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HBO Max Review: Worth the Splurge for Great TV and Movies

The combined powers of Warner Bros. and HBO's vaults make the platform attractive.

HBO Max has found its sea legs. HBO launched its entry in the streaming wars two years ago and today the app is slick and chock-full of popular TV shows and movies. Gangsters, mythical monsters and DC heroes dwell alongside cuddly talking animals and comedy stars. It has HBO's entire catalog -- including Emmy winners Mare of Easttown and Hacks -- along with favorites such as Friends, Rick and Morty, Sesame Street, the Lord of the Rings movies and almost every Studio Ghibli film. And 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, however, 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, there aren't any commercials.

8.0

HBO Max

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

While HBO's original series slate includes a few sleeper hits with The White Lotus, The Flight Attendant and Peacemaker, it hasn't notched any breakout successes like The Mandalorian on Disney Plus or Squid Game on Netflix. On the other hand, HBO originals alone are definitely worth the price for a lot of people. 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 new films like The Batman

If you're a big fan of HBO, animation, the DCEU or Friends, or are simply running out of good stuff to watch, HBO Max is probably worth your money. But if you're looking to save money on streaming -- especially if you already pay for NetflixHuluDisney Plus or all of the above -- its high monthly fee may make it easier to cut than competitors.

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 Game of Thrones, Friends, Euphoria, DC Comics series, Sesame Street Stranger Things, Squid Game, Better Call Saul, Money Heist The Mandalorian, 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)

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. The service added a $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.

Despite the large catalog of movies and shows, HBO Max is at the expensive end of streaming services: Netflix's basic plan costs $10 a month, 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 mooted cracking down on password-sharing

hbo max tv series carousel
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 intrusive are the 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 2-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

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Ads have a chance to appear in any video you stream on HBO Max.

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 cue it up. There are a handful of new Max Original shows that won't also air on HBO, though many of them lack the critical and commercial success of their HBO counterparts. The biggest Max exclusives include Peacemaker, Raised by Wolves, Hacks and the reboots of Gossip Girl and Sex and the City's And Just Like That... But these have failed to stick out or make the same pop-culture impact as Netflix's Squid Game or Disney Plus's WandaVision. And 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 a Max Original that's part of HBO Max's growing slate. 

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 Titans 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 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. Fan-favorite animated series such as Adventure Time 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 vast 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. 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.

...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. Two years after launch those 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. 

While overall Max has an intuitive, simplified interface, we've seen complaints from some mobile users about it being slow and clunky. Android customers who reviewed the app in the Google Play store report problems with buffering, lagging load times and crashing at startup or in the middle of viewing a video.

HBO Max movies and TV shows

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

James Martin/CNET

Similar issues have been reported in Apple's App Store where users compliment Max's abundance of content, but complain of crashing, buggy experiences when trying to load, rewind or fast forward a video, and downloading problems. 

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 is at the pricey end of the streaming service spectrum. But if you have $15 a month to burn and want to binge Mare of Easttown, 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-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.