Like it or not, another subscription streaming service has entered the chat.
This one—HBO Max—debuts across the United States on Wednesday, and it comes from the combined AT&T-Time Warner media empire. After taking shape in 2018, the new “WarnerMedia” cluster of film and TV content has since put together a streaming library of exclusive content—particularly by yoinking content away from Netflix and other partners, in apparent defiance of AT&T’s antitrust pledge to US Congress.
WarnerMedia didn’t make the service available to Ars Technica ahead of the launch, so I jumped into the fray by claiming a free seven-day trial on launch day and picked through its first day’s content and interface. I did so to answer the following question: has WarnerMedia pulled off a service worthy of a $15/month fee?
They’re still running three services simultaneously
The easiest sales pitch is for anyone who already happily paid $15/mo for HBO Now as a standalone service. HBO Max kinda-sorta replaces HBO Now, because the former has all the same content as the latter. Pay the same, get more. If you thought HBO Now’s selection of HBO-specific series and films was worth its high price, you’re the luckiest potential user. And if you were using HBO Now on Android or iOS, its app has simply turned into HBO Max. Easy peasy.
That makes us wonder: why does HBO Now still exist? One reason is that existing set-top boxes and services support paid subscriptions to HBO Now, sometimes as a bundled package. Another reason is that some set-top boxes, particularly every single Roku and Amazon Fire TV device, currently work with HBO Now, but do not work with HBO Max.
Confusing things further, HBO Go also still exists, but this is a holdover attachment to cable-TV subscriptions that offer HBO Go as a perk. WarnerMedia had to produce the following video to try and explain things, and the result is unintentionally hilarious:
And the question of whether you might get HBO Max for free with your existing cable or streaming services remains a bewildering mess. HBO Now continues to direct users to the older apps, in spite of HBO Max being advertised as an included option from providers like Charter, Verizon, Cox, and (unsurprisingly) AT&T and its subsidiaries.
There’s also the matter of WarnerMedia’s last-minute announcement of a lower-priced, ad-supported tier for the service. But how much will it cost, and when will it arrive? The industry giant isn’t saying yet beyond a vague “2021” window.
Not quite the theme park we’d hoped for
Once you actually get into the service, HBO Max looks like it germinated from a different era, when the streaming universe hadn’t fractured into a zillion pieces. Its landing page looks as simple as “Netflix, but with our exclusives.”
Comparatively, Disney+ showed up late last year with smart ideas about how to crash the streaming-subscription party. The most brilliant is its first-impression divide into five major categories: Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic. Opening Disney+ feels like walking up to a theme park, seeing five enticing gates, and knowing they’ll each have a ton of content behind them. (Of all the companies to get that right, this one makes sense.)
HBO Max can’t make up its mind about whether to hew to that archetype or to the massive-dump-of-content standard seen on the past decade of most other streaming services. The top of the interface is an unsurprising scroll of “featured” content, and this sees HBO Max puffing its chest about major exclusives: the ’90s NBC series Friends (duh, it’s still one of the world’s most popular TV series), some HBO Max exclusives, and some HBO-produced series. Below those are some “featured” scrolls of TV series and films, arguably based on popularity, then a clever “every Harry Potter film in order” block—again, a hugely popular streaming exclusive, so that’s good for HBO Max to highlight.
You’ll need to tap your remote six times (or more if you’ve built any “previously watched” and “my watchlist” libraries) to scroll down and reach the “HBO Max hubs.” These massive buttons resemble Disney+’s intro splash, and they do a better job attaching a personality to the service… but not by the same margin. Small buttons are assigned to DC (as in, DC Comics), Sesame Workshop, Turner Classic Movies, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, and Looney Tunes. “HBO” gets a stupidly oversized button.
Clicking on HBO takes you to a less polished, less neatly organized version of HBO Now. Pick the “series” tab, and it’s an alphabetical dump of a most every HBO series with zero additional narrowing. If you’re in the mood for “every HBO comedy series,” you’re out of luck; you’ll have to pick through every drama and thriller on your way to find beloved comedic fare like Mr. Show and Silicon Valley, let alone to figure out which series count in which category. Curiously, stand-up comedy gets a dedicated tab within the HBO-specific interface, yet the “series” tab also includes a bunch of separate stand-up comedy.
