HBO Max Review
Since our original review in 2022, HBO Max has become more expensive and has lost quite a lot of content – including Harry Potter. It isn’t quite enough to bring down the review score, but still a bummer. On HBO Max you’ll still find some of the best new original shows and Hollywood blockbusters joining a tremendous archive of some of the best television and films ever made. The app has also had a nice visual refresh and there’s a decent amount of 4K HDR content with Dolby Atmos is available. There’s no sign of a UK launch and, due to current agreements, it may be years away.
- Unrivalled array of top content
- Some 4K HDR movies with Dolby Atmos
- Brilliant app interface, with considered collections
- Offline downloads
- Limited 4K content, which isn’t easy to find
- Not available in the UK
- Not all smart TV platforms supported
- USARRP: $9.99
- EuropeRRP: €5.99
- HDRDolby Vision and HDR 10 support on new movies
- Sound quality Dolby Atmos and 5.1 support
- Original ContentRegular additions of new content and an unmatched archive
It’s now been three years since the launch of HBO Max, the consolidation of the HBO Go/Now streaming services, bringing together content owned and licensed by the Warner empire and an expanded brand of Originals. Hence the Max appendage.
Since its arrival in March 2020, HBO Max has become one of the most compelling propositions around – a true rival to Disney Plus and Netflix, with some of the most recognisable super-franchises in all of television and cinema front and centre.
An archive of HBO TV dramas and comedies – regarded among the finest ever made – are there, with new, ground-breaking original shows, documentaries and current affairs series under the HBO and HBO Max Original banner. It’s also first to host some of the biggest Hollywood movies following their theatre runs. That includes the current Best Picture Oscar-nominated flicks The Banshees of Inisherin and Empire of Light.
However, more recently, all has not been well in the HBO Max camp. The merger between Warner Bros. and Discovery has HBO Max in new hands.
It has meant quite a lot of content has been cancelled or dropped from the library. In the case of the big budget sci-fi series Westworld – both! The Harry Potter collection is gone too, which is a massive loss as access to these franchises on tap can keep subscribers on board year round.
There’s an uncertain future for originals following the merger and the looming prospect of a combined HBO Max/Discovery+ service. Add to that a price increase of $1 month for the ad-free tier (from $14.99 to $15.99) and it changes the proposition slightly since our original review a year ago.
The apps are available in most places, the library is sizeable, and there’s some support for the 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos, if your setup can handle it. With ad-supported and ad-free options, the real argument is, can you afford not to have it?
- Wide support on mobile, smart TV and web
- AirPlay and Chromecast support
HBO Max is available in most major places with a functioning app store, and on the web. When watching on your television set, you can download the HBO Max app for the major set-top box and streaming stick operating systems: Amazon Fire TV (Running FireOS 5.1 or later), Apple TV 4K or HD (4th generation or later), Android TV (Android OS 5 or later) and Chromecast with Google TV, as well as Roku streaming devices with Roku OS 10.0 and later.
Beyond that, native smart TV interfaces from LG, Samsung, Sony, Vizio offer the app; but many other manufacturers are missing. If your TV doesn’t have a native app, but does support Apple AirPlay or Google Chromecast, you can cast directly to the set from another device. Otherwise, it’s the old HDMI from laptop to telly job.
There are apps for the PS4/PS5 and Xbox One/Series S/X. On mobile there’s iPadOS, iOS and Android and Amazon Fire tablets. Windows, PC and Mac are supported through the major browsers.
- Slick TV interface with prominent artwork
- Thoughtful categories and collections
- No easy way to find 4K HDR/Dolby Atmos content
The TV app has a clean interface with large artwork and towards the end of 2022 it got a little smoother thanks to a visual refresh that can expand thumbnails to show more information as you scroll, saving you a click.
The homepage has a specific suggested pick, perhaps a new film or documentary. There are rows for Continue Watching, My List as well as For You recommendations.
Just Added features the hottest new picks, while there are dedicated rows for curated collections from channels or studios such as TCM (Turner Classic Movies), the DC Universe, or the best of HBO. That curated content tends to be topical. At the time of writing (February 2023), I see a row highlighting Black History Makers (for Black History Month), New Episodes This Week, and Shows to Crush.
