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We tried HBO Max ad-free and with ads to find out if that $5 savings is really worth it

HBO Max is one of the most expensive streaming services either way, but we tested the differences between the two plans.

Long before the era of streaming, HBO was considered the premier destination for high-quality original shows. With its streaming service HBO Max, that content has been combined with a huge back catalog of popular shows and movies, including Friends, Rick and Morty, Sesame Street, the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, and almost every Studio Ghibli film. Last year, the streaming service also released movies like Godzilla vs. Kong, Dune and The Matrix Resurrections the same day they were available in theaters -- at no extra charge. 

All of these perks come at a high price: $15 a month -- more than competitors like Netflix, Hulu and Disney Plus. But those who want to save a little cash now have another option: HBO Max with Ads, which costs $10 a month and promises only about four minutes of ads per hour. 

HBO Max

Should you pay extra to nix ads on HBO Max? We test it out.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I tried out both versions of HBO Max, ads and no ads. Here's how the two plan options differ. 

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

HBO Max

If you're used to watching live TV with commercials, or basic Hulu, the ad breaks on HBO Max with Ads won't be a big deal for you. In my tests, ads were relatively infrequent, but the number varied depending on what I watched. 

The ad load was lightest with shorter comedies. During episodes of Friends and The Nanny (both coming in at under 30 minutes), I saw one 15-second ad at the start, and had two more ad breaks for about 30 to 45 seconds each in between. That's far less than you'd get on network TV. 

Movies were a bit more hit-or-miss: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone had nine ad breaks over its 2 hour, 32 minute running time, ranging from 30 seconds to one minute each. Before and after each ad break was a 5-second "be right back" animation, which I found to be an annoying time-waster. But that screen didn't appear on any of the other shows or movies I watched, except for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. (I tried a few more kids' movies like Space Jam and Scooby Doo, but their ad breaks didn't have this, so maybe it's Potter-specific.) 

Read more: Best streaming service deals

Meanwhile, Wonder Woman 1984, Tenet and Oslo had no ad breaks at all. The Friends reunion special had seven ad breaks over the course of its 1 hour, 45 minutes. (You can see how many ad breaks a show or movie has by hitting the fast-forward button on your device -- you'll see small breaks in the progress line, and if you try to skip ahead past one of those breaks, you'll have to watch those ads.)

Even for the movies with more ads, they did go by quickly 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. 

Though the ads didn't bother me much, at $10 a month, HBO Max with Ads is still on the pricier side for a streaming service -- Hulu's ad-supported plan is only $6 a month, Peacock has a free tier, and you can watch Netflix and Disney Plus with no ads for $9 and $8 and month, respectively. 

Two big detriments to the ad-supported plan: You lose the ability to download content to your phone or tablet to watch offline, and you won't have access to 4K content. For people who only watch at home, downloads might not be such a big deal, but if you do any traveling, you'll start to miss the option. And the 4K consideration might be dictated by your hardware: If you don't have a 4K TV, you won't be able to watch movies and shows in 4K anyway.

If you don't mind a few ads and want to access all of HBO Max's shows, but don't care so much about those big-screen releases, HBO Max with Ads could be a good way for you to save $5 a month in exchange for a few ads per hour. It may also be a less expensive way for you to try out the service, since it no longer offers any free trial. But if part of the reason why you cut the cord was to have an ad-free experience (and you want mobile downloads and access to these new movies), it might be worth it to pay for the $15-a-month plan. 

Chiabella James

If you're a longtime HBO fan who expects an ad-free viewing experience, someone who watches most of your shows on ad-free platforms like Netflix, Disney Plus or Amazon Prime Video, or someone who just really hates commercials, the $15-a-month HBO Max plan is probably worth the extra $5. This price is at the high end compared to other ad-free streaming services, but it does cost the same as paying for HBO's traditional channel through most pay-TV providers. 

The biggest advantages of the no-ads plan is the ability to download shows and movies to your phone or tablet to watch offline. If you need to stock up on entertainment for a long flight, the pricier plan is the way to go.

This plan is also better for anyone with a 4K entertainment setup. Only the ad-free plan offers shows and movies in 4K, although not all titles will be available in 4K. Major recent films (Dune, The Matrix Resurrections, The Suicide Squad, etc.) are generally a safe bet, though.

If you've been paying for HBO for years and got converted over to HBO Max from the previous HBO Go app last year, keeping your $15-a-month plan with no ads may be worth it for you to continue with that experience and get every perk the service has to offer. (Or you can always try to find someone who pays for this and is willing to share their password with you.) But if you're thinking of signing up for the first time, you might want to consider trying the $10-a-month plan to give it a test run first. 

For more, check out the best streaming services of 2022, and the best live TV streaming services for cord-cutters. And, if you're looking to upgrade your current home entertainment setup, we've got advice covering soundbars, universal remotes, big TVs or even projectors.

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