As part of IGN’s State of Streaming event, we’re taking a fresh look at the major streaming services and what they offer subscribers in 2023.
HBO Max launched with more of a whimper than a bang in 2019. Since then the streamer has been at the center of a corporate takeover, a massive rebrand, and a publicly derided content purge that sparked an unpleasant industry wide trend. But in spite of all of that, Max stands as a great example of what a streaming service can offer, mixing eclectic, expansive programming with an easy-to-use platform and some truly unique things to keep subscribers hooked.
Max’s TV Shows and Movies
To really dig into the most important part of any streaming service we’re going to be breaking this section down into four segments. First we’ll be looking at the original programming each platform has to offer, then we’re delving into their back catalog, next up will be any glaring omissions, and then finally anything that really stands out and makes the streamer unique.
Originals: This area is definitely a big calling card for Max. Despite the name change, the service still has access to HBO’s biggest hits like Succession, House of the Dragon, and Winning Time to name but a few recent standouts. Max also has a number of standout originals, including the high-seas antics of Our Flag Means Death, the subversive superhero series Peacemaker, the delightfully raunchy DC cartoon Harley Quinn, and the Kaley Cuoco dark comedy The Flight Attendant. The recent merger with Discovery now means that there is also an extensive amount of reality TV programming both original and pre-existing available on Max too. Following the implosion of CNN+, Max has added live coverage from the cable-news giant at all subscription levels. Beginning October 5, it’ll also offer a live-sports add-on for $5.99 a month that brings the NBA, March Madness, and the MLB playoffs to the platform.
Back catalog: This is the second part of Max’s big double-hitter. Its originals obviously encompass the massive and impressive realm of HBO, but the Warner Bros. back catalog is just as impressive if not more so. Not only does it have a wide selection of some of the best TV ever made, like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and The Wire, but it also has many Cartoon Network shows, as well as WBTV-produced series like Abbott Elementary. Then of course there’s the expansive collection of DC films and TV shows the service boasts. In an interesting twist, Max recently made a deal with AMC+ to include a selection of its shows as well, like Interview with the Vampire and Mayfair Witches for a limited amount of time. It’ll be interesting to see if it continues this trend, especially as Interview with the Vampire has found a large and passionate audience in the short time since it joined Max.
If you’re more interested in films, then Max has you covered there too – in fact, the brilliant curation of the Turner Classic Movies hub is one of the biggest reasons to get Max. Many services struggle to care for or curate movies from earlier than the 1990s, but the streamer’s TCM selection is infinitely interesting and eclectic. From the French New Wave to remastered Godzilla all the way to ’80s classics like The Witches of Eastwick and Friday the 13th, the TCM hub makes Max a must for those who love having easy access to great cinema.
Standout: If there is one truly unique selling point that Max has had since its introduction in 2019 and throughout the rebranding drama, it’s the exclusive North American rights to the films of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli. Not only does Max allow subscribers to watch Ghibli classics like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, or Spirited Away, but also previously harder-to-find movies from the studio like Ocean Waves. The branded hubs are one of the best parts of Max’s UI and here they’re used really well with easy-to-navigate options for dubbed or subbed versions. There’s also a fun algorithm that recommends other non-Ghibli films on the service that you might enjoy if you love their output.
Glaring omissions: It would be remiss not to mention the fact that due to previous licensing agreements with Netflix, many of the beloved Arrowverse shows, including Arrow, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, aren’t included on Max. But Max set the trend for erasing its original content – sparking off a troubling wave of content purges within the industry – so that’s really the headline here. Max regularly kills its own popular shows, canceling them (a recent survey showed Max has the highest rate of series cancellations of any streamer), or taking them off the service entirely. Some big losses include the inventive animated favorite Infinity Train, cute YA romance Moon Shot, DC limited series Aquaman: King of Atlantis, and the sci-fi puzzle box Westworld. The removals not only impact viewers who want to watch the series but also the trust that subscribers have in how long a show they care about or enjoy will be on the service.
Max User Interface
One of the first things that stands out about signing up for Max is that – on a Roku TV at least – the service doesn’t offer you a choice to login on a browser and scan a QR code, meaning you have to login using your remote. It’s far from a deal breaker but is an annoying access issue nonetheless, adding a little bit of work to setting up your account.
Only the premium Max tier offers 4K, but that really doesn’t impact the quality. In fact, Max probably has the best standard definition of any streamer. The incredible picture quality especially stands out when watching Max’s extensive animated offerings, which look really, really great even in just HD. It helps that the Max app runs far easier and lighter than the old HBO Max app, with super quick buffering times and barely any recurring glitches.
That said, the UI does sometimes struggle to map where you are on the app, making it hard to navigate, though that’s easily fixed by a simple return to the side bar menu. Max makes it pretty easy to use subtitles no matter what device you’re using – though they can be a bit laggy – and the platform runs just as well on desktop and smartphones as it does on your TV. When it comes to the recommendation engine, Max takes a little bit of use to really get your algorithm right, but once you’re using it regularly you’ll get directed towards some gems.
First and foremost, Max is different from most of its competitors as it offers no free trials, so you’re committing to at least a month’s subscription if you want to try it out. The service offers three price tiers: “With Ads” for a monthly $9.99, which places it slightly above the market norm for an ad-supported service, “Ad-Free” for $15.99 (again slightly above its competitors), and then “Ultimate Ad Free” for $19.99 which is in line with other streamers’ higher-level tiers.
When it comes to what the tiers offer outside of the content and ad-free viewing options, only Max’s $19.99 tier offers 4K. That said, as we mentioned above, the standard full HD that you can access through its lower two tiers plays so well on smart TVs that it looks substantially better than equivalent HD offerings from Netflix and Disney+.
Max also puts a clear limit on the amount of content you can download depending on your tier, which is pretty unique to the service. Max With Ads doesn’t allow downloads – which is the norm for ad-supported tiers – but if you pay for the $15.99 ad-free service you have an on-the-go 30-download limit. (If you commit to the $19.99 tier, then you double that total.) The $19.99 tier also offers Dolby Atmos surround sound. Generally, Max is slightly more expensive and a little more restrictive than its competition but its massive catalog and easy-to-use platform makes it feel relatively worth the money.