There are dedicated tabs on the left-sided menu for Search, Movies, Series, Browse (featuring Last Chance, Coming Soon and Trending Now among the traditional genres) and hubs for various studios such as DC, TCM, Studio Ghibli, Adult Swim, and so on. This experience is more condensed within the mobile app.
Search has predicted results as you type, and you can use voice search where it’s available on your device, as it is on an Apple TV 4K.
What’s missing is 4K-, HDR- and Dolby Atmos-specific menus. The content is available (more on that later), but you’ll have to go into the title itself to find it. HBO Max automatically plays the highest quality video and audio, but it would be good to see a dedicated menu for supported titles. You’ll need the ad-free tier for 4K HDR streaming.
The title page itself depicts available quality, as well as the length, age rating, year and synopsis. You can watch a trailer before playing, or add the item to your watch list. Scroll down to see bonus features, related content and the cast and crew listings. The interface is similar for TV series’, with accommodations for seasons and episodes. HBO Max doesn’t offer Rotten Tomatoes ratings, or the chance to review. I missed that, but welcomed the absence of a dominant recommendations algorithm.
The playback interface is pretty standard, but will appear differently depending on the device upon which you’re watching. The Apple TV app, for example, conforms to house style. You hit down on the D-pad to access Info, Subtitles and Audio options.
- Offline downloads on mobile apps
- 4K HDR / Dolby Atmos supported, but limited
- Plenty of profiles and parental controls
Following a launch without 4K HDR video in 2020, HBO added support in 2021 for select titles viewers on the $15.99 ad-free plan. There’s Dolby Vision and HDR 10 support, as well as Dolby Atmos audio if you possess compatible AV tech equipment. Max also supports 5.1 surround sound.
Again, to access the more advanced A/V standards you’ll need the top plan. Otherwise you’ll be paying $9.99 a month for some minimally intrusive ads (never in the middle of top dramas like The Last of Us, to HBO’s credit) and for HD/5.1 content.
The maximum available video and audio quality is listed on a per-title basis and will play in best quality automatically, unless you specify otherwise at device level. You can’t manually adjust these settings within HBO Max.
Sadly, there isn’t a huge array of content ticking those high-end boxes. Just 34 titles in fact, as of February 7 2023. In terms of newer content, you can watch Elvis, House of the Dragon, Dune, Space Jam: A New Legacy to name but a few.
Why isn’t The Lord of the Rings franchise in 4K? I know it exists because I have it from iTunes, so why not here? At least HBO Max has the Extended Editions, thank heavens!
The Last of Us, House of the Dragon and Game of Thrones are available in 4K HDR, but the standard is disappointingly absent from some of the highest-profile properties such Euphoria and Succession. They lack lack anything beyond HD with 5.1 audio. The offering here isn’t up to that of Disney Plus and Netflix.
Since this is HBO, you can barely go five minutes without seeing genitalia or some kind of romp, so it’s good to see that pin-protected parental controls are available. You can also “Clear Continue Watching”, if you’ve been enjoying such content. You can add personal profiles with five in total for kids and adults, for personalised recommendations, watch lists, and so on.
On the mobile apps, you can access limited time Offline Downloads, with content expiring 29 days after it has been downloaded. It’s worked ever so well for me on long flights. However, once again you’ll need the ad-free content.
- Unmatched HBO lineup of new and archive shows
- The home of the DC Universe
- Harry Potter has disappeared
- Lots of original shows, episodes released weekly
HBO has always felt like the anti-Netflix, with at least one can’t-miss original show that entices you to keep your subscription going. It was the combo of the big budget dramas with the high production values, such as Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and Big Little Lies, alongside incorrigible comedies such as Eastbound & Down, Veep, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Barry.
Today it’s The Last of Us, The White Lotus, Succession, The Righteous Gemstones, Last Week Tonight, Curb (again), and so on. And that’s just the stuff I like!
