Last month HBO and Roku worked out whatever it is that was keeping me from being able to access the service on my Roku Stick, so I now have access to all the wonder and majesty that is HBO Max. And it is a bit of a mess.
It is fairly obvious what the plan for HBO Max is in the evolution of HBO overall. Back in the day, HBO was a service that let you watch a few movies that had recently been in the theaters along with a haphazard selection of older movies. Then they started producing some original content with things like comedy specials and shows like The Wire and The Sopranos. With Game of Thrones their original content was clearly the biggest draw for the service. And now, in the world of the pandemic and theaters being closed, HBO has leveraged the situation to get some films to open on their services at the same time as their theatrical release.
Also, Netflix and Hulu have been doing pretty well with a bunch of old but popular shows, so HBO wanted to jump on that bandwagon as well, which brings us to HBO Max, which attempts to bring all of that together into a single user interface.
As I mentioned, it is a bit of a mess.
That doesn’t mean it is bad. They have added some features that they were lacking when compared to other services. You can now have a user profile, something I think Netflix has had for a decade at this point, so if your kid binge watches Sesame Street you don’t have that polluting your recommendations.
You can also skip over ads for other shows or the opening credits or the series summary with a press of a button now. And these are good things.
But, at its heart, HBO Max is an attempt to have a lot more content without making finding something you want to watch any easier. This is a problem every service has, so it is a matter of where it stands in the hierarchy of channels we use. HBO Max does this a bit better than Amazon Prime or Hulu, but not as well as Disney+ and not nearly as well as Netflix.
Which is odd, because HBO Max was clearly trying to emulate Netflix in their own way. But despite the fact that a lot of the same categories are up at the top of the page when you open the service… just added, popular, continue watching, items from your list… and despite my occasional annoyance at how brazenly eager Netflix is to start rolling video the moment you pause on some title… Netflix just does it better.
Part of this is that Netflix is easier to read from across the room on the couch. They have titles in big bold print, while somebody at HBO decided that the title card for a show or movie has the name on it and that is good enough, forgetting how often that text can be tiny, in a frilly script, or made otherwise unreadable to older eyes.
And part of this is that HBO Max just doesn’t run very well on the Roku. It is slow to load and slow to respond to inputs, which is a bad look next to Netflix, which is light and nimble and responsive even as it is more active and throwing video at every turn. How can Netflix be so smooth with dynamic responses to selections and streaming clips on the fly as you move through a list while HBO Max, which is relatively static, chugs along, responding eventually to your inputs?
But there is also just the simple ability to find something to watch. Maybe because my Netflix account is now about 20 years old, counting the old disks by mail era, they know what to serve up to me as options. Maybe their algorithms are more sophisticated. Maybe they just have better content. But if we sit down on a Friday night and I pull up Netflix I am generally able to find something for us to watch on which we can both agree.
And, in the end, finding something to watch is the most important thing. HBO Max promises more movies coming with their theatrical release dates, while Netflix has been telling me they’ll have a new movie every week this year. We shall see how these two services compare over time. While we are currently subscribed to both, I have to give the nod to Netflix at the moment.