HBO Max's apps have been, to put it politely, troubled since the get go. Much like Rue, the protagonist of HBO's hit series Euphoria, the HBO Max app collected drama left and right over the last years. One week I had trouble watching Station Eleven, the next I'm scratching my head over the "Oops, something went wrong!" error message.
Having covered this issue myself, and having seen the HBO Max app fall apart like a house of cards during the Euphoria season 2 finale, I was excited to get the chance to talk to Sarah Lyons, head of the HBO Max product experience — and test the new version of the HBO Max app on Apple TV 4K (my preferred streaming device during the last months) that will be rolling out over the coming days.
So, here's what I've learned about the HBO Max apps, and why I'm more optimistic about the platform today than I was last month. Because while HBO Max is our pick for the best streaming service, it's had room to improve.
The HBO Max app's debut was flawed — but the improvements are here
Lyons was brutally honest about the origin of the HBO Max app, telling me that the team "knew we needed to get to market fast," during the days before the launch of the streaming service that was supposed to replace HBO Go.
The goal, of course, she said was to always have HBO Max "improving over time." And this is why they "built on the HBO GO tech stack, which was a functional tech platform," with a plan "to rebuild our apps as we scaled." So, what HBO Max is doing right now, has been inevitable.
And, so, they used the HBO GO stack, essentially migrating a larger library onto an existing platform that wasn't exactly perfect — though Lyons is right to call it functional. It worked well enough most of the time. But anyone who saw the issues when a new Game of Thrones episode would crash HBO's apps could have told you that this wasn't going to go well.
As for what's changed? How the HBO Max app would be better in users' experiences? Lyons said that "stability and quality of service are the priorities," and that they want to fix all "the little things," too. So, for every complaint tweet you send to the official @HBOMaxHelp Twitter account? Lyons said that all complaints are being examined.
And so far, so good. The app replatforming experience that I tested on the Apple TV 4K has already begun on Roku devices, PlayStation consoles, Android TV and Samsung, Vizio and LG smart TVs. And the best news out of all of that? The Roku HBO Max app's much more stable than ever before, as Lyons told me that its "crash rate improved by 90%."
My impressions of the new HBO Max app
The best thing I can say about the new HBO Max app (which I tested on the Apple TV) is that I haven't seen the "Oops, something went wrong!" error — which often happened when opening the app after it being in the background — once since I've been testing it. That's been one of my biggest beefs with the app since it arrived, and to not encounter it in the weeks that I've had the app? That's a huge upgrade.
Though, I did experience minor glitches, which felt symptomatic of a beta version. I was moving back and forth between titles, and only once did a movie (King Richard) not load when I clicked back on the Apple TV remote; I then tried again, and it worked.
Overall, the new HBO Max app for Apple TV feels more on par with Netflix when it comes to loading times and navigation. Also: my favorite part about the HBO Max app is still here. That's the design decision that keeps the Continue Watching row right below the main carousel on the home screen. When I open a streaming app, I most often want to go back to where I just was.
Not all apps work like this — Hulu makes you click down two more rows, Netflix puts Continue Watching two clicks away (under the My List row) and Disney Plus puts it four clicks down from the top of the top of the home screen.
One oddity I noticed, though — which seems to be a sign of the app working as intended — comes up whenever I hit the "skip" button to move past an pre-roll ad for other HBO Max content before I watch an episode or movie. For a very brief moment, an HBO Max graphic appears. I'm not sure this is necessary, but it sure seems weird.
Other improvements to note are that the app is more binge-friendly. This isn't something I found problematic before, but as I tested out with Our Flag Means Death, Lyons was right when she said "we fixed the binge-mode so you can more easily go from show to show," as I saw a nearly seamless transition, with a neat little countdown timer in the bottom corner.
Lyons also highlighted that they made it easier to manage the Watch List inside the HBO Max app on Apple TV. I found this to be very true, when you click on a Watch List item, the app brings you to a page dedicated to the movie or show in question, and you can click the check mark icon to remove it from your list. I would love this ability to edit the Continue Watching list.
But as you may realize, I haven't been able to test the new HBO Max app when it was streaming a show that's in high demand. Only time will tell, then, if the new HBO Max app can erase memories of how the past app handled Game of Thrones and Euphoria.
What's next for the HBO Max app?
Lyons told me that one of the goals for the HBO Max app is to make a variety of versions for low-power and high-power devices. And since the Apple TV 4K is running on the A12 Bionic chip, it and the Xbox consoles (the other devices getting new HBO Max apps right now) will get the better versions with more animations and transitions.
Up next? Well, from the aforementioned devices, you may have noticed that Amazon Fire TV wasn't mentioned, and neither were HBO Max's mobile, tablet and web versions. Those are up next in the queue.
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