The only genre-specific tabs generate a massive list of content from every hub. The overlap between bright-and-cheery Cartoon Network content and HBO’s darkest comedies feels less than ideal. (If you’re wondering, you can easily set parental controls to make sure Adventure Time isn’t a few clicks away from Barry.)
Some of the other hubs lead to clearly incomplete collections. Adult Swim is the worst offender at only nine series in all, while the DC button is HBO Max’s weirdest stumble. It has a plethora of content, sure, but what about recent, buzzed-out series like the Harley Quinn animated series or ’90s classics like Batman: The Animated Series? Sadly, those aren’t here, because they’re exclusive to one of WarnerMedia’s other streaming-subscription services, DC Universe. So much for corporate synergy. (Confusingly, Doom Patrol, a series that debuted on DC Universe, does appear on HBO Max.)
I can’t complain about the Turner Classic Movies or Looney Tunes selections, on the other hand, which are monstrous. The former, which at launch sports a whopping 454 films, borrows liberally from the Criterion Collection—enough that you could cancel that collection’s subscription service for a few months while picking through its HBO Max redundancies. (Be aware that TCM counts some interesting films as “classics,” but we’re not about to argue about the “classic” designation of flicks like Police Academy or Godzilla Raids Again.) The latter, meanwhile, includes hundreds of original Looney Tunes theatrical shorts throughout the years—but, gosh, HBO Max. It’s a pain to pick through the shorts as arranged in “seasons,” as if they originally aired on TV in a certain sequence, and the service only launched with three “collections” of classic shorts. Families could’ve used a hand to pick through more of this content, perhaps with more character-specific playlists? Or collections dedicated to beloved directors like Chuck Jones or Tex Avery?
I’m not an anime diehard, so I can’t speak to the seemingly anemic selection in the Crunchyroll tab. But at least the Studio Ghibli collection has nearly every one of its acclaimed films. (The holdouts are Grave of the Fireflies and the studio’s co-production work on a Lupin the Third feature-length film.)
Lack of 4K, lack of “skip opening credits”
Among the most boneheaded parts of the HBO Max rollout, however, is its utter lack of 4K content, let alone 4K combined with HDR. The same goes for Dolby Atmos surround sound. Why are these features missing? If history is any answer, the lack may be because HBO never built support for those standards in its other official apps.
That issue feels all the more glaring when HBO Max locks up films as exclusive content. If WarnerMedia wants new users to flock to its service instead of rivals’, guaranteeing 4K access to Wonder Woman, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and other 4K showstoppers would be a worthy, competitive move. But WarnerMedia has only suggested that 4K, HDR, and Atmos support are “on our roadmap,” which is as toothless a guarantee in the streaming-app landscape as they come.
On the other side of the resolution spectrum, HBO Max is careful not to aggressively crop older videos that were originally meant for 4:3 televisions. That’s great news for the video-ratio purists at Ars Technica. You don’t have to start an online petition to get the original, uncropped versions of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, folks.
Beyond those issues, HBO Max has a paltry selection of newly created, “only for Max” content: six short series, each three episodes or fewer. It’s unclear why the company even bothered with this selection, since it sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the dozens of films and series with a shiny red N on Netflix or the same kind of content found on the likes of Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Video, and even NBC’s soft-launched Peacock.
All of the above is to say: there’s a mountain of content on HBO Max, and quite a bit of stuff that counts as both popular and critically acclaimed, but the service does an awful job laying out a mat for new users to discover it. The hub-based spread of content is a pain to pick through, and so many selections (biggies like Friends and Harry Potter, plus content from Turner TV stations like Conan) don’t appear in those hubs. And it’s missing quality-of-life features you might come to expect from a streaming service, including a “skip opening credits” toggle or a “rewind 15 seconds” button-tap. (The latter tap option only appears when using HBO Max on a desktop Web browser.)
Thankfully, the basic experience of queueing and watching things you search for works just fine, and again, this library is massive—and includes multiple bottomless wells of beloved libraries. But many of these, particularly Looney Tunes and Sesame Street, deserved better. Instead of virtually leading fans into a neatly organized theme park, HBO Max asks its users to crash through the glass door of a badly managed Blockbuster Video.