HBO Max vs. Netflix: How to choose when you can’t afford both

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Got time for another 10,000 hours of TV, movies, Elmo and old episodes of Friends? HBO Max, the latest and biggest new streaming service to launch in the last few months, is finally available. It’s a multibillion-dollar bet on the future of TV at a time when Americans are streaming more than ever.

Disney Plus, Hulu and Peacock are all competitors to HBO Max, but its chief rival is Netflix. The streaming king has been doing pretty, pretty good of late: Subscriptions are surging, Tiger King is one of its many viral hits and despite the coronavirus lockdown there’s no end in sight to its firehose of original shows.

But financial difficulties have struck millions of American families, so paying for both Max and ‘Flix might be a stream too far. How are you supposed to choose? We break down Max itself in our full review, but if you want a direct comparison to Netflix itself, read on.

HBO/Screenshot by Joan E. Solsman/CNET

HBO Max is the biggest new Netflix competitor to launch since Disney Plus. It has everything on “standard” HBO, its own exclusives and originals, such as Green Lantern and The Snyder Cut, and a big back catalog of favorite shows — including Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Rick and Morty, South Park and numerous Warner movies including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix and Harry Potter, Lego and DC movies including Joker and even beloved anime titles from Studio Ghibli. 

Downsides? It’s expensive, lacks apps for Roku and Fire TV, doesn’t support 4K HDR and, unlike Netflix, new episodes will generally drop every week instead of being available all at once for easy binge watching.

Read our HBO Max review.

Netflix is the gold standard for streaming, the top TV and movie service in the world and our Editors’ Choice at CNET.  It includes a wide variety of familiar network shows but its real draw is the hundreds of original series, films, documentaries and specials — more than any of its myriad competitors. Its huge library of commercial-free content remains easily accessible across different devices. And it offers three different pricing options depending on what features you want.

Read our Netflix review.

Quick comparison

Netflix HBO Max
Monthly price Starts at $8.99 $14.99
Ads No No
Availability Now Now
Top titles Tiger King, Stranger Things, The Office, Breaking Bad, 13 Reasons Why Game of Thrones, Friends, Big Bang Theory, Rick and Morty, Sesame Street
Mobile downloads Yes Yes
Number of streams 1 (2 for Standard, 4 on Premium) 3
User and kids profiles Yes Yes
4K HDR available Yes (on $15.99 plan) No
Devices All major platforms Most major platforms except Roku and Amazon Fire TV

Netflix wins for new originals, but HBO’s got game

The first thing to know about HBO Max is that it has everything on HBO. That includes not only Game of Thrones but every new HBO show, including the season finales of Westworld, Insecure and We’re Here and the series premieres of I May Destroy You and Perry Mason. 

Max also has exclusive originals that “normal” HBO  subscribers won’t be able to watch. The biggest you can watch now is Love Life, a romantic anthology series starring Anna Kendrick, while kids get The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo and new Looney Tunes cartoons. Over the summer Max will launch 12 more originals, including Adventure Time: Distant Lands and American Pickle, the Seth Rogen comedy that will be HBO Max’s first original film.

Read more: HBO Max streaming service: Every show, movie coming so far

HBO Max subscribers get all of HBO plus new original series and movies.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The novel coronavirus pushed back the Friends reunion special and will likely affect more HBO Max originals originally scheduled for fall and later. A company spokesperson told CNET that its early plans are “mostly unaffected by COVID-19” but that “some projects that were in production have been suspended and may debut later than expected.” Max planned to have 31 original series this year (which totals 69 series when combined with HBO content) but there’s no word on exactly how many will be delayed. But at least we know the Snyder Cut, “Zack’s ultimate vision for” Justice League, is coming in 2021.

