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HBO Max review

HBO is the gold standard for cable networks, but how good is its streaming service, HBO Max?

HBO Max review
(Image: © HBO)

Our Verdict

HBO Max is packed with high-quality shows and movies, but some irritating UI quirks make it a less than perfect experience.

For

  • Outstanding original content from HBO
  • Programming from affiliate networks like TCM and Crunchyroll
  • New stuff to watch on a regular basis

Against

  • The navigation has some frustrating quirks
  • Tech issues when accessing the service on iMac

Remember when having HBO made your house the cool one in the neighborhood? Those days are gone, but HBO has remained a powerful force in video entertainment with its stellar lineup of original programming. HBO was the driving force behind must-see programming leaving network television and is still the channel services strive to emulate when it comes to creating award-winning content that send ratings sky high.

HBO has technically been in the best TV streaming services game for a while, offering HBO Go and HBO Now as either complements or replacements for their cable channel. Now both of those are being supplanted by HBO Max, which adds programming from outside sources to HBO’s library of movies and shows. Simply put, HBO Max gets you HBO programming (Game of Thrones, Perry Mason, Last Week Tonight) without the massive cable bill, then adds other good stuff on top of it. Pretty sweet deal...if it weren’t for a few minor aggravations.

HBO Max review: TV shows

  • HBO acclaimed shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Sopranos.
  • HBO Originals exclusive to HBO Max.

As you might expect, HBO Max puts HBO’s acclaimed episodic programming on full display, with favorites like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Westworld, and True Blood alongside outstanding newcomers like Watchmen and Perry Mason. In fact, HBO does so much excellent original content that you might have forgotten about shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Oz, The Pacific, and Six Feet Under. If you allowed yourself nothing but HBO shows when you were choosing some TV to watch, you’d still be spoiled for choice for a very long time.

HBO Max

(Image credit: HBO)

But HBO Max has a great deal more television programming than just HBO originals. Fans of British programming will enjoy the entire modern Doctor Who catalog, Luther, Coupling, and the woefully underrated Bedlam. 

If you’re craving animations, you’ve got Adventure Time, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Powerpuff Girls, Rick and Morty, Steven Universe, and a smattering of Loony Tunes to sate your hunger. Sesame Street, Torchwood, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Kill la Kill, and oh, yeah, Friends. That little show. It's a staggeringly wide variety of quality shows that even puts services like Netflix to shame.

HBO Max review: Movies

  • Great variety of movies, new and old.
  • Harry Potter, Studio Ghibli along with niche genres.

It’s been around so long, you’ve likely forgotten that HBO originally stood for “Home Box Office,” and it’s still an excellent little movie theater. HBO Max’s movie selection will vary slightly month to month as new movies come in and older ones rotate out, but you should be able to find something worth watching with little effort. The entire Harry Potter franchise is in the library, as is the work of Studio Ghibli. 

HBO Max

(Image credit: HBO)

The movie selection is a mix of newer features and old favorites. The “Summer Horror” section that’s running as of this writing includes Us and It along with Jaws and An American Werewolf in London. The selection of kid-friendly content is large and not full of garbage, but that said, make sure you keep an eye on what your kids select: for some reason, Suicide Squad was put in that category.  

HBO Max review: Pricing 

  • $14.99 per month or free with HBO.
  • Free 7-day trial.

The pricing for HBO Max is pretty straightforward  If you subscribe to HBO, you get HBO Max for free. If you don’t, it’s $14.99 a month. Where things get confusing is when you bring up HBO Go and HBO Now, the previous two streaming services offered by the channel. 

HBO Max

(Image credit: HBO)

HBO Now is the predecessor to HBO Max, and will remain in place in areas or on platforms where HBO Max is not yet available. However, by the time you’re reading this, HBO Now has likely been rebranded as just “HBO,” which isn’t confusing at all. HBO Go was kind of a half-step between HBO and HBO Max, but it’s being decommissioned as of July 31, 2020, so just don’t even worry about it. 

You can try HBO Max for free with a 7-day trial.  

HBO Max: Quality of Stream 

  • Smooth playback.
  • Sign in issues on some devices.

We tested HBO Max on an iPad mini 2, iPhone 8, AppleTV, and iMac. The experience was less than ideal on every platform tested with the exception of Apple TV. On iPhone and iPad, playback was smooth, but navigation was lacking. To skip around episodes in a series, you have to go back to the main menu for the entire series; there’s no way to navigate from the episode you’re watching to any other episode other than the next one. 

Signing in using a TV provider was inconsistent: on iPhone, our reviewer needed to use “AT&T U-Verse” as the provider, whereas on iPad and iMac it was simply “AT&T.” On iMac, attempts to navigate away from individual episodes on two separate days resulted in error messages, though this issue may be temporary.  

HBO Max

(Image credit: HBO)

Even in the best situation - in our case, using an Apple TV, one navigation quirk was annoying. You can add shows and movies to your own personal queue, you can’t access that queue from the side menu. Instead, you have to first return to the Home page, then scroll down. Given how robust the side menu is otherwise, breaking down available content in virtually every conceivable useful way, it is baffling there is no “My List” access point. 

Should I subscribe to HBO Max?  

When it comes to the amount and quality of the content you receive, the question of subscribing to HBO Max is a no-brainer. Even if all you got was the legacy HBO content, it’s an ample supply of excellent entertainment. But you also get new shows and movies - actually new, not just “new to the service” -  on a monthly basis. HBO Max’s library is fantastic, no question.

The issues with HBO Max are related to quality of life. Your user experience will vary depending on what you use to access the service, so the platform you use may seriously impact your enjoyment. Making good use of the free trial is sound advice for any streaming service that may be of interest to you, but it’s especially smart here, if only to make sure HBO Max works well with your device of choice.