Tech

HBO Max online service just launched in the U.S. — here's a first look

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Key Points
  • HBO's new streaming service, HBO Max, is now available in the United States.
  • It's a premium option at $14.99 per month and includes access to HBO shows and movies as well as a few big titles like "Friends."
  • Here's what the new service is like and what you get.
(L-R) TNT, TBS, truTV, HBO & HBO Max Content Acquisition EVP Michael Quigley, HBO Max CCO and TNT, TBS, & truTV President Kevin Reilly and HBO Max Head of Original Content Sarah Aubrey appear onstage during the HBO Max executive session segment of the 2020 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 15, 2020 in Pasadena, California.
Emma McIntyre

WarnerMedia's new online video service, HBO Max, launched United States on Wednesday. The new video service is taking on Netflix, Disney+, Disney's Hulu, NBCUniversal's Peacock and other apps that let you stream TV shows and movies.

Unlike other HBO apps, Max includes TV shows that initially aired on other networks and aren't available on competing services, like the hit TV show "Friends."

It's available on Android phones and tablets, Apple's iPhone and iPad, and a variety of smart TV platforms.

CNBC had a chance to check it out on an iPad to see what it's like. Here's what you need to know.

How HBO Max fits into existing HBO offerings

There are several HBO-branded apps, and it's confusing. Here's how HBO Max will fit in.

HBO TV and HBO Go: People who subscribe to HBO TV through their cable company can already access all HBO shows, as well as a selection of movies being shown on the cable channel, through the HBO Go app. It's free for all HBO TV subscribers.

Some HBO TV subscribers will now get free access to HBO Max, depending on WarnerMedia's deal with the user's cable company. These folks won't have any reason to keep the HBO Go app, which has fewer videos in its library. 

HBO Now: Introduced in 2015, HBO Now costs $14.99 per month. It offers the same TV shows, movies, and videos as HBO Go, but it's targeted at cord-cutters without a cable subscription.

For the most part, HBO Max will replace it. HBO Now subscribers who pay HBO directly, or who subscribe through Apple or Google, will get converted to HBO Max at no additional cost. The HBO Now app on Android and iOS will be relabeled HBO Max through an update on Wednesday, the company said.

However, some platforms don't have a deal to carry HBO Max. HBO Now will remain for sale on those platforms.

HBO Max: The new service is more extensive than HBO Go and HBO Now. It will have additional non-HBO television shows and movies in its catalog, including "Friends," "The Big Bang Theory," and "Lord of the Rings."

Like HBO Now, it costs $14.99 a month.

That's quite a bit more expensive than Disney+'s $6.99 offering and Netflix's $8.99 basic plan. NBCUniversal's competitor, Peacock, will be free, though there are premium tiers with more content that start at $4.99 per month.

However, there's a lot of material on HBO Max. The company says it has over 10,000 hours of video, including everything on HBO like "Game of Thrones," and "Westworld," as well as non-HBO TV shows like  "Friends" and "South Park." It also has a robust kids' section with parental controls, and material for a wide range of ages, including 572 episodes of "Sesame Street."

There aren't any ads -- unlike the free version of NBCUniversal's competitor, Peacock. Multiple members of the same family can stream at the same time.

There's no 4K content available at launch, but a representative says that it will be added in the future. 

What HBO Max looks like

The HBO Max home screen is similar to what you might find on Disney+. Highlighted content is featured up top and there are additional options below to continue watching where you left off.

HBO

You can download movies and shows onto your phone or tablet to watch later without an internet connection, like on a bus or airplane. That's not a huge deal for now, since most of us are at home, but it can also help preserve an internet connection if several people in one family want to watch HBO Max at the same time.

HBO Screenshot

HBO has a curation team that writes copy and chooses certain shows or movies to highlight, like "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" or "The Wire." The modules help remind users about classic shows that they've been meaning to watch but haven't gotten around to. 

HBO

HBO has also created "hubs" or destination pages for popular franchises like "Looney Toons" or "DC Comics." Again, this helps make it a bit easier to find content you might know you'll like. Instead of just flipping through pages and pages of TV shows, you can just dive right into shows from Cartoon Network or DC.

HBO

Here's what the DC hub looks like:

HBO

HBO Max supports multiple users and has a lot of content geared toward younger viewers broken down into four age groups: 2-5, 6-9, 10-12, and 13 and older. It also has parental controls to make sure they stick to age-appropriate stuff. Other services, like Netflix, have started to make it easier to control what your kids can watch, too.

HBO

In a crowded market 

HBO Max enters a crowded market where people are already paying for lots of subscription services, like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and more. It's also more expensive than those services, at $14.99 a month.

For some folks who already pay for HBO through cable, or who already have HBO Now, it's just more content for the same price you were already paying. That's good news.

If you weren't already into HBO shows, though, and didn't already pay for HBO, then it's a more difficult choice. The main draw for most people will be shows like "Game of Thrones" or kids' content like "Sesame Street."

Otherwise, unless you're a huge fan of "Friends," it may be worth waiting to see what additional exclusives and older content HBO adds. The company says it plans to add more shows and movies, some of which will be exclusive to the service. For example, HBO says a long-desired director's cut of the 2017 movie "Justice League" will be added to the HBO Max in 2020.

Disclaimer: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Peacock and CNBC.