Netflix’s slate of new originals, meanwhile, continues to churn. Mega-hits Tiger King, Money Heist and Spenser Confidential tallied more than 64 million households in their first four weeks, according to the company. The new comedy Space Force starring Steve Carell from The Office is streaming now. Other additions in June include the final season of Fuller House, new seasons of Queer Eye13 Reasons WhyThe Politician and all three seasons of NBC’s Hannibal, the serial killer drama hailed as one best shows on television. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg

space-force-netflix-hex-102-unit-02708r-promo

Steve Carell stars in the new Netflix comedy Space Force.


Netflix

Since it drops new seasons all at once, Netflix says it has already shot every show on its 2020 release slate. These include the fourth season of historical drama The Crown and Over the Moon, a movie directed by animation legend Glen Keane. Those production delays don’t seem to affect it as much as other companies and Netflix says it won’t have to adjust its own release schedule until 2021.

In terms of back catalog HBO Max wins for familiarity and big names: it leans heavily on shows like Friends, South Park and Doctor Who (rejected tagline: It’s TV. It’s HBO Max) as well as HBO favorites including Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Sesame Street and the Sopranos. Its movie list is deeper than Netflix too, with titles such as A Star is Born, Crazy Rich Asians and The Wizard of Oz in addition to HBO’s normal rotating slate of movies. 

Netflix also has plenty of well-known TV shows and movies, but its strength is in its original programming and exclusives. One recent example: the Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani movie The Lovebirds premiered on Netflix instead of in theaters.

Got time for another 10,000 hours of TV, movies, Elmo and old episodes of Friends? HBO Max, the latest and biggest new streaming service to launch in the last few months, is finally available. It's a multibillion-dollar bet on the future of TV at a time when Americans are streaming more than ever.


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HBO Max: How to get it



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Max weaknesses: No Roku or Fire TV apps, no 4K HDR support

Netflix is available pretty much everywhere so we didn’t expect Max to match its device count on day 1, but we were still surprised when HBO Max launched without apps for Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices. Roku and Amazon Fire TV streaming devices and smart TVs are incredibly popular, with a combined 70% of the streaming player market. And everyone who has Roku or Fire TV can’t use it to watch HBO Max.

We expect Roku and Fire TV apps for HBO Max to appear soon and they’re ready to go immediately once the companies work out their deals. But who there’s no telling exactly when. In the meantime you can watch Max on a variety of TV and mobile devices as well as PC browsers.

Read more: HBO Max: 6 unanswered questions about the new streaming service

Roku vs Amazon Fire TV

Fire TV and Roku devices still don’t have access to HBO Max. Meanwhile Netflix has a dedicated button.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Another big feature missing from Max is support for the highest-quality audio and video formats, namely 4K resolution and high dynamic rangeDolby Vision  and Dolby Atmos. Currently its best video quality is HD with standard dynamic range for now and its best audio quality is Dolby Digital 5.1. A spokesperson for HBO Max told CNET that “4K HDR, Dolby Vision, HDR10 Plus and Dolby Atmos are on our roadmap” but didn’t specify when they’d arrive. I’m hoping it’ll be soon.

Netflix leads the industry in 4K and HDR (including Dolby Vision and Atmos) support and offers up to four simultaneous streams, depending on which plan you choose.

Netflix plans

Basic Standard Premium
Monthly price $8.99 $12.99 $15.99
Number of screens you can watch on at the same time 1 2 4
HD available No Yes Yes
Ultra HD available No No Yes

HBO Max has just one plan and it’s $14.99 a month, although HBO’s corporate parent AT&T has a bunch of other discounts for subscribers to its wireless phone and TV plans. But the entry price of Netflix in HD is still cheaper and Netflix has more pricing options.

Tough to beat the king

There’s a reason Netflix is the most popular subscription streaming service in the world. Meanwhile, HBO Time Warner is one of the biggest names in media, period. The massive Max service comes closer than any other to matching the breadth and depth you get from a Netflix subscription, but overall it still falls short. Chances are you’ll find plenty to watch on both services, however, and HBO Max is definitely worth the audition if you’re curious. 

Now’s the time to try something new, particularly if you’ve watched everything good on Netflix already.

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