Max has arrived, and it’ll feel very familiar to HBO Max customers

Today marks Warner Bros. Discovery’s big debut of Max, the new streaming service that bundles all of the company’s entertainment together inside one single destination. All the eggs are going into one basket, and yes, HBO is still getting a prominent focus — even if it’s no longer in the name.

I got an early preview of Max at Warner Bros. Discovery’s New York City office last week, and I was initially struck by just how closely it resembles the HBO Max app that it’s replacing. The homescreen, show and movie pages, and general user experience will feel instantly familiar to everyone switching over. But just because it looks similar doesn’t mean it’s a recycled app: Warner Bros. Discovery has largely rebuilt Max with a focus on simpler navigation, deeper personalization, and more reliable offline downloads. The company wants to showcase the breadth of additional content that’s arriving with Discovery without overwhelming customers.

We dove straight into the app demo, so I can’t speak to the account signup process or how smoothly the migration from HBO Max to Max will go for current customers. (Max does at least include new login options like Wi-Fi Sign In and a QR code that you can scan to log in from a mobile device that’s easier to type on than a TV.) Some day-one glitches seem inevitable. But what I saw seemed like a promising starting point. “Both companies had great technology stacks. But we wanted to build something that was the best of both,” said Avi Saxena, Warner Bros. Discovery’s chief technology officer.

One area that’s gotten a lot of attention is navigation. On TV platforms, the left-side navigation has been dramatically simplified to just three sections: Search, Home, and My Stuff. The primary homescreen features the usual expansive artwork and autoplaying video that we’ve come to expect from major streaming services. At the top are categories (or “lenses,” as Warner Bros. Discovery calls them) like Home, Series, Movies, HBO, and New and Notable. Yes, HBO gets its own spot here to make it easier to drill into that network’s acclaimed programming. You can avoid Discovery’s stuff altogether if you want. But on the main homescreen and throughout the rest of the app, Max isn’t shy about mixing content from all of Warner Bros. Discovery’s properties. New and Notable is where you can find the service’s latest additions and see what’s leaving Max in the near future.

“We’re exploring what to do with live content and sports and news”

Throughout the app — across the content carousels and various collection pages — Warner Bros. Discovery says it’s offering greater personalization than before. It’s a mix of human curation and algorithms at play; the latter will factor in more heavily once people start actually using the app and signaling what content fits their taste. All told, Max will have double the amount of total content that HBO Max did, so Warner Bros. Discovery wants to surface whatever shows are most relevant to you. And while sports and live, linear streaming aren’t major focuses of Max right out of the gate, it sounds as though that could change down the road.

“We’re exploring what to do with live content and sports and news, and we’ll have more to share on that as we get later in the year,” Tyler Whitworth, Warner Bros. Discovery’s chief product officer, told me last week. “We think there’s some really interesting opportunities there.”

Like HBO Max, Max will support several different profiles per account. New signups will notice a default kids profile added alongside the primary profile; this account is limited to PG-rated content and lower, but parents can customize their own ratings threshold. You can also set a PIN to prevent kids from switching profiles when you’re not around. Migrated accounts will see all of their existing profiles when switching over to Max, so if you didn’t have a kids account previously, you won’t now either.

Max’s offline downloads should be more reliable than they were on HBO Max.
Image: Warner Bros. Discovery

Smoother offline downloads

A few months ago, I was on a plane with an iPad loaded up with a handful of HBO Max downloads. But when I went to play them, the app threw up an error saying it couldn’t reach the internet — and I couldn’t access any of that offline content. I later discovered that this was a common complaint. There were workarounds; putting your device into airplane mode would help HBO Max realize that it was offline and made your downloads playable. But I didn’t learn that pro tip until after landing, and it was a super frustrating experience.

Warner Bros. Discovery has heard some of this feedback, and with Max, the company’s development team has totally reengineered the codebase for offline downloads. The result should be a more stable and reliable system that doesn’t fail on you at the worst possible time — like on a plane runway. “We improved the speed drastically,” Saxena told me. “We have our own encoding platform, so we encode the videos in a very efficient manner, so the download size is very small and the downloads are very fast.” The team has also tried to better account for varying network conditions. 

Max is launching on every popular platform you can think of: there are 15 in all. AirPlay and casting features are still present, though Apple’s SharePlay isn’t supported at launch and neither are frame rate or dynamic range matching on the Apple TV. And Warner Bros. Discovery is using its own player instead of the native tvOS version, so you can’t as easily scrub through content with the Apple TV’s remote.

4K is an Ultimate-only perk

If you want to experience Max with the best possible picture quality, you’ll need to subscribe to the $19.99 Ultimate plan. Some customers are frustrated that 4K resolution is still being gated to specific tiers and now costs even more than it did on HBO Max.

“We recognize there’s many customers that love getting their content in the best video and best audio possible,” Whitworth said. “The amount of shows we’re offering in 4K is significantly more.” The company confirmed as much on Monday, publishing a long list of movies and TV shows that are streaming in 4K at launch. Warner Bros. Discovery has said it will add more 4K content to the service on a monthly basis. “As we thought about how to give customers the right options for what they want, with the expanded offering, it would be well-positioned in the Ultimate tier going forward,” said Whitworth.

The good news for current HBO Max subscribers is that they’ll get to keep all of their existing plan benefits (including 4K) at the same price they’ve been paying for at least six months.

This is just the beginning

From my chat with Warner Bros. Discovery, it’s clear that there’s already a roadmap in place for where Max will go from here. The company plans to closely monitor customer feedback and prioritize updates and tweaks based on what subscribers are saying. There are large teams in place to support the service’s debut and keep things humming along, but bugs and occasional problems seem all but certain with this large of a migration.

You can try Max yourself starting today: the new app has begun rolling out on many platforms — streaming devices, smart TVs, game consoles, and more — and Warner Bros. Discovery has said “a large portion” of HBO Max subscribers will see their apps change over to Max with today’s software update. In some cases where that’s not possible, you might need to download a standalone Max app to get started. Don’t be surprised if it all feels very familiar. But if Warner Bros. Discovery has done its job, Max should work more smoothly across the board than HBO Max did.

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