Max Streaming Service Review: Loads of Content, but You Have to Make It Fit You
Sister Wives and The Sopranos are found here together, but you have to train the app to help you find what you love.
Kourtnee covers TV streaming services and home entertainment news and reviews at CNET. She previously worked as an entertainment reporter at Showbiz Cheat Sheet where she wrote about film, television, music, celebrities, and streaming platforms.
ExpertiseKourtnee is a longtime cord-cutter who's subscribed to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Crunchyroll, Sling, Spotify and more. As a real-life user of these services, she tracks the latest developments in streaming, the newest reCredentials
Though Kourtnee hasn't won any journalism awards yet, she's been a Netflix streaming subscriber since 2012 and knows the magic of its hidden codes.
Meara covers streaming service news for CNET. She recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where she wrote for her college newspaper, The Daily Texan, as well as for state and local magazines. When she's not writing, she likes to dote over her cat, sip black coffee and try out new horror movies.
Huge library that covers every era and viewers of all ages
Striking, eye-catching interface
Larger selection of 4K titles
Watch HBO shows as they air
Kids' content lineup and parental control features
Glitchy user experience
Missing episodes from popular TV shows
High price, even with ads
Max launched on May 23 as a refashioned streaming service that replaced HBO Max. It boasts more than 35,000 hours of content with a library twice as big as its predecessor. The redesigned service, which fuses Discovery Plus titles with the former HBO Max, highlights the depth of the Warner Bros. catalog.
HBO has long been considered prestige television with shows like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and Succession. Warner Bros. Discovery chose to drop HBO from Max's new name in favor of magnifying all of its brands and broadening its appeal to a larger audience -- including kids. (It already has a top spot on our list of the best streaming services for kids.)
Merging all this content under one roof gives the platform a leg up on its biggest rivals: Netflix and Disney Plus. That said, Max is on the pricier side, with a starting rate of $10 per month to watch with ads, going up to $20 if you want 4K and more streams.
If you already get access to Max for free, such as with an HBO cable subscription, you should definitely keep it. At the time of this writing, Max still has to work out some bugs with how the app functions to make streaming more seamless. But the breadth of the platform's catalog and video quality makes it worth having, especially if you're comfortable paying more money for a streaming service. You can always split the cost with someone outside your household and share your streams. And if you're someone who only wants to stream Discovery Plus, it's still available as a separate app.
Prices for Max subscriptions are the same as the old HBO Max: With ads, it's $10 per month ($100 annually) and ad-free is $16 a month ($150 annually). But the new Ultimate ad-free plan is $20 monthly and will be the only subscription to offer 4K content and Dolby Atmos on select movies and shows. Features like 4K access and Dolby Vision are accessible during the first six months of Max's launch for legacy customers with the $16 ad-free plan.
Max subscription plans
Number of screens you can watch at the same time
Number of offline downloads
4K Ultra HD available
Though most of the major streaming platforms have raised prices, Max remains among the most expensive services. Its pricing is comparable to Netflix for the ad-free experience, but at least you can still share your password without paying extra. We spent time testing all three subscription tiers and noted any differences between Max and the previous version of the app. Each plan offers something different.
Max's stable of TV shows and movies is its power
Max has a hefty catalog that carries a range of films and TV series across multiple genres, and there is something for every age group in your household. The marriage between the HBO Max library and Discovery Plus serves up a selection of food, drama, comedy, animation, crime, superheroes, nature docs and lifestyle. In addition to HBO titles and Max originals, you'll find DC, Studio Ghibli, CNN, Sesame Street, Looney Toons, Food Network, Magnolia Network, TLC, TCM, The CW and more -- including the massive vault of Warner Bros. film and TV shows that spans a century. Only some things from Discovery Plus are on the platform though -- namely the most popular content.
Warner Bros. Discovery says it will roll out "40 new titles and seasons every month" on the service. At launch, the service debuted new Max originals like Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai and SmartLess: On The Road, along with HBO originals such as Reality (starring Sydney Sweeney). The catalog will continue to expand in the coming months, including platform exclusives.
