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HBO Max’s rebranding to just Max is here, and with it, an overhauled streaming app experience that puts HBO, Warner Bros. and Discovery content under one umbrella, a little over a year after WarnerMedia and Discovery smashed themselves together to form Warner Bros. Discovery.
The app is perfectly adequate if not exactly the kind of technical achievement that would trounce Netflix or Prime Video. But it misses a big part of the promise Warner Bros. Discovery executives made in touting the combination of their content libraries in one streaming app: Discovery shows are hard to find, leaving users with the feeling that they’re just using HBO Max with a new name.
Notably, Discovery+ still exists as a standalone service, in case you don’t care about Warner Bros. movies or HBO shows and want to avoid the inherent confusion of a fusion streamer that doesn’t adequately fuse half the equation. Warner Bros Discovery CEO David Zaslav has said that’s because its current customers seem happy with the cheaper service and unlike HBO Max, it’s profitable.
Max offers three pricing models but gives heavy preference to the two pricier options. A $9.99 monthly subscription to Max caps you at HD resolution, limits you to streaming on two devices simultaneously, and peppers you with advertisements.
To get rid of ads, you need to be on the $15.99 per month plan, which also grants you 30 downloads a month to watch offline. And for $19.99/month, you unlock 4K streaming resolution, the ability to stream on four devices at once, Dolby Atmos functionality, and up to 100 downloads a month for offline viewing.
On the surface, Max’s content flow is perfectly fine. Menus are large and fonts are easily legible, avoiding the easy pitfall of a cluttered UI desperate to show you everything it offers all at once. Furthermore, the options at the top of the app are clearly defined and well-stratified. When you enter Max, you’ll see options for (almost) all of the major categories one would expect in a Warner Bros. Discovery streaming app.
There’s Home, which features a smattering of content both immediately relevant to you as well as suggested content WBD is sure you’ll want to check out based on its algorithmic assessment of your viewing habits (which will change depending on the profile you’re signed into). Then there’s Series for TV shows, followed by Movies, logically enough. HBO has its own category header so you can find “The Sopranos” and “The Last of Us” without a headache. And lastly, there’s New & Notable if you just want to see which shows have new episodes or what the freshest movie added to the service is.
How to discover Discovery
You may notice one big omission up above: There’s no dedicated Discovery tab. If you want the Discovery half of Warner Bros. Discovery’s Max content, you’ll need to either use the app’s search function or scroll down to the Home tab’s Brand Spotlight section, at which point you’ll see familiar names like TLC and the Food Network next to the likes of DC and the Wizarding World collection. Discovery is relegated to this brand section as well, one of the many, many tiles smushed into that far-down section of the app’s Home page.
Fans of Discovery content may be annoyed that they’ll either have to manually search for their favorite programming or scroll and click through a few menus to get where they want to go. Everyone else, particularly the HBO holdovers, are in for a fine time. Warner Bros. Discovery estimated that it had roughly 4 million overlapping subscribers to both HBO Max and Discovery+, so it may have decided this relatively small group wasn’t worth optimizing for.
On the accessibility front, tools are present, albeit not spotlighted. At the bottom of the Max app there’s an Audio Description filter that narrows down Max’s offerings to content with audio descriptions. The filter is easily missed, and in my exploration of the new app’s interface, I couldn’t find options for accessibility features like menu narration (for folks who need that tool to navigate menus and actually reach the audio description filter).
Max offers a robust customization system for subtitles, wherein you can adjust items including font, color, and opacity, so those who are hard of sight have that feature set on their side. Much like the audio description feature, this tool isn’t prominently displayed; it’s tucked under the Settings tab.
A fine app, by and large
The good aspects of the new app are readily apparent: smart separation of content categories (barring the Discovery omission), subtitle customization and the ability to resume where you left off available for multiple things you’ve recently watched rather than just one. That last feature isn’t novel, but is still good to have.
The bad aspects include the missing high-level category for Discovery content and lack of prioritization for accessibility features. The app also suffered from the odd occasional crash. It’s exceedingly rare when a new app appears and doesn’t suffer launch-day — or even launch-week — headaches, so this is to be expected, but it’s still worth noting.
There’s also Max’s odd assortment of custom filters that appear on the Home screen, seemingly designed for those who like to do infinite scrolling late at night when they can’t decide what to watch. Said filters stratify content into subcategories such as All the LOLs, A Fistful of Action, and Drama! Drama! Drama!
While tolerance for Max’s brand-tier quirkiness is subjective, the actual groupings seem useful. For example, Animation With an Edge helps narrow down offerings to animations for adults, including the new “Velma” show and “Rick and Morty.” It’s an unorthodox filter that a lot of people may nonetheless appreciate.
To sum up, if you’re a “House of the Dragon” fan, you’re going to subscribe to Max anyway, most likely, so its various quirks are irrelevant. If you’re a Discovery superfan, you might be better off sticking to the cheaper Discovery+ service, which Warner Bros. Discovery will let you do. For the rest who just want something to watch, Max isn’t going to annoy you any more than Prime Video or Netflix — at least when it comes to the user interface.