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HBO Max review: A solid streaming service with serious holes

HBO Max has 10,000 hours of content — but there are too many asterisks

HBO Max review
(Image: © Tom's Guide)

Our Verdict

HBO Max has all the makings of a great streaming service, but feels half-baked at launch.

For

  • Wide variety of content
  • Excellent HBO shows
  • Easy to see upcoming shows
  • Same price as HBO Now

Against

  • Needs more editorial curation
  • No Roku or Fire TV support (yet)
  • No 4K HDR
  • Glaring gaps in library
HBO Max specs

Library: 10,000 hours of shows and movies
Price: $14.99 per month
Devices: Android, Apple TV, iOS, iPadOS, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Chromecast
Simultaneous streams: Up to 3 at once
Streaming quality: HD (no 4K, HDR)
Parental controls: Yes
User profiles: up to 5

HBO Max is finally here, joining a confusing streaming lineup that also includes HBO Now and HBO Go. But should you subscribe if you don't already have an account? 

At first glance, HBO Max appears to have enough content to steal eyes away from the likes of Netflix and Disney Plus and become one of the best streaming services. But right now, its early hiccups prevent us from lavishing much praise, as contract negotiations have prevented the service from actually landing on two of the most important streaming platforms. 

As this HBO Max review will explain, the service is going through significant growing pains at launch. Until it has widespread availability, and fixes some peculiar omissions in its library HBO Max feels more incomplete than Max'd out.

HBO Max pricing and availability

HBO Max costs $14.99 per month, with a 7-day free trial to test it out. Many (if not all) existing HBO Now and HBO Go subscribers also get HBO Max. To access the service, you can download the HBO Max app and sign in with your existing login credentials (be they from HBO or TV provider).

One HBO Max subscription allows for up to three simultaneous streams, which is one fewer than Disney Plus (4 streams at once). Netflix offers different amounts of simultaneous streams, based on which package you subscribe (1 at $9, 2 at $13 and 4 at $16). 

HBO Max is U.S. only, with planned international expansion, while Netflix and Disney Plus are available internationally. 

HBO Max

(Image credit: Warner Media)

HBO Max supported devices

Herein lies the biggest frustration with HBO Max, and possibly the issue that has the most easy fix. HBO Max launched on an incomplete list of devices, with apps on Android, Apple TV, iOS, iPadOS, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, as well as Chromecast support. The two biggest platforms in streaming media — Roku and Fire TV — are missing from this list.

HBO Max

(Image credit: Warner Media)

HBO is still in negotiations with both of these platforms, and its inability to land deals is bad for consumers. Reports prior to HBO Max's launch showed that HBO and Roku were "racing to hammer out" a solution, while HBO had already set expectations low for a Fire TV app at launch (the Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon and HBO are feuding over user data).

HBO Max content library

No streaming library impresses me as much as HBO Max's — but it also confuses me like none other. It starts with the already inimitable lineup of HBO original programming, and then you throw in the Warner Bros. Studios film archive (many of which were in HBO already, such as the Harry Potter movies). On top of that, you've got selections from the DCEU movies, and big batches of films from Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection.

HBO Max

(Image credit: Warner Media)

In raw numbers, the HBO Max library includes more than 10,000 hours of content (according to HBO). Netflix doesn't promote a similar number for its library, but it's believed to be around 36,000 hours — a number that's likely constantly shifting with each month's new and removed content. Disney Plus was reported to be around 4,000 hours of content at launch, last November, before additional originals arrived in the following months.

HBO Max

(Image credit: Warner Media)

Frustratingly, though, it doesn't have all of the DC movies — and it's missing some of the best. Not only is it missing all of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, but the entire Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy is missing as well. Sure, the service has Joker, and it’s getting the Justice League Snyder Cut in 2021, but even the greatest detective himself might scratch his head at these absences.

What matters more to me, though, are the classic Japanese animation films from Studio Ghibli. Never before available on a U.S. streaming service, films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away are must-watch pieces of cinematic gold that are ultimately rewatchable. But even the Ghibli collection is missing a selection: 1988's Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata is not there, currently streaming at Hulu.

HBO Max

(Image credit: Warner Media)

As for the HBO Max Originals, while I liked the Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo, our Love Life review shows that Anna Kendrick's HBO Max series isn't a hit yet. Until an HBO Max Original can get the kind of praise and chatter that Disney Plus got from The Mandalorian or Netflix gains from The Witcher, the service may not seem like a must for many.

