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HBO Max Streaming Service Review

May 29, 2020 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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HBO Max Streaming Service Review  

The streaming wars have been going on for a while, but not all the players have stepped onto the stage yet. Sure, you’ve got the clear industry leaders in the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu; you also have more catered, niche services like WWE Network, Shudder, Crunchyroll, and Acorn TV. But there’s still plenty of companies out there seeking their own pieces of the pie. Apple TV+ launched late last year, and NBC Universal recently entered into the fray with Peacock which launched for Xfinity subscribers this month and arrives in full over the summer.

At this point in the era of streaming, it takes something major to garner any real attention when you launch your service. You have to be targeted at an extremely specific audience that is predisposed to be attracted to your service or have something that fans just can’t say no to. HBO Max is hoping to bring fans in with the latter strategy. The WarnerMedia streaming program is hoping to draw subscribers with an expansive offering, bulwarked with an expensive deal for Friends and a wide range of content spread across Warner’s various platforms.

The direction that WarnerMedia is taking is a bold one, but also with no small amount of risk. HBO Max is building off of the platforms provided by HBO Now and combining slates from Crunchyroll, DC Universe, Turner Classic Movies, and Cartoon Network, with offerings from Studio Ghibli and others added as well. Some of these are being shared with other services, making a big question to some whether the service will come at the expense of infrastructures already built with their own fanbases. But with a solid start in what’s available among film and television shows, the gambit is well-positioned to pay off.

The Movies

Several services have launched with moderately limited offerings of films, instead focusing on a few high-profile, heavily in-demand titles. Disney+, for example, launched with about 200 films but some major winners in the MCU, Pixar and Star Wars franchises. HBO Max is by no means short of prestige offerings, but it’s looking for quantity over sheer name value. The service has just over 600 films at launch with a selection culled from across a wide variety of sources.

Among those sources are the aforementioned DC, and while the offerings here are few there there are some big names. In addition to last year’s Joker, the full slate of the Batman franchise that started with Tim Burton’s 1989 film are available. The DC Extended Universe films find a home here, with the only films not yet available being Man of Steel and Birds of Prey. There are a selection of animated DC films as well; not nearly as many as DC Universe offers, but there are a few like the Dark Knight Returns duology and the 2009 Wonder Woman film. Various other films are sprinkled in here like 1984’s Supergirl, Teen Titans Go! To The Movies and The LEGO Batman Movie, but DC in particular is a place where the service could stand to expand.

On the other hand, HBO and TCM have robust offerings that include some all-time classics like Casablanca, Rebel Without a Cause, Citizen Kane, and Night of the Living Dead along more modern beloved films like Little Shop of Horrors, Braveheart and the Alien franchise. Just scanning through the TCM selection in particular gives a vast selection of big-name films. Akira Kurosawa’s classic Yojimbo, the animated classic The Hobbit, seven of the Godzilla films, Harold and Maude — it’s an exhaustive list, and one that contains several films from the massive to the obscure. HBO’s offerings consist of everything that used to be available on HBO Now, which is being phased out (if you had a direct HBO Now subscription, it’s now HBO Max).

For many, the crown jewel thus far will be the Studio Ghibli films. The films from the Japanese animation studio have not been available on US streaming before now, and include such films as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle. 20 of the 21 classics from the studio are now available; the sole exception is Grave of the Fireflies due to complications in its distribution rights.

Regardless of what kind of film you’re into, it’s fair to say that you’ll find a lot that catches your eye here. HBO Max still has plenty of room to grow in its feature films; it is obviously nowhere near the size of Netflix which numbers in the thousands, and less than the quantity on Amazon Prime or Hulu as well. But there’s also a lot less fat to cut through so far, and the swath of notable films across genres makes HBO Max appetizing.

