters (Image credit: CordCutters)

Availability

Where you can watch HBO Max

It's easy to say that HBO Max is available on most major streaming platforms, because it is . You can watch it on iPhones and Androids. You can watch it in a web browser. You can watch it on PlayStation and Xbox.

But it's really the devices it's missing that are the story. At launch, neither Roku nor Amazon Fire TV are supported at launch. Those are the No. 1 and No. 2 streaming platforms in the world. (In that order in the United States, and reversed outside the U.S.)

AT&T and WarnerMedia failed to get HBO on the two biggest hardware platforms at launch, but it's customers who suffer.

AT&T quickly fired up its PR machine, telling anyone who'd listen that it was still in negotiations with Roku and Amazon — the dispute always was about money, and nobody had been particularly shy about. It even said to CNET that apps were developed for the two platforms and could be distributed "minutes" after a deal was reached.

That's all inside baseball, however, and I don't care about it at all. It's fun for journalists, and bad for everyone else. The bottom line is that it's the customers who were left out, and that AT&T and WarnerMedia failed in bringing HBO Max to the two biggest hardware platforms. Full stop.

Worse is that once a deal is reached — and I have no doubt that there will be at some point — we'll all forget about this. And we should, because it won't matter anymore.

But in the meantime, we're the ones missing out.

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Content

What you can watch on HBO Max

At the end of the day, a streaming service is only as good as its content. HBO Max is touting 10,000 hours of content available at launch. That's several times smaller than a service like Netflix. But it's about quality rather than quantity, they say. And on the whole, they're not wrong.

Like Netflix, Amazon and Apple, some of that content is original. There are six new shows available at launch , with more on the way . That's a tiny fraction of the overall number, of course, but it's rightfully getting top billing.

Then there's the catalog stuff. HBO Max, of course, includes HBO content. That's things like Game of Thrones and Insecure , Curb Your Enthusiasm and Westworld . It also includes all the movies that come to HBO each month.

There's a world of great content on HBO Max, and chances are it's got something for you.

But as the name implies, HBO Max is about more than just HBO. It's about a lot more thanks to ownership by WarnerMedia, in addition to some third-party deals. The big strokes are that you'll also see shows and films from Warner Bros., the DC Universe, Cartoon Network, TNT, TBS, truTV, CNN, the DC Universe, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll and Studio Ghibli (both of those feature some pretty serious anime), Looney Tunes (less-serious cartooning), Rooster Teeth, the Criterion Collection, and a section of films from TCM.

There's a really good mix of shows for adults and kids. But like any other sort of service, your needs will vary. If HBO Max doesn't have what you want to watch, there's no sense in subscribing to it. (Unless you're getting it for free from HBO.)

If you're already an HBO fan, it's a no-brainer. And, in fact, you almost certainly already have access to HBO Max, because while the legacy HBO and the new HBO Max will live together as separate entities, WarnerMedia is not at all shy about getting folks from the former onto the latter for free.

Harry Potter on HBO Max

Source: CordCutters Seeing all eight "Harry Potter" films on HBO Max was a nice surprise on launch day. (Image credit: CordCutters)

If you're a fan of anime or classic movies, there are sections here for you with all kinds of great stuff. (My wife literally made a bunch of joyful noises at the sight of some of her black-and-white favorites.

That's not to say there aren't some holes, however. The Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy isn't there yet. Man of Steel — the first Henry Cavill take on Superman is missing. Same for Superman Returns . (That's the Brandon Routh version.) And there are others. HBO Max may have created a new world of content for WarnerMedia, but that doesn't mean old licensing agreements aren't still in effect.

One big Day 1 surprise, though, was finding the entire Harry Potter library ready to go.

Ease of use

What's HBO Max like to use?

HBO Max user interface

Source: Screen Recording HBO Max on Apple TV. (Image credit: Screen Recording)

You've got the content, but you also need a good user experience to make things work. Fortunately, HBO Max mostly has that part down.

Once you're logged into the app — either with a standalone account, or through one of the myriad partner services — you'll set up an initial profile. You can have as many as five profiles on a single account, and there are parent controls set up for fine-tuning of what kids are able to watch. (And that's broken down quite nicely between films and television shows, which is good.)

The app experience is the mostly same no matter which television platform you're using (I've tested on Apple TV and Android TV), and it's the same whether you're on Android and iOS. Same goes if you're watching on a web browser. There's a carousel of featured content up top, followed by a "Continue watching ..." row, then featured series, HBO Max originals, featured movies, etc. ... It's all pretty standard stuff, and nothing that would surprise you. There's also a "hamburger" menu on the side (on TVs it's designated by a slightly weird icon of boxes) that gets you to the various categories more quickly. And that the bottom of that ( as well as the bottom of the main view) you'll see sections for HBO, DC, Sesame Workshop, TCM, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll and Looney Tunes, to more quickly take you straight to that content. Though there's plenty of overlap in all the categories.

