Photo: Warner Bros. Discovery
We’ve known for more than a year that the old HBO Max would be merged with much of the content from Discovery+ to form a new streaming platform, and this week, we finally got the result: Max. Social media was filled with the usual griping about the change, even though the new service doesn’t cost any more than the old one (yet) and despite the fact that HBO content has not been buried below endless rows of TLC true-crime docs and the 500 90 Day Fiancé spinoffs (again … yet).
The real test of whether Warner Bros. Discovery was right to completely rebrand and modestly revamp a service that was just three years old will be whether all these changes result in faster subscriber growth, more app usage, and lower churn rates. It could be a year or two before we really know the answer to that, so this week’s Buffering is all about what we do know: How does the new Max look? My Vulture colleague Eric Vilas-Boas shares my nerdy love of all things user-interface related, so we met up in the Vulture Slack to hash out our first impressions.
JOE ADALIAN: So Eric: You got a chance to preview the Max app last week, and I loved your report about how Max’s design team did their job. But there’s nothing like exploring an app hands-on once it’s live and in the world. What struck you most about Max while tooling around it today?
ERIC VILAS-BOAS: Yeah, I got a lot more time with it playing around at like 1 a.m. last night. I got a demo with it earlier, but that kind of thing is obviously scripted and guided. What struck me, to be honest, was that I was able to pretty easily jump into it and get it started. Maybe I’m just cynical, but I was half-expecting failure! Or at least expecting it to roll over at like 3 a.m. or 6 a.m. versus midnight. The fact that it worked wasn’t so much a surprise, but it was nice to see. I logged in on Chrome on my Mac laptop, then on my Roku TV, then on my phone, which logged me in automatically.
JA: Yeah, there will always be people who have hiccups for some reason. This isn’t like cable where most people get TV through the same basic tech. Sometimes errors happen on the device side, or in how the new app’s code works with each piece of hardware. But mostly I do think it worked. I was also impressed by how much faster it loads. I timed both the old HBO Max app and the new one. It took me about 15 seconds to go from hitting the logo to being able to select a show on the home page while using HBO Max, while Just Max was only eight seconds. It’s not Netflix speed, but it’s an improvement.
EVB: A huge improvement — 50 percent!! The automatic logins, too. There’s nothing I hate more than typing passwords with a remote, and the addition of Wi-Fi and QR-code logins is truly a balm for my sanity.
JA: Let’s talk about the overall user experience. As you note in your preview, it’s a lot like HBO Max — which, smart. You’re already risking audience confusion and even annoyance with a name change and making some folks download a new app. Having things look familiar makes sense. But what bummed me out going through Max was how everything felt so much more … basic. I’d noticed these changes in recent months on HBO Max. Some of the fun ways they had been playing with bigger types and breakout sections started going away. It really feels a lot more like the basic endless rows of Netflix, and that’s not good.
EVB: I got that sense too. I enjoyed some of the bigger sections you’re talking about for their variety and energy, but I guess according to Max, people generally didn’t use them. And losing them, paired with keeping the fonts the same, makes for a relatively uniform experience throughout. If you scroll, not much changes and, in fact, a lot of it bleeds together a bit for me after a while. I counted roughly 30 content rows on the homepage I looked at this morning, and I’d say I actually stopped and read maybe a third of the little sub-headlines indicating what they were. The Warner Bros. Discovery exec I spoke with also mentioned “no dead ends” as an operating principle his team had designed. That feels like a nice way of saying “infinite scroll,” which a lot of folks don’t love and feel paralyzed by!
JA: Exactly. And see, that’s what I don’t get about an app that’s now being run completely by old-school linear-TV people. David Zaslav and his team know how important channels and network brands are. People will turn on HGTV and just watch it all day; the actual show sometimes doesn’t even matter. There are “brand” portals on Max the way there were “hubs” on HBO Max — but they’ve been further hidden and made less vital. If anything, Max should be leaning into that more, giving people the ability to easily “flip” through the various “channels” that now live on Max. The old flourishes at least did a better job showing off the various parts of the vast Warner Bros Discovery content universe. Also, the fact that “HBO Max Hubs” have become the “Brand Spotlight”? Oy. Clearly engineers and corporate suits had the final call.