The Television Shows

While the film slate is good, for a lot of people the TV series that HBO Max offers will be the real incentive. Much has been made of the show being the exclusive streaming home of Friends, and that’s certainly a big part of the appeal. But that’s far from everything. The big crown jewel here is all of HBO’s offerings. That includes big ones like Game of Thrones, Sex in the City, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Leftovers along with more cult hits like Arliss, The Deuce, and Vinyl. It also includes current shows, which look to be added right away; for example, the most recent episodes of Last Week Tonight and Real Time With Bill Maher are available, as is the latest episode of currently-airing I Know This Much Is True.

Another major offering here is the BBC. HBO Max includes the full slates of Doctor Who (modern series) and Torchwood, along with the UK Office, Coupling, Luther, and Top Gear. DC’s selection is again more limited; Batwoman and Doom Patrol are here, but the other Arrowverse shows are on Netflix still and DC Universe’s series are largely being kept there. There are some Cartoon Network offerings like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Metalocalypse, as well as 16 anime series from Crunchyroll like Berserk and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Filling out the licensed content with Friends are some big-name shows like Big Bang Theory and Fresh Prince of Bel Air, plus some animated classics (The Jetsons, The Flintstones) that will provide a nostalgia kick. These mix in with a spattering of original series for the service in new Looney Tunes cartoons, kids competition series Craftopia and the Anna Kendrick-starring romantic comedy Love Life. Original series are definitely not the focus yet, although there are promising shows on the way in Adventure Time: Distant Lands next month and planned series like Green Lantern and Justice League Dark

The App

While content selection is key for streaming services, none of that matters too much if the app doesn’t work. This is one of the highlights; having run through the app on PC, a console (Xbox One), and two iOS systems, it’s clear that WarnerMedia has put a lot into making sure this experience is smooth. That’s a very welcome change from other services, which have launched with several bugs and other problems.

The app for HBO Max essentially functions the same no matter what you’re watching on, and is extremely well-organized. A dropdown on the side breaks down the categories neatly, both into format (series vs. movies, “Original” and “Just Added” categories”) as well as genre and at the bottom, collections. If you’re just looking for a Studio Ghibli film to watch for example, it’s just a click or touch away. Especially useful to people who watch on the go is the fact that the app allows you do download episodes of films to watch when you don’t have service right at launch, something that many streaming services resisted for a long time (and some of whom still aire).

The app is both intuitive and responsive. Even on launch day, I had no issues with slowness and only brief issues right at the early-morning hour of launch with content glitching, which only happened once. Closed captions and subtitles are available for most if not all content, and the app offers extra features for some titles if available. Impressively, if you switch between devices while watching a show (I will watch on PC for example, then stop and switch to a tablet if I need to go out of the room), it picks up seamlessly where you left off, something even Netflix sometimes has trouble doing well. It’s a clean, well-built interface that shows they’ve learned their lesson from their other streaming services, which had a few glitches right out of the gate.

The Value

Of course, the ultimate question is this: is HBO Max worth the price? That all depends on what you’re paying. The $14.99 a month price is admittedly a bit eye-popping, though it compares moderately well to Netflix’s comparable price of $15.99 (Netflix’s $7.99 only allows one stream at a time; HBO offers three, closer to the $15.99 for Netflix’s 4 streams at a time plan). With all the streaming services out there, it’s difficult for many to justify another one. However, HBO Max has deals with many providers and if you have HBO through several cable companies or HBO Now (with some exceptions like being billed through Roku), you get access to HBO Max for free. It’s tricky to judge, because it ultimately depends on what you’re interested in, but the price point does offer a lot and it’s only likely to grow from here.

The final score: review Good
The 411
HBO Max is off to a decent start in its launch, with less in quantity than its competitors but plenty of quality. The well-constructed app makes it fairly hassle-free and the wide swath of titles available to start with is promising. It's hard to argue that this will be hanging near the top of the streaming food chain alongside Netflix, Disney+, or Amazon any time soon, and not necessarily an easy case to argue dropping another service to pick this up. But for those who what what HBO Max has to offer, it's worth at least giving the trial a spin.

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HBO Max, Jeremy Thomas