This weekend, forget Netflix and chill — I'm HBO Max-ing out. HBO Max has taken the top slot as the best streaming service in my book. The WarnerMedia streamer is now the first app I fire up when I settle onto the couch with a bowl of popcorn.
This development comes as a surprise. When HBO Max launched last spring, I found the service to be underwhelming. Our HBO Max review summed it up well by calling it "half-baked."
But in the last six months, the service has quietly been filling many of its content holes and now, it's a fully-baked, multi-layered treat. And the icing on top is made up of all the Warner Bros. movies that are debuting on HBO Max at the same time as their theatrical releases.
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HBO Max still has technical issues — which I'll get into later — and can't compete with Amazon Prime Video or Netflix on quantity of content. But the quality of that content is extremely high.
Sure, you can scroll endlessly on Netflix, through its many collections of micro genres, trying to find a worthy title. But open up HBO Max and you'll find numerous gems immediately, of all different types. And they're more geared to an adult like myself, unlike Disney Plus.
HBO Max's library is small but mighty
HBO Max may have a smaller library than other streamers, but its base collection can't be beat — the premium HBO catalog, including award-winning series Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City, Veep and Watchmen.
HBO shows are appointment-viewing for me (and many others). It's a ritual to sit down on Sunday evenings to watch the latest HBO offering. Just in the last year, HBO gifted us I May Destroy You, Perry Mason, Lovecraft Country and a new season of Insecure.
HBO Max's library also houses shows produced by other WarnerMedia brands, like TBS, TNT, Crunchyroll and the Cartoon Network. And HBO Max licenses third-party content, such as the Studio Ghibli library. There is truly nothing better than a snowy weekend spent watching Hayao Miyazaki's gorgeous films.
And of course, who can forget — since HBO Max won't let us — that all 10 seasons of Friends is now on the streamer. Friends was an extremely popular title on Netflix, and HBO Max was eager to get their hands on it ASAP. The sitcom is now a selling point for new subscribers, just like The Office is for Peacock. But unlike the latter, you can still watch Friends without ads.
The HBO Max umbrella also includes Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema, which means rotating access to those studios' movies. You can watch everything from the latest DC flick to the Lord of the Rings franchise. And in 2021, all of Warner Bros. theatrical films will stream on HBO Max (more on that below).
Don't miss out on HBO Max originals and exclusives
Aside from Ted Lasso on Apple TV Plus, my favorite new series of 2020 was the HBO Max original The Flight Attendant. The dark comedy/thriller starring Kaley Cuoco came as an out-of-the-blue but sensational surprise, which I binged in a day.
Even more of a surprise was that it was on HBO Max. The service launched in late May with only a handful of originals. In my review of Love Life with Anna Kendrick, I said the show was fine, but it also highlighted that HBO Max had a long way to go.
But since then, HBO Max has ramped up its offering of originals and exclusives. There's variety to them, too — everything from the dog rooming reality series Haute Dog to reunions of The West Wing and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to continuations of excellent existing series like Search Party, Doom Patrol and Adventure Time.
But the biggest exclusive coup is the rights to stream this year's new Warner Bros. movies at the same time as their theatrical release. The lineup is eye-popping. We've already gotten Oscar contenders Judas and the Black Messiah and The Little Things. Coming up are Godzilla vs. Kong, Dune, The Suicide Squad and Matrix.
Oh, and there's also the hotly anticipated Justice League: Snyder Cut, which arrives with heavy expectations on its super-shoulders.
The coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing and theaters remain closed in many parts of the country, including where I live. I miss going to the movies terribly, but it's a wonderful consolation to be able to watch some of the year's biggest titles in the safety (and comfort) of my home.
Content is king in the world of streaming
The quality of movies and shows on HBO Max can't be beat. But I should add a caveat that the nuts and bolts of the actual service still need a lot of work. The app and website can be buggy and crash. And HBO Max doesn't offer many titles in 4K, though that's not much different from other streaming services. Netflix does have 4K but you have to pay more.
The interface is so-so, but the HBO Max navigation does stand out in one way: the genre pages have an A-Z listing you can peruse. No other streamer has this feature; they all display titles within themed collections or by recommendations. HBO does that, too, but it's so helpful just to see every movie on HBO Max by alphabetical order.
And yes, HBO Max is more expensive than some of its competitors. But its monthly price of $14.99 is only a dollar more than Netflix's Standard plan. And it doesn't run any ads, unlike the cheaper Hulu or Peacock.
With so many of the best streaming services clamoring for our money, many of us have to make choose which subscriptions are worth it. And if I could only pick one, it would be HBO Max.