HBO vs. HBO Max

Movie lovers and season bingers have it great. They can watch their favorite shows and movies whether they’re in front of a TV or seated on the bus. They can whip out a mobile phone, a tablet, a laptop, or any other device that can stream digital content. Gone are the days of grabbing the TV Guide to see what’s playing next on HBO.

With the launch of HBO Max, you may be confused about all the apps currently available for accessing the popular pay channel. Thankfully, viewing HBO’s content is a bit more straightforward than in years past. Here, we explain the differences between HBO and HBO Max in content and price, as well as what happened to the other platforms.

What’s going on with my HBO?

HBO first expanded online as HBO for Broadband in 2008. Limited to a small audience, it required both an HBO subscription and a cable TV subscription via Time Warner’s Roadrunner broadband service.

The online service expanded nationwide with HBO Go in 2010 but dropped the Roadrunner requirement, allowing subscribers to watch through any cable TV subscription. HBO Go only supported paid HBO subscriptions through TV providers.

In response to the growing number of cord-cutters, HBO Now arrived in 2014 as a stand-alone subscription service akin to Netflix. Both HBO platforms continued to offer the same core content.

In 2020, WarnerMedia introduced HBO Max, an all-you-can-eat streaming buffet cramming together content from multiple platforms, similar to Disney+. It includes Max Originals, content once exclusive to DC Universe, old and new network TV shows, and more.

In turn, WarnerMedia discontinued HBO Go in July 2020 and renamed HBO Now to simply HBO.

HBO Max is still mostly tied to TV, satellite, digital, and internet service providers, while HBO caters to the cord-cutters. However, HBO subscribers can access HBO Max content if their local TV or internet provider supports it. Just use the HBO Now login credentials in the HBO Max app, and the subscription switches over to the TV provider.

That said, here’s a quick breakdown:

  • HBO Max — Offered through service providers, like Spectrum and DirecTV, along with Apple, Google, and Samsung.
  • HBO (formerly HBO Now) — A stand-alone subscription that doesn’t require a service provider.

Price

Big Little Lies, available on HBO Max

So, what do the two services cost? Unfortunately, this is where things get clear as mud.

HBO is a stand-alone streaming service that costs $15 per month. Similar to Netflix and Hulu, it does not require a TV or digital service provider, like Comcast and Spectrum. However, if you do have HBO Max included in your cable subscription, you can access it through the HBO app. This is helpful on devices that do not provide the HBO Max app.

HBO Max is less of a stand-alone streaming service and typically costs $15 per month. The big difference here subscription-wise is that it’s tied to TV, internet, and digital providers. However, viewers can also subscribe through the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Samsung TV. WarnerMedia provides a list of HBO Max providers for more information.

The vast majority of viewers access HBO Max content via service providers. The monthly rate can vary between providers and plans, and sometimes special offers will further reduce the price. Some providers have even dropped HBO Max subscriptions to as little as $5 a month, but you could be paying anywhere from nothing (via an introductory offer) to $20 on top of what you already pay for your TV service. 

Some providers offer HBO Max access to internet-only customers who can then access the content online. An HBO Max subscription can also be added to services such as Amazon Prime Video, PlayStation Vue, and Hulu — it’s not currently offered on Sling TV due to a contract dispute.

If you have one of AT&T TV Now’s most recent plans, you won’t even need to pay extra. HBO Max is included as part of your AT&T TV Now subscription at no extra charge.

If you’re a college student, you might be able to get HBO Max for free through your university. HBO’s website has detailed instructions on how to see if your school offers no-cost HBO Max, but basically, if you see your place of study listed under HBO’s list of TV providers, you’re good to go.

Content

This is where the two services differ the most.

HBO only delivers standard HBO subscription content: Movies and original programming, like Game of Thrones.

HBO Max delivers standard HBO subscription content, but it also tacks on other content owned by WarnerMedia. Here are the themed hubs to give you an idea:

  • Adult Swim
  • Cartoon Network
  • Crunchyroll
  • DC
  • HBO
  • Looney Tunes
  • Sesame Workshop
  • Studio Ghibli
  • Turner Classic Movies

Unlike the stand-alone HBO streaming service, you have access to classic TV shows such as FriendsThe Big Bang Theory, and South Park. Didn’t have access to Doctor Who? You do now. Don’t want to pay for DC Universe? You can fill your Doom Patrol need along with several Arrowverse shows pulled from The CW (Stargirl, Batwoman). There’s original content exclusive to HBO Max, too, called Max Originals, such as the must-watch Raised by Wolves.

Eventually, HBO Max will offer 50 original series in 2021 that are not offered through the stand-alone service. That original library will include content from the likes of J. J. Abrams, Greg Berlanti, and Cary Joji Fukunaga.

However, customers who subscribe to HBO Max through their TV service provider won’t see the extra content outside the HBO Max app. For example, the 13 HBO channels provided by Spectrum all play base HBO content: Movies and shows like Game of Thrones. All the additional Max-related content must be viewed through the HBO Max app.