The Justice League lives here with other DC properties, and Discovery's stash of documentaries and reality TV shows is a click away. HBO favorites like The White Lotus, The Last of Us and House of the Dragon are available to stream as they air live on the cable network, with new episodes arriving each week. And you can still stream TCM classics such as Lean on Me and A Nightmare on Elm Street on the platform.
Max's offerings for kids are a highlight of the service, with plenty to stream from Elmo, Cartoon Network, Scooby Doo, Lego, DC, all versions of Teen Titans and a host of originals. That includes preschool content like Blippi, family movies and teen-friendly TV shows, animation and film franchises.
At launch, I noticed missing episodes for some shows like Regular Show and We Bare Bears, which seemed to have been a glitch. They've since been restored, but other series like Impractical Jokers do not have full seasons available. Some absent episodes are due to Warner Bros. Discovery intentionally removing content from the Max streaming lineup.
On HBO Max, there were less than 40 movies and TV shows available to stream in 4K HDR. If you have Max's Ultimate plan and a device that supports 4K, you'll be able to stream more than 1,000 titles, including Avatar: The Way of Water, House of the Dragon, Dune, The Wizard of Oz, And Just Like That..., Euphoria and all the Harry Potter films. If you type "4K" in the search bar, 27 shows and movies pop up, but you should look for the format in the title's description.
Warner Bros. Discovery said the 4K lineup might change, but you can find a list of what was available at launch by visiting this page. Be aware the company will continue to remove titles from the Max service as part of its cost-cutting strategy.
Before I dive into the experience of using Max, you should know my early testing was filled with glitches. Max arrived on May 23, and I spent more than a week getting acquainted with it, learning its strengths and flaws while comparing it to its previous incarnation and its competitors.
There were some hiccups. Just switching from the old purple HBO Max app on my Roku stick and Amazon Fire TV device to the new blue Max app was filled with frustration. And even after my week-long jaunt into Max, its performance was still less than smooth. Some of the glitches were minor, for example, a show host's picture didn't match the name in the description. Others, such as the TV app freezing and eventually kicking me out or some particularly wonky navigation, were more of an issue. For example, I found myself in a seemingly endless scroll of titles trying to reach the screen's bottom, when suddenly the selector box got cut off, the app froze and my TV screen turned into a blue abyss. As of August, however, these glitches have apparently been fixed.
My profiles, watch list and Continue Watching rows all migrated without a hitch. I didn't lose any playback progress for movies and shows that I stopped, either. And despite the bugs, the video quality on Max is top-notch. The phone app experience was considerably better, too. Max is still working on bugs for all devices based on customer feedback, so if you encounter an issue, we urge you to report it.
User interface and navigation experience
For the most part, Max appears and operates similarly to HBO Max and other streamers like Hulu and Netflix. As promised, the rebranded service comes with some improvements and big changes to the user experience. The purple is gone (I miss it, and you may too), but even with the color palette switching to blue -- like Paramount Plus, Disney Plus and Sling TV -- the TV app is still crisp. The phone version seems darker but is still easy to follow. Among the added enhancements are an expanded set of profile avatars with more than 350 options, a default kid's profile for new accounts and optimized personalization.
Changes to the home screen, navigation and content organization are noticeable. The top rail has five tabs: Home, TV series, Movies, HBO and Trending. The prominent placement of the HBO tab is helpful as a direct path to finding all releases -- new or old -- from the network and a plus for those who only care a little about the Discovery Plus library.
On TVs, a new side panel has only three icons: Home, Search and My Stuff. The latter quickly took me to my Continue Watching section and watch list. On the phone app, this panel is located at the bottom and has a download icon if your plan includes them.
Roughly three months after launch, my home screen has changed around a bit. My top row is For You recommendations, followed by Continue Watching, with a Featured row next. My List is right underneath the featured lineup with network brand buttons a couple rows down. Previously, the top row on Max was Continue Watching (if you had one), followed by curated recommendations and then My List (if you added titles). Warner Bros. Discovery stated that viewers' home screens would become more personalized over time, and the changes are slowly happening.