HBO Max design and interface

The 10,000 hours of film and TV history contained within HBO Max can be hard to sort through due to the service's not-so-helpful set of menus and screens. Its home screen presents a carousel of 7 promoted shows and movies. Below the Continue Watching and My List sections (which Disney Plus didn't have working properly at launch), you get more general promoted content, with rows for movies and shows and Max Originals. After that, you’ll see a row for Harry Potter and a row for the "editor's picks" of HBO shows.

HBO Max

(Image credit: Warner Media)

Then, 9 hub buttons give you an inkling of how big HBO Max gets. From here, you can jump to HBO, DC, Cartoon Network, Sesame Workshop, Adult Swim, Turner Classic Movies, Crunchyroll (anime), Studio Ghibli and Looney Tunes. Notably absent from this list is the Criterion Collection, which already has a subscription service (Criterion Channel) that it might not want to cannibalize by letting HBO Max highlight its vault.

HBO Max

(Image credit: Warner Media)

Further rows include highlight buddy comedies, family-friendly movies and shows and mysteries. There's even a row called The Continued Fight for Civil Rights, which is urgently necessary in this present moment when the Black Lives Matter cause needs all the support it can get. There’s, a row for LGBTQ+ programming, followed by rows for musicals, fantasy, true crime and blockbusters.

A menu from the left side of the screen breaks things out by genre and has categories for Series, Movies and Originals, as well as Just Added, Last Chance and Coming Soon.

HBO Max

(Image credit: Warner Media)

Right now, what HBO Max really needs is better editorial guidance. A row for the best movies on HBO Max, that pulls in titles from all of its channels, is so obvious that I’m surprised it’s not there already.

HBO Max's TV shows (including Friends, Rick and Morty, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Doctor Who and more) also lack curation. HBO Max's home screen highlights that Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is one of its shows, but doesn't give you lists of episodes grouped around categories, so watching from episode 1 is the only real option. If you could get guides to the best celebrity cameos on Friends, for example, or have all the episodes about Will's relationships on Fresh Prince, these vaults would feel a lot less intimidating.

HBO Max

(Image credit: Warner Media)

I've only found one such helpfully curated list, under the Comedy section, where you can see every Rick and Morty episode that is a spoof of a movie. Likewise, director Akira Kurosawa's work is highlighted with a row in the Drama movies section, but these cool lists of picks shouldn't be hidden under category pages when they could be promoted on the home page.

HBO Max performance and 4K streaming

Annoyingly, HBO Max launched without 4K streaming. Nor is HDR available at this time. These features are in development, according to AT&T’s Tony Goncalves. The omission of 4K and HDR at launch makes it feel like the service was rushed out before it was fully baked.

It's similar to Disney Plus' aspect ratio problem with The Simpsons, but much worse, as it affects far more than 1 show. Disney Plus, by comparison, launched with 4K HDR on day 1. Netflix has 4K HDR, but it's only for those with Premium subscriptions, which cost $1 more than HBO Max, at $15.99.

HBO Max parental controls

HBO Max allows for 5 user profiles, which are classified as either Adult or Kid. Kid accounts give parents the control to limit content a child can watch by the MPAA rating (G to NC-17) and those for TV (TV-Y to TV-MA). 

This is a good idea, but there's a glaring flaw in the system. Only the child accounts can be locked by a 4-digit PIN number. If a child can boot up HBO Max anywhere around the house, they can log into parent accounts, which have no regulations or content rating restrictions, without a password. 

While I'm no parent,t the existence of a child account means that parent accounts need the option to be locked behind passwords. I can see the assumption that HBO can't stop kids from opening the apps — some duty must be reserved for parents — but parents can't be aware of what their kids are doing during every second of the day. 

Disney Plus has no parental controls, while the Netflix parental controls allow you to lock parent accounts.

HBO Max verdict

As this HBO Max review explains, there's nary an aspect of HBO Max that feels finished. Its library is good, but you can drive a Batmobile through its holes in the DC movies category. The service isn't on Roku or Fire TV (still), and it's lacking 4K HDR streaming as well.

That being said, HBO Max is still a welcome upgrade for existing HBO subscribers, who just got a lot of extra movies and TV shows without signing up for anything new (provided they know that). While Netflix gets viral hits like Tiger King and Hulu stacks up interesting new series such as Normal People and High Fidelity, HBO Max might be enough to convince folks like me to keep their HBO subscription, thanks to prestigious brands such as Studio Ghibli and the Criterion Collection.

Once HBO Max lands on Roku and Fire TV, and fixes its 4K problem, we'll reconsider its score. For now, HBO Max is simply great for those who can get it on their TV — and that set of potential streamers needs to be wider.