EVB: OMG, yes! “Brand Spotlight” — such a boring subheader for a boring list of logos! Call it “Something to Watch” — anything else. Because it’s not as if the audience wouldn’t recognize TLC or HGTV.
JA: Unbelievably dumb. Also dumb: condensing writers and directors into a “creators” category in your credits tab. Also dumb: Making it harder to find the TCM hub — er “brand spotlight.” It used to be listed just after HBO, Max Originals, and DC. Now? It’s the tenth logo you see. And then once you’re on the brand spotlight, the content is once again harder to find because it’s more endless horizontal rows. Depressing. I get that Max needs and wants to respect audiences who care more about Food Network than Casablanca. But this is a little extreme.
EVB: Yep, part of HBO Max’s appeal was always that it had this reverence for classic cinema — it’s hard to argue that that’s still there at least presentationally, even with this HBO logo up top. What do you think about the HBO branding of it all? Does it feel like … enough? As in enough to placate die-hard HBO Max users?
JA: I think putting the link to the HBO portal high up, where it’s obvious and easy to reach, is the smartest thing about the whole redesign. If you go on Twitter, lots of folks complain that HBO is somehow minimized by not being in the name of the app. I get that: The majority of U.S. subscribers to Max signed up for HBO. Most are still people who pay for HBO via cable or used to pay for HBO Now. So it feels a little off for people who love the HBO brand and what it stands for; it’s a little less cool to say “Max is my fave streamer” versus “HBO is the best streamer.”
But let’s remember that until very recently, nobody just paid for HBO. You paid a minimum of like $50 to get basic cable and then added on HBO for $12 or more per month. Yet guess what: Watching and loving HBO was just as awesome when it was channel 501 on your overpriced cable system. And it’s just as cool now when you watch HBO on something called Max. Putting the logo on top, basically by itself, is almost the streaming equivalent of being channel 1 or 2 on your cable box. It’s a place of honor, a signal to subscribers that this is what’s most important. So yeah, I dig it. I think the folks complaining on Twitter will quickly move on, too — at least until David Zaslav makes HBO a $5 add-on to Max in 2024.
EVB: Big agree that it’s the smart play. My last Q for you is: Do you have any opinion of the little sound-effect thing they added? Maybe I’m obtuse, but I have no idea what the actual sound is supposed to be. Our colleague Savannah Salazar said maybe it’s a mic-tap? But I don’t know!
JA: I’ve only heard it once or twice, and it’s … fun? I liked the old sound, too. I also preferred the old graphics, which popped up when stuff was loading; the little circle in Max is so much more basic … like the rest of the app. So final question from me: Overall, where would put Max in the pantheon of major streaming apps? Not in terms of content offering, but overall user experience? And is it a step up, down, or sideways from HBO Max?
EVB: I think it’s a step sideways, user experience-wise. I can’t say I made too much use of all the various content hubs on HBO Max after I learned most of what the service had on it, and I won’t miss them cluttering up the nav the way they did. A lot of things have been smoothed out. And I do genuinely like the fact that I can one-click add or remove stuff from my queue right on the homepage. But there was this undeniable charm to the old HBO Max — from the purple on to other elements. By comparison, Max isn’t any kind of disaster, but it is definitely less distinct. And that’s at least partly by design. I’d rank it well above Paramount+ and Amazon Prime Video, which have terrible interfaces, and below Netflix — which I wouldn’t describe as distinct either, but it gets the job done. (The streaming UI that I love best is probably still the Criterion Channel’s!! It just feels like what I think the Criterion should feel like.) How about you?
JA: I’m with you on “sideways.” This is by no means a disaster, and if there’s stuff they’ve fixed on the backend to make it load more quickly and crash less often? Mission accomplished. I think elevating HBO to a position of prominence was very smart, and good for them for (finally) fixing things people had been complaining about since May 2020. All that said, the whole point of Max is to give people the sense that there’s more there than HBO and HBO-like content. You’ve now got one place that has both Sister Wives and Big Love (really, why isn’t that in the marketing?). They should lean into that in the design.
But so far, Max is so dull and vanilla as an app experience that I don’t really feel as if a whole new world of entertainment has been unlocked for me. And stuff I really love personally — classic TV and movies — has been even more minimized than it already was. It’s just short of a war crime that there’s no classic-TV hub or search category on an app associated with Warner Bros. But those qualms aside, Max is … fine. Getting the basics right is what matters