During the pandemic, HBO was also releasing brand-new movies – Tenet, Wonder Woman ’84, The Matrix Resurrections and Dune – on the same day they hit theatres. Unlike Disney Plus, these came at no extra cost to subscribers. We’re glad the cinemas are re-opened and anything that reminds me of the pandemic lockdowns makes me panic so this is a sacrifice I’m happy to make. The theatres have the exclusive windows again, just as it should be, but it means you’ll have to wait at least 45 days after the release.
The TV lineup has been bolstered by the other properties that aren’t part of HBO. Past seasons of Rick and Morty, South Park, Friends, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Chappelle’s Show and plenty more. Again, this is just the stuff that I like!
The HBO originals have been boosted by a new crop of HBO Max originals exclusive to the service. I’ve only watched The Flight Attendant all the way through, which was enjoyable, but Hacks won the Emmy for best comedy. Then there’s the Scooby Doo spin-off Velma, The Sex Lives of College Girls, DC’s Doom Patrol. However, these are largely second-tier HBO shows.
If Disney Plus is the home to everything Marvel and Star Wars; HBO Max is the only place to be for the DC Universe. However, with a big DC Universe reset underway, you might be waiting a while for new stuff. HBO also cancelled a completed Batgirl film last year and won’t release it.
There’s plenty more to other Warner-owned properties such as New Line Cinema and Turner Classic Movies (all-timers such as Gone with the Wind, Casablanca) and Adult Swim. HBO Max is also the US distributor for Studio Ghibli, the legendary Japanese animation studio behind Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.
If you’re new to HBO, the Max app is a trove of some of the best TV ever made. The Sopranos, The Wire, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, for starters. I re-watch The Sopranos in its entirety once a year!
All first-run shows are released on an episodic, weekly basis, which is my absolute preferred method for watching television. If you like to sit down and blitz through a whole series, you’ll have to wait until it’s all aired.
- 4K HDR content looks amazing
- App works perfectly
What 4K HDR content there is looks utterly spectacular in Dolby Vision on my 2021 65-inch OLED LG C1 with Apple TV 4K (2021). Dolby Vision and those extra pixels really shine on that blindingly colourful intro to Wonder Woman ’84, for example. While even the greyscale HDR in the black and white (well, grey) version of Justice League benefits from those deep, deep blacks. Some of the older stuff, not so much.
HBO recommends at least a 25Mbps internet connection with 50+ recommended, so my average speeds of around 90Mbps certainly helped that. I don’t have a Dolby Atmos setup at home right now, but the Sonos Beam soundbar delivered an excellent performance with crystal-clear dialogue.
I haven’t experienced any crashes with the app, offline downloads work as advertised, and you’ll always be able to pick up your show where you left off. It’s everything you’d expect.
Should you buy it?
For truly premium, big-budget TV, an unrivalled archive and some of the biggest movies in the history of the medium, spanning an entire century.
If you must binge new shows, HBO Max isn’t ideal. Nor is it for those who want all their content in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos. You may also wonder why HBO Max is $15.99 when Disney Plus is almost half that.
If I had to cancel all my streaming services, HBO Max would probably still be the last one to go, despite the recent content cuts and price increasers. There’s just always something great to watch. As an overall proposition, I think it’s much better value than Netflix. Quality over quantity and all that. The new original shows are (generally speaking) better, the archive content is unquestionably superior. I think it has a deeper and more varied library of top content than Disney Plus, although overall Disney Plus has the bigger, more buzz-worthy family franchises.
4K HDR content is welcome, but there’s still nowhere near enough of it – and it isn’t easy to find. Other than that, the app interface is smooth and well thought out. HBO Max does have a cheaper, ad-funded option at $9.99 a month, which offers all of the content minus 4K and with some commercial interruption, which is a better option for those streaming on a budget.
How we test
We test every video streaming service we review thoroughly over an extended period of time. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever, accept money to review a product.
Tested on 2021 a 4K Ultra HD TV
Tested with multiple mobile apps and Smart TV systems
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Unfortunately, due to existing agreements with UK broadcasters such as Sky, HBO Max isn’t available on these shores.
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