Scrolling down the home screen reveals Warner Bros. Discovery's content brand hubs -- all 18 of them -- including HBO, TLC, HGTV, DC, Max Originals, Kids & Family or Ghibli. One obvious difference from HBO Max is the row of genre tiles is now located all the way at the bottom of the home screen. It's inconvenient as you need to scroll past all the other rows, including Max's curated collections, to get to them. You can use the app's search to find them, but simply putting them higher up on the home page makes more sense to me.
As far as playback, I only experienced a few problems with Max. For example, while streaming one TV show episode, the video kept playing when I tried to rewind a scene, ignoring my command. And I do wish when I click a show on my Continue Watching row, the new episode would automatically play. It currently displays the previous episode and when you click it, it plays somewhere during the last two to three minutes of it. A single click to play new episodes in this row would be welcome.
Recommendations need time to get to know you
Because Max is an upgrade -- or enhanced update -- of HBO Max, the streaming service started from scratch for recommendations. Your HBO Max watch history was not imported to the new version, and with all the merged content from Discovery Plus, there's more to sift through to watch -- or skip. Several months on, the algorithm is still learning who you are, and what you like, and will eventually catch up with your preferences, rotating in fresh additions.
The brand hubs will help you with the transition from HBO Max to Max, making it easier for customers to find content and fine-tune the recommendation machine. During testing, I noticed not all hubs are solely dedicated to their brands, so you're likely to find some cross-hub suggestions. It goes deeper than that with related collections and links to other movies or TV series featuring a particular actor. For instance, you can select a Harry Potter cast member or other Warner-owned franchises and be whisked away to the land of Superman, Middle-Earth, The Matrix, James Bond and additional collections.
Using parental controls
I gave the default kid's profile a spin to get a feel for the experience. It's preconfigured with access to PG- and TV-PG-rated movies and shows. Parents can adjust the content ratings, and you're prompted to do so the first time you click on the profile. You can only change the settings from a web browser, though.
Ratings range from little kids -- which starts at TV-Y -- up to teens, with the most mature options being TV-14 and PG-13. As long as you keep the profile set to Kids Mode, your child will only see age-appropriate content according to the ratings that you choose. If you toggle the kid-proof exit button, a four-digit PIN is required in order to exit the profile. The home screens look different depending on the age and content ratings, so you may want to create separate profiles if you have older kids and little ones in the family.
When I set my kid's profile for teens, some of the titles that showed up on the home screen included Talladega Nights, Friends, The Big Bang Theory, 50 First Dates, Teen Titans Go! and the Harry Potter collection. Be aware that there's a wide variety of content under the teen-rating umbrella if you're a parent who wants to monitor what your child is watching.
On the ad-based plan, the ad load is virtually the same as before, with 3 to 4 minutes of commercials playing per hour of content. When I watched one 90-minute episode of 90 Day Fiancé, I encountered five commercial breaks of various lengths that lasted a total of 3 minutes, 15 seconds. By contrast, when I streamed Shazam 2 (which runs for 2 hours, 10 minutes), the total ad time was just under 2 minutes, including a 25-second preroll.
While using the kid's profile, I watched one 24-minute episode of Full House with no ads, and it was the same for a short episode of Teen Titans Go. There were no commercials during films either in this profile. Competitor Disney Plus does include ads while streaming in a kid's profile, though Max and Netflix avoid it. Still, if you can afford the extra $6 a month, go ad-free.
Downloads are only available on ad-free subscriptions, and speeds are fairly quick. It only took me about 35 seconds to download one episode of Barry on my phone, and a little over 3 minutes for The Batman -- a movie that runs three hours. You have the option to select video quality for downloads, choosing from "good" for faster speeds, "better" for higher-quality video that uses more data or "best," which downloads at a slower rate. It's one of the areas that the Warner Bros. Discovery team worked to improve.
When I tested the app with the premium Ultimate subscription, I noticed the experience was the same as the $16 ad-free version. There's a short promo reel featuring Max movies and shows that runs before some content, but not all. It played before Shazam!: Fury of the Gods, but not when I streamed an episode of Titans. So, for $4 more, we get two more simultaneous streams, all the 4K content and 100 downloads versus 30.