The key takeaway here is that if you already subscribed to the premium channel through a TV, satellite, or digital service provider, chances are you were upgraded to HBO Max. If you subscribe to the stand-alone subscription, you can switch over to HBO Max by logging in with your HBO Now credentials. The monthly payment moves over to a service provider.

Compatibility

Device compatibility for HBO

HBO Go amassed a robust list of compatible devices during its time.

When HBO Now first arrived, the service was bound to a near-exclusive deal with Apple, which meant it was only available on devices such as the iPad, iPhone, and Apple TV. However, it’s available now on a multitude of devices outside the Apple fold.

The main difference between each platform’s compatibility is not the device but the generation or version thereof. Check the tables below to find out which of your devices and platforms are compatible with each streaming service. The stand-alone HBO app uses HBO Now’s compatibility.

If you want to watch HBO content on your TV and don’t have a set-top box or a TV that supports apps, WarnerMedia recommends connecting your compatible iOS or Android-based mobile device to your television via an HDMI cable (anecdotally, an MHL connection will work, too, although HBO doesn’t officially say so). You can also get Google’s inexpensive Chromecast or connect a PC using an HDMI cable.

Browsers

HBO Max HBO
Safari Version 10+ Version 10+
Google Chrome Yes Yes
Microsoft Edge Yes Yes
Microsoft Internet Explorer Version 11 (Windows 10 only) Version 11 (Windows 10 only)
Mozilla Firefox Yes Yes

Devices

HBO Max HBO
Amazon Fire tablets No 4th-gen+
Amazon Fire TV No 1st-gen+
Amazon Fire TV Stick No 1st-gen+
Amazon Fire TV Cube No 1st-gen+
Amazon Fire TV Edition Smart TVs No Four models (details here)
Android TV Android 5.0+ (details here) Android 5.0+ (details here)
Apple TV 4th-gen+ (see here about 2nd, 3rd) Yes (details here)
Chromecast Yes (details here) Yes (details here)
PlayStation 3 No No
PlayStation 4 Yes Yes
Roku No 3nd-gen+(details here)
Samsung Smart TVs 2016 model and newer Yes (details here)
TiVo No  No
Xbox 360 No No
Xbox One Yes Yes

Operating systems

HBO Max HBO
Apple iOS iOS 12.2+ iOS 12.2+
Apple iPadOS iPadOS 13+ iPadOS 13+
Apple MacOS MacOS 10.10+ MacOS 10.10+
Google Android Android 5+ Android 5+
Google Chrome OS Yes Yes
Microsoft Windows Windows 7+ Windows 7+

Services

HBO Max HBO
Apple TV channels Yes No
Hulu Yes No
YouTube TV Yes No

Restrictions

James Franco in The Deuce, on HBO

Luckily, there aren’t many limitations and most deal with access across multiple devices.

When HBO Go was available, subscribers could register three devices to a single account. However, only two devices could stream content simultaneously.

With the HBO Now stand-alone subscription (rebranded as HBO), users can register an unlimited number of devices but only stream to three simultaneously. Stream to more than three at one time, and you’ll likely see the message, “You’ve exceeded the number of simultaneous streams,” forcing you to sign out or restart the fourth device. If all you have are a few devices online at once, streaming should be essentially unrestricted.

Unfortunately, the HBO Max website is suspiciously coy regarding information about concurrent streams. Google search results mirror HBO’s restrictions: Unlimited devices and three concurrent streams. However, the website does say that subscribers can have 30 downloads spanning all five profiles and registered devices.

Since upgrading to Max is relatively simple for existing subscribers, it seems likely that restrictions are not dramatically different from the earlier services.

Another option

If you’re not looking to spend money on an HBO subscription, whether streaming-only or through your cable package, it’s worth noting that there are quite a few HBO-produced options available on Amazon Prime Video. Prime subscribers have access to a wealth of HBO-made content, and though it’s not the same volume as you’d get through HBO, it could be enough to make a dedicated HBO subscription less important.

Which is best?

Kit Harrington as Jon Snow in HBO's Game of Thrones

In the battle between HBO streaming services, which comes out on top? Once upon a time, the answer to that question depended almost entirely on you. HBO Go and HBO Now had small idiosyncrasies, but nothing that made one the clear choice over the other — each one simply appealed to a specific user, the cord-cutter or the cable subscriber.

The situation really hasn’t changed with HBO Max. HBO caters to the cord-cutters, while HBO Max is rooted in TV, satellite, and digital service providers. However, viewers can subscribe to the latter through the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Samsung TVs. Even more, they can convert their HBO Now subscription by logging on with those credentials within the HBO Max app.

That all said, do you want a Netflix-type service, or are you okay with ties to a service provider? If content is what you’re after, then HBO Max is the clear choice.

HBO Max offers all of the same base content that HBO does but adds on thousands of more hours of shows and movies, both classic and original. It’s as easy to access for cable subscribers as it is for cord-cutters with an app available for practically any device.

For $15 per month — the same price as HBO — HBO Max is a far superior option. It’s already rendering the other obsolete.

Once you’ve chosen your desired platform, peruse our picks for the best movies and shows on HBO. If you opt for neither, check out the best movies on Netflix.

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