This is where things maybe become a little messy, but only if you really care about knowing who owns a particular piece of content. If something is on HBO proper, it says so right under the title. If it's not on HBO proper, you'll just see the name. Which maybe could be a little confusing given that Aquaman is both on. HBO right now and a part of the DC Universe, but Wonder Woman is just the latter. That sort of thing definitely doesn't help the viewer any and just clunks up the user interface. But it's a small gripe.

It also might get a little confusing if you subscribe to HBO Max through a another service like YouTube TV (which finally has access to HBO ) or Hulu. At least in the case of YouTube TV you'll get the linear HBO channels in your live guide. But for all the exclusive HBO Max stuff you'll need to hop into the HBO Max app and sign in with your YouTube TV (or whatever) credentials. Conversely, you don't get the linear HBO channels in the HBO Max app.

Otherwise, it's a fairly normal video viewing experience. You get info for the show or movie, and there's support for Chromecast and AirPlay. Series and individual listings can be added to "My List," to make them easier to find later.

One big difference in the experience between Android TV and Apple TV that's worth mentioning: You can do some serious customization to the closed-captioning system on Android TV, which is really cool to see and will greatly aid those who need a little extra help.

All in all, though, it's a pretty normal video experience by today's standards. Basic, but very usable.

The nerdy stuff

Bitrate is better, but HDR and 4K are missing

One of the bigger complaints about HBO Go and HBO Now (aside from the "Which one am I supposed to be using!?!?!?!" frustration") involved bitrate. That, along with the resolution of a feed, is what really determines the picture quality of the show being streamed. The higher the bitrate, the less artifacting and pixelation you'll see. (Ever notice how darker scenes sometimes get blotchy? That's what we're talking about. Lower bitrate and higher compressions requires less data to be moved around, but at the expense of the experience.)

HBO Max doesn't yet support 4K resolution or HDR — two major black marks on the service.

There are a lot of variables here. Your internet speed is one of them, but so is the platform on which you're viewing things. Amazon Prime Video offered a higher bitrate for HBO than other platforms. But since HBO Max isn't currently available on Amazon Fire TV, we can't test it here. Same goes for Roku, so that rules out the two most popular pieces of hardware. Fortunately, Apple TV 4K — which still is our No. 1 hardware pick for anyone who's serious about streaming TV — makes it relatively easy to check these sorts of nerd stats.

I have a fiber connection at home. Apple TV 4K was reporting an average speed of somewhere around 200 Mbps. Sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more — but in any case that's more than enough for streaming video in 4K resolution with HDR. Unfortunately, HBO Max doesn't currently stream anything in 4K or with HDR. Both of those things are a pretty big miss and should be addressed. (But on the other hand it's also not surprising given that moving more data costs more money, and AT&T already is giving HBO Max to a lot of people for free.)

HBO Max bitrate

Source: CordCutters (Image credit: CordCutters)

Content was being served in a native 1920 x 1080 resolution and then upscaled to 3840 x 2160. That's less noticeable on newer shows. But for older fare like Friends , it doesn't look great. None of that is overly surprising, or even specific to HBO Max. It's just something to note.

As for the bitrate, I was generally seeing between 8 Mbps and 10 Mbps, with peaks above 12 Mbps. There's no method to control playback quality, so what you see is what you get. That pales in comparison to some of the 4K original content on, say, Netflix, which had double or even triple the bitrate. But, still, I generally didn't have any major complaints about the bitrate.

Audio still tops out at Dolby Digital 5.1. Sorry, Atmos fans.

The bottom line

A great place for the next generation of streaming

HBO Max

Source: CordCutters (Image credit: CordCutters)

HBO Max is so much more than just HBO. It's about all the content that AT&T and WarnerMedia now control. It's about all the new originals that are on the way in addition to HBO itself doing what it does best.

And for the most part HBO Max has packaged things in an easy-to-use service, with a price its customers already are used to paying. It's more expensive than the most basic Netflix service, or Hulu. But then again they don't have the pedigree that HBO has.

And not to dwell on it — because at some point this situation will rectify itself — but you really can't just overlook HBO Max not being available on Roku and Amazon Fire TV at launch. That's a big miss. Same goes for a lack of 4K resolution and HDR. It's far past time for Game of Thrones to look as good as it can, streaming or not.

HBO Max isn't going to replace Netflix or Amazon Prime Video or Hulu or anything else anytime soon. It might be a tough decision if you're watching how much you're spending on entertainment services. But WarnerMedia also has given us a lot for that monthly fee — and there's more on the way.)