HBO Max is missing a very obvious feature — and it's driving me nuts

The HBO Max logo on a phone on top of a keyboard
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

HBO Max, to quote Wonder Woman 1984 (which is on HBO Max), "is good, but it can be better." No, I'm not talking about avoiding that proposed HBO Max and Discovery Plus merger.

I'm talking about a dead-simple feature that myself, and likely plenty of other users, feel the need for on a weekly basis. And while I think some of the other best streaming services it's mostly glaring on HBO Max for reasons I'll get to below. 

Hilariously enough, though, I only realized this idea was possible last month, when I was testing Shudder. Yes, Shudder, a niche streaming service directed at horror fans has something HBO Max — a titan of the industry, and our favorite streaming service overall — does not. 

Allow me to explain.

What HBO Max should copy from Shudder

Decision paralysis — not knowing what to watch — can be scarier than some horror movies, so Shudder offers a cure. It didn't reinvent the streaming service, mind you, but its Shudder TV section offers three "programmed channels" that are "always on" and updated weekly. 

Yes, Shudder has linear TV channels — It Came From Shudder, The Folk Horror Collection and Slashics — a very traditional and arguably basic feature, which the likes of Pluto and Peacock also have. What's great about this is that it means you barely do any menu navigating, and simply channel surf a bit. In a way, it's like having three different random options, except Shudder programs the content there, so it's a bit curated, too. Why do I bring this up about HBO Max?

Aubrey Plaza as Harper Spiller, seated at a dinner table, in The White Lotus season 2.

Harper Spiller (Aubrey Plaza) looks exactly like I do when I'm waiting for HBO Max to refresh. (Image credit: HBO)

Last Sunday, I had more trouble than usual when trying to get The White Lotus' latest episode to load. Typically, HBO Max has episodes live at least a minute early. But there I sat, for about 3-4 minutes, reloading and refreshing HBO Max's app, wondering when I'd learn the latest travails and drama of the rich vacationers in Sicily.

Yes, this is not a huge flaw. 3-4 minutes isn't a huge amount of time. But this moment made me feel like streaming services are actually one step back from linear TV. Yes, a giant on-demand catalogue is neat, but losing the ability to just open a channel that plays a certain thing at a certain time is almost inexcusable. 

This feels too easy to fix. Just put an 'HBO' button in there. Have it open whatever is on the linear HBO channel, which still exists.

Outlook: HBO Max may get this feature, eventually

The one good silver lining of the HBO Max and Discovery Plus merger is that we expect this new super-service to offer both on-demand and live content, as shown in this slide below from a Warner Bros Discovery quarterly results call. The question is if that's going to be a feature for just live events or a set of linear-live channels, for HBO, Discovery and other WBD brands.

A slide previews a Global Product with HBO Max and Discovery Plus

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Discovery)

The only reason why I could see HBO Max not having such a button is a budgetary reason. I don't know the cost of server upkeep for such a feature, but it certainly feels like a way HBO Max could get a win without having to buy or create anything really new.

This merger, though, isn't taking place until Summer 2023. And HBO Max will be streaming more shows that debut during the evenings in the meantime. I just hope someone at HBO Max is already aware of this issue.

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.