HBO Max review: The best of the best has room to improve

HBO Max is the best streaming service

HBO Max review
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Tom's Guide Verdict

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


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    Wide variety of content

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    Blockbuster movies

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    Excellent HBO shows

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    Easy to see upcoming shows

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    Same price as HBO Now


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    $1 more expensive

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    4K HDR only available for select titles

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    HBO and HBO Max shows getting removed

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HBO Max is our favorite streaming servie, but it originally arrived with a bit of confusion. This HBO Max review looks to clear things up that question, but also clear up any confusion as to how it differs from HBO Go, and what happened to HBO Now. And most importantly: should you subscribe if you don't already have an account? 

HBO Max specs

Library: 10,000 hours of shows and movies
Price: $9.99 - $15.99 per month
Devices: Android, Apple TV, iOS, iPadOS, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Chromecast, Fire TV, Roku
Simultaneous streams: Up to 3 at once
Streaming quality: HD (select films to offer 4K, HDR)
Parental controls: Yes
User profiles: up to 5

Frustratingly, an HBO Max price hike just hit. It's raised prices by $1 per month for the ad-free version which goes from $14.99 to $15.99. We bet many will stick around, though, as Succession season 4's release date just got confirmed.

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.  In fact, it's our pick for the very best. 

That said, though? But for all the good HBO Max shows, bad news about the service is growing as Westworld is getting kicked off HBO Max — and causing concern. It used to be that only the 'Max Originals' were in jeopardy, and that's changed. 

Fortunately for HBO, the upcoming The Last of Us' HBO Max release date suggests we won't be waiting long for the service's next must-see series. In the not-too-distant future, though, HBO Max + Discovery Plus may be just 'Max'.

In other good news, live events are coming to HBO Max. For example, you can watch USWNT live streams online on HBO Max.

HBO Max (opens in new tab)

HBO Max (opens in new tab) is one of the new kids on the streaming block but it's already got a ton to offer, including all of HBO's prestige series, like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos and The Wire. Plus, the service has its own originals like American Pickle and The Flight Attendant. HBO Max costs at least $10 per month but right now.

HBO Max pricing and availability

Ad-free HBO Max costs $15.99 per month. Many (if not all) existing HBO subscribers also get HBO Max. Further, HBO Now, has been sunset across devices, as its app turned into HBO Max. 

To access the service, 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 $15.49 and 4 at $20). 

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

HBO Max review: user profiles

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HBO Max supported devices

Originally, this was our biggest with HBO Max, and thankfully it was fixed. 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. That left out  the biggest platform in streaming media: Roku (as well as Fire TV).

Unfortunately, right now the latest HBO Max app bug has hit iPhones and iPads, so maybe stick to your bigger screens and Androids.

HBO Max review: content

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Fortunately, that skirmish ended in December 2020, in time for the release of Wonder Woman 1984, which will hit the streaming service the same day as U.S. theaters. HBO Max is now available on a wide enough array of devices for us to silence our complpaints.

HBO Max movies

Arguably one of the biggest pieces of news surrounding HBO Max is that it got major blockbuster movies during 2021 (which began with Wonder Woman 1984 at the end of 2020). The likes of Matrix 4, Dune, Godzilla vs Kong and many more arrived on HBO Max, in 4K HDR to boot.

Unfortunately, it looks like that run of good luck is going away for HBO Max users. Despite an earlier promise from Warner Bros. that all 2022 original movies would come to HBO Max 45 days after their theatrical release, the Warner Bros. Discovery merger has shaken that up. The latest rumors suggest that new movies are no longer guaranteed to come to the service — at least, not right away.

HBO Max content library

No streaming library impresses me as much as HBO Max's — but it also confuses me like none other. On the plus side, though, House of the Dragon (the Game of Thrones prequel) is actually a winner. And the House of the Dragon finale delivered the fireworks we’ve been waiting for all season. Speaking of seasons, yes, we're already looking forward to House of the Dragon season 2.

Then, they just started canceling and deleting titles left and right, with the bloodletting beginning with HBO Max movies, and then moving onto HBO Max shows, and now two HBO shows: Westworld and The Nevers.

Outside of recent releases, HBO Max's content 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, though they come and go as they please, oddly). 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.

Looking for the best of the best? We've collected the HBO Max shows with 100% Rotten Tomatoes ratings.

HBO Max review: TCM movies

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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 (opens in new tab) — a number that's likely constantly shifting with each month's new and removed content. Disney Plus was reported to be around 4,000 (opens in new tab) hours of content at launch.

HBO Max review: DC movies

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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 review: Original shows

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Beloved HBO Max Originals we've taken to include Station Eleven, the since-canceled Minx and the Harley Quinn series. Recently, HBO Max canceled its Gossip Girl reboot.

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 review: interface

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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 review: sections and organization

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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 review: HBO shows

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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.

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 (opens in new tab). The omission of 4K and HDR at launch makes it feel like the service was rushed out before it was fully baked.

Starting on Dec. 25, 2020, with Wonder Woman 1984 (and other big movies), HBO Max will stream in 4K HDR. 

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 $4 more than HBO Max, at $19.99.

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 there are some issues. 

HBO Max won folks over by going beyond the HBO archives, adding in prestigious brands such as Studio Ghibli and the Criterion Collection. But now that it's removing shows such as Westworld? We're concerned.

We've just upgraded HBO Max's score because it's continued to add some of the best new shows, as HBO's core competency keeps it strong with each passing month. 

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.