The new HBO Max is charging for 4K — should you pay more?

the Max app, soon to be one of best apple tv apps, is on a TV next to the Apple TV and its remote
(Image credit: Warner Bros. Discovery)

The big surprise about Max, the upcoming "enhanced" version of HBO Max, is that it will cost more. Not at first, though. Current subscribers will keep their same billing rates on May 23rd when the service updates itself from HBO Max to Max. But if you want 4K streaming? That's another story.

The new service, which drops the "HBO" from its name, swaps its purple look for a blue hue and — most importantly — adds content from shows that you'd associate with Discovery Plus. 

While Max will offer a $15.99 per month ad-free price tier, just as HBO Max had, that tier doesn't include 4K streaming. Much like Netflix, Max will have a (new) $19.99 per month high-end tier where it keeps all of its 4K content. 

It's a very similar price gap to Netflix, as the big red streaming machine's 1080p tier costs $15.49 per month, while the 4K tier is $19.99 per month. And while it feels like Max will still be the best streaming service when it launches, this change will likely confuse and irk.

Anyone with a decent 4K set is probably thinking to themselves, is that $4 worth it? I count myself among these folks, as I'm fortunate enough to have invested in one of the best 4K TVs, the LG C2 OLED — and I often spend the extra money to make sure I have 4K content. This time, though, your decision is far more difficult than you might think.

Max looks to inherit HBO Max's 4K problem 

If you fight the Sunday scaries away with the best HBO Max shows such as The Last of Us, Succession and The White Lotus, you may have noticed the same thing I have. Not all HBO shows are streamed equally.

Succession, possibly one of the most beloved HBO Max shows, is only avaialble in 1080p — not 4K UHD. Same for The White Lotus, and the currently-airing Barry season 4. These shows may not need 4K to be great, but if you primarily watch those shows, you might feel disappointed to discover that Ultra HD quality isn't available.

Bella Ramsey as Ellie in The Last of Us episode 6.

(Image credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

That said, 4K is available for some of HBO Max's biggest shows and movies, and it will be the same way for Max as well. Tom's Guide has learned that Max's library of 4K content will include Game of Thrones, The Last of Us, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and The Dark Knight Trilogy. 

Warner Bros.' 2023 theatrical movies that eventually hit streaming, which include Blue Beetle, Barbie and The Flash, will also be in 4K.

We'll likely learn more about what's happening with Max's 4K offerings as we get closer to its release, but it feels like it won't be as complete as Netflix's 4K Originals set is.

But wait, Ultimate Ad-free Max has three more perks

4K may be the top-line reason why people would get Max's Ultimate Ad-Free plan, but there are three other things that get upgraded. First among them, as we should note in this era of Netflix's password-sharing crackdown, is the number of devices you can stream on at the same time.

While HBO Max offered three streams at once to ad-free subscribers, Max will offer two simultaneous streams to the $15.99 Ad-free members and four to the Ultimate Ad-free members. This is a very personal call here.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Max planAd-liteAd-freeUltimate Ad-Free
Price$9.99/month or $99.99/year$15.99/month or $149.99/year$19.99/month or $199.99/year
Video qualityHDHD4K HDR with Dolby Atmos
Simultaneous streams224

Then, there's Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support. Dolby Vision is a branded HDR, improved contrast, stronger color and darker black tones. Dolby Atmos provides more dimensional and immersive audio. (Be sure to check out our picks for the best Dolby Atmos soundbars.)

Both Dolby features will be exclusive to Max's Ultimate plans. But these features are mostly only available with 4K versions of movies, such as Zack Snyder's Justice League and Dune. You get them with The Last of Us and Game of Thrones as well, and you'll likely get them with the 2023 theatrical releases.

Lastly, content downloading improves when you upgrade to Ultimate.  Ad-Free gives you up to 30 downloads (just like on HBO Max), and Ultimate gives you up to 100 downloads.

Outlook: Max's Ultimate tier feels like a seasonal upgrade

Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon

(Image credit: HBO)

I predict I'll be churning back and forth between Max's Ad-free and Ultimate Ad-free tiers. If you're curious, I'm not picking the ad-supported tier because HBO stuff wasn't made to have ads (something I learned about when I tried Netflix with ads). I've seen Hulu make that work with its content over the years, not sure about anyone else.

And so I look at Ultimate Ad-free Max as something of a treat. If Max has something new that I want to watch that's in 4K, sure, I'll pay the extra $4 to upgrade that month. Barbie definitely looks like a movie made to be seen in crisp 4K. When The Last of Us season 2 arrives? Same. House of The Dragon season 2? Yes.

But the rest of the time? I'm not going to be rewatching Game of Thrones, The Dark  Knight, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, so I can easily see myself not needing to spend that extra $4 all of the time. When you subscribe to as many services as I do, you know that $4 can be better spent on something like Peacock.

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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.