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HBO Max Review: Expensive but Its Catalog Is Packed

You get titles from HBO, Warner Bros., DC Comics and more all under one streaming roof. The service has also now earned a CNET Editors' Choice Award.

Breakout shows and a vast catalog have helped grow HBO Max's audience to more than 75 million worldwide two years after its launch in May 2020. 

The streaming service is full of attention-worthy titles and characters from the past and present, including House of the Dragon, Tony Soprano, Elvis, DC heroes like Superman, Adventure Time and comedy stars. The app has HBO's entire catalog -- including Emmy-winning hits Succession and Euphoria -- along with favorites such as We Bare Bears, Rick and Morty, the Lord of the Rings movies and almost every Studio Ghibli film. Some of Hollywood's greatest movie gems, from Citizen Kane to The Wizard of Oz, can be found here too. 

At $15 per month it's expensive, though, and even the ad-supported tier for $10 a month costs more than the base plans for most other streaming services. Though Netflix's base plan is now $10 too, it doesn't have any commercials.

8.0

HBO Max

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Like

  • Large, varied content catalog that includes all of HBO
  • Simple, easy-to-navigate interface
  • Lots of children's shows and customizable rating settings

Don't Like

  • High price, even with ads
  • Can't import watch history or personalized recommendations
  • $10 tier lacks offline downloads

HBO Max's originals include hits like The White Lotus, Hacks and Our Flag Means Death. But even just the HBO originals (yes, they are separate from HBO Max's originals) that you can access via HBO Max are definitely worth the price for a lot of people. HBO's originals include powerhouses like Euphoria and House of the Dragon. 

The depth of Max's library of new and old titles -- from HBO and Warner -- is a focal point as the streamer is no longer doing day-and-date theatrical releases for newer films like The Batman

If you're a big fan of HBO, animation, DC Comics or Friends or are running out of good stuff to watch, HBO Max is worth your money. You can decide for yourself whether you want to pay for Max along and other streaming services like Netflix, Disney Plus or Hulu. But with its lineup of quality originals, thousands of movies and family-friendly offerings, and smooth interface, HBO Max is a great service.

As a result, HBO Max has earned a CNET Editors' Choice Award.

Streaming services compared


HBO Max Netflix Disney Plus Hulu
Monthly price $10 for basic with ads, $15 for ad-free Starts at $10 $8 Basic $7 with ads, ad-free Premium for $13 Live TV for $70
Ads Yes No No Yes
Top titles House of the Dragon, Our Flag Means Death, Euphoria, DC Comics series, The White Lotus Stranger Things, Squid Game, Better Call Saul, The Sandman Obi-Wan Kenobi, Loki, Encanto, The Simpsons Handmaid's Tale, How I Met Your Father, The Bachelor, Bob's Burgers
Mobile downloads Yes Yes Yes Yes
4K HDR available No Yes (on Premium plan) Yes Yes
Number of streams: 3 1 (2 for Standard, 4 on Premium) 4 2 (Unlimited with Live TV $9.99 add-on)

Price on par with Netflix that's 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. The service added a $10-a-month plan that includes ads, aptly called HBO Max with Ads

Despite the large catalog of movies and shows, HBO Max is at the expensive end of streaming services along with Netflix, whose basic plan costs $10 a month and standard is $15.50 monthly. Hulu's plan with ads is $7 a month and Disney Plus costs $8 a month. Lots of people we know share account access with friends or family members and HBO Max executive Tony Goncalves told CNET in 2020 that it will take a "fairly balanced approach" to this issue, whereas Netflix has recently discussed cracking down on password-sharing

You may be able to get an HBO Max subscription for no extra cost through various deals, your wireless carrier, or if you already have HBO. Check out our streaming service deals list to see if you're eligible for a discount.  

hbo max tv series carousel

HBO Max has DC content, Looney Toons, and Cartoon Network shows like Adventure Time.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 with Ads: How often do you see commercials?

The $10-a-month HBO Max with Ads plan promises around 4 minutes of ads per hour of content watched but in our tests the number of ads varied widely. For shows that were a half hour or under (like Friends and Our Flag Means Death), we saw one round of ads at the start that lasted around 25 seconds total, and there were two more ad breaks for about 30 to 45 seconds each in between. 

For comparison, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 had seven ad breaks over its two-hour runtime, and The Batman, Moonshot and Oslo had none. It felt like there was no pattern for when to expect ads. In April, the platform introduced an upfront 90-second ad block experience where commercials will only roll before a movie starts and won't pop up during the rest of the film. However, this is just for select titles. 

