HBO Max on tablet

Streaming service review update (2021): HBO Max

I’ve resubscribed to HBO Max this month for “Space Jam 2.” As such, it’s my first extensive look at HBO Max since I last tried it a year ago. But has anything about the streaming service improved or changed?

Pros of HBO Max

A strong movie selection, including (for 2021 only) new-to-theater films

There’s a strong number and variety of films available on HBO Max. That’s thanks to the Warner Bros. film library, plus the resources of Turner Classic Movies (which has its own HBO Max tab) and HBO Max’s roots as, well, HBO (the cable channel). Movies are one of HBO Max’s strongest selling points as a service.

It’s made even better by Warner Bros. offering same-day availability of theatrically-released WB films for 2021. While this made some in Hollywood hopping mad (and not caring about the fact most people weren’t risking their health to see their cinematic epic at a theater), it seems to have been a popular move. It also helps justify some of HBO Max’s price (but more on that below).

WarnerMedia’s animation library (plus some anime)

Scooby-Doo section of HBO Max
Scooby-Doo on HBO Max. (HBO Max / screenshot by author)

HBO Max also has a decent animation library, including:

  • The classic Looney Tunes shorts, plus some modern material, including the new Max exclusive “Looney Tunes Cartoons” shorts.
  • The Fleischer/Famous Popeye shorts.
  • Tom and Jerry.
  • The most popular Hanna-Barbera characters, including the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Yogi Bear, and Scooby-Doo.
  • Modern and classic Cartoon Network shows, including “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Steven Universe,” “Craig of the Creek,” and so on.
  • Some anime content; HBO Max carries a selection of Crunchyroll films under a Crunchyroll tab, plus the Studio Ghibli library of films under that studio’s own tab.

HBO Max is also adding “Jellystone” as a Max exclusive, featuring rebooted versions of classic Hanna-Barbera characters; here’s the trailer:

The HBO and Warner Bros. TV libraries

Another strength of Max is carrying the HBO and Warner Bros. TV show libraries. Fans of “Game of Thrones” (well, those not driven off by now) and other HBO shows will find everything HBO related available on Max.

Some classic Warner distributed TV programming’s also available, including “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” (There’s also a 2020 reunion special featuring the cast.) “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory” (both Warner-made shows) are also on HBO Max.

While not made by Warner, HBO Max also carries ViacomCBS’ “South Park.”

Cons of HBO Max

It’s expensive (even for the ad-based version)

HBO Max is still expensive for a streaming service, at $15/month for the ad-free version and $10/month for the ad-based version. The former puts it in competition with Netflix (at $14/month for the HD tier), while the latter makes it very expensive for an ad-supported service. In comparison, the ad-supported version of Hulu is $6/month, while the ad-supported version of Paramount+ is $5/month. This cost prevents HBO Max from being a no-brainer like some of its rivals (particularly Disney+, which is ad-free at $8/month).

Poor branding

The aforementioned price of HBO Max is likely a legacy of another problem: the fact WarnerMedia simply took the existing HBO service, bolted extra content onto it, and called it a day. As such, HBO Max had some obstacles out of the gate, including: the various HBO variant apps like HBO Now and Go (since consolidated), and the perception of HBO Max as, well, HBO, not Warner’s broader properties. Remember the jokes about the home of “Game of Thrones” getting “Sesame Street” back in 2015?

While HBO has aired kids’ shows historically (such as “Babar” in the early 90s), these days, when people think of the channel, it’s for movies or R-rated adult content—not so much “Scooby-Doo.” Why WarnerMedia didn’t just start a new service from scratch with some variant of the “Warner Brothers” name, I have no idea… unless they were that impatient to get into streaming ASAP, which’d explain its initial launch problems.

Lackluster content organization; also, what about Boomerang?

There’s still some odd content organization decisions. The most glaring is there’s still no section for Boomerang, or shows that’d fall under that category of older Hanna-Barbera material. If you want Scooby-Doo or the Flintstones, they won’t appear under the Cartoon Network tab; you’ll find them instead under some other general category (like “Kids & Family”).

For that matter, HBO Max has the most popular Hanna-Barbera characters, but not their entire libraries. The original Flintstones series is here, but not its spin-offs. Scooby-Doo consists of the original series, “The Scooby-Doo Show,” and “Scooby and Scrappy-Doo” (both the half-hour first season and the “running from monsters for seven minutes” mystery-less shorts). Otherwise, if you want a deeper dive into either of these shows’ spin-offs, or the broader Hanna-Barbera library of characters (like, say, Atom Ant), you’ll have to subscribe to Boomerang.

Despite Warner shuttering some of its other smaller streaming services, they’ve kept Boomerang around. While an OK service, I wonder why they haven’t considered folding it into HBO Max, or at least offering both as a bundle at a discount (the way Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ come as a bundle).

Losing same-day theatrical films after 2021

While the same-day movies are nice, they’re for 2021 only—after this year, Warner Bros. is going back to the usual “streaming service gets films on a delay” model. This might make HBO Max’s expensive price tag less appealing to some.

Other observations (and what’s been fixed)

Scooby-Doo subsection of HBO Max
Subsection of Scooby-Doo material on HBO Max. (HBO Max / screenshot by author)

Since HBO Max’s launch, Warner’s cleaned up some of the streaming service’s initial problems. Along with consolidating/eliminating redundant HBO apps, other areas addressed:

  • HBO Max is now available on all devices, including Roku and Fire TV (the two most popular streaming platforms). This likely has helped boost HBO Max’s numbers.
  • 4K content is now available.
  • HBO Max now carries the broader DC Comics TV show and movie library, after DC Universe switched to being comics-only. One can now watch Superman, the Teen Titans and Bugs Bunny on the same service.
  • HBO Max now works in Microsoft Edge, unlike the last time I tried it. However, I’m not sure if it’s a bug fixed or the fact Edge is now Chromium based (i.e. running on the same backend as Chrome).

Who should use HBO Max?

HBO Max feels like it’d be best for:

  • Those wanting an alternative to Netflix.
  • Existing HBO fans.
  • Someone who wants to see new Warner Bros. movies at home (in 2021).
  • Movie fans.
  • DC Comics superhero fans.
  • Looney Tunes/Hanna-Barbera/Cartoon Network animation fans who don’t want to pay for Boomerang.
  • Studio Ghibli fans.

Animation fans who either want a deeper dive into the classic WB/Hanna-Barbera library and/or don’t want to pay for HBO Max will want to consider signing up for Boomerang. Boomerang costs $5/month or $40/year.

Similarly, hardcore anime fans might want to consider adding the stand-alone Crunchyroll service.

Otherwise, if you don’t fall under any of the categories I listed above, HBO Max feels less of a must-have and more of a service to consider adding if your budget allows such. Or, as I’m doing, signing up for a month, binging movies/TV shows of interest, and cancelling.

Photo by Marco Verch (Flickr / CC BY / cropped from original)

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