HBO Max also uses an animation to give viewers a heads up when ads start and stop for family-friendly content. Overall, the ad breaks were pretty fast compared with watching something on cable, and even compared with Hulu's ad-supported tier, which sometimes includes breaks up to 90 seconds long, and Peacock's, which promises about 5 minutes of ads per hour. However, again, Hulu's plan is only $7 a month, and Peacock has a free tier. 

Finally, it's worth reiterating what else you miss out on by paying $5 less. HBO Max with Ads doesn't allow you to download content to watch offline, which may be non-negotiable for mobile users who like to stream anywhere, any time. And if you prefer a 4K experience, that's not an option with this subscription plan.

Read more: We Tried HBO Max Ad-free and With Ads to Find Out if That $5 Savings Is Really Worth It

002-hbo-max-ios-iphone-11-pro

The cheaper tier HBO Max includes ads.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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. 

It's since grown to more than 13,000 hours' worth of selections that include documentaries, reality shows, movie franchises and animation. One thing that works in Max's favor is Warner's ownership of its hefty movie and show library. Like Disney, it has a back catalog that it does not have to license from an outside studio. However, viewers will note that the streaming service will rotate certain titles on and off the platform with regularity. 

HBO cable subscribers who haven't yet checked out the streaming service may find now is the time to get into it. There are a handful of new HBO Max originals that won't also air on HBO. The biggest Max exclusives include Peacemaker, The White Lotus, Hacks and the Gossip Girl reboot. But unlike Netflix, it will typically drop its originals once per week, the way regular cable HBO does. 

taika-waititi-rhys-darby-2

Our Flag Means Death is one of HBO Max's original shows. 

Photograph by Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

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 properties like The Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, classic films like The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca, and newer hits like The Batman. Not to mention almost the entire catalog of Studio Ghibli anime films that were released for streaming in the US before. 

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. Fan-favorite animated series such as Regular Show and Steven Universe can be binged. It's also home to Doctor Who (if you consider that a kids' show) 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.)

dune.png

Hooray, you can watch Dune in 4K on Max.

Warner Bros.

4K HDR titles are extremely limited

HBO Max has an undeniably huge catalog, and like its rivals Netflix and Hulu, the streamer continuously adds new and classic movies and series to its library each month. However, its 4K title selection is small and not easy to find. Whereas with Netflix you can type "4K" in the search box to pull up all available content, that's not the case here. 

Though each title has a 4K stamp in its description, HBO Max keeps a running list on its help page of every title that's available in 4K, HDR10 and Dolby Vision. House of the Dragon is the first new HBO show available in these formats, and you can now watch Game of Thrones in 4K. In addition, you'll find Dune, Kimi, The Suicide Squad and The Matrix trilogy among the films on the list. There are roughly 30 movies that stream in 4K, and you must have the ad-free HBO Max plan and a supported device in order to view them. 

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. Jump to the homepage and a carousel of the latest releases await you, followed by recommendation rows such as Just Added, Trending Comedy, For You, Popular TV or the very descriptive Hilariously Chaotic. 

We 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 the service's properties: HBO, DC, Sesame Workshop, Turner Classic Movies, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Looney Tunes. It looks kind of like Disney Plus' hub at the top of its page, but with less familiar names than Disney's Star Wars and Marvel. 

HBO Max

HBO Max has a crisp search function.

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" or "HP" instead of "Harry Potter"). On Apple TV, voice search worked pretty well -- when we said, "Watch Rick and Morty," HBO Max opened the series landing page, giving the option to choose the episode. After starting an episode of Game of Thrones and closing out, when I said, "Watch GOT," it jumped me back into the episode where we had left off. Saying "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 option to add it to your list. When you start a show, the rating appears in the upper left corner.

In summer 2022, HBO Max unveiled a new set of features for mobile and desktop users. iPad and iPhone viewers in the US can now use SharePlay to watch content together with friends and family on FaceTime. The shuffle button is now available for mobile phone users who want to play random TV show episodes. Additionally, you're able to toggle a split-screen feature on supported devices, and tablet users can flip between portrait and landscape modes more easily. 

No human recommendations, but the algorithm is real 

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. This feature is 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. Otherwise, recommendations are based on what your viewing habits and preferences.

HBO Max movies and TV shows

You can easily binge the critically acclaimed Euphoria on HBO Max with any device.

James Martin/CNET

Should you get HBO Max?

If you already subscribe to HBO, using the HBO Max app instead is a no-brainer: It's lots more content for the same monthly price. 

For brand-new subscribers, HBO Max costs more, but if you have $10 or $15 a month to burn and want to binge the Studio Ghibli movies, Game of Thrones, Warner Bros. films or Max Originals, you'll have plenty to choose from. And if you don't mind a few ads -- or the trade-off of losing 4K and offline downloads -- the $10-a-month HBO Max with Ads plan might work well for you.

First published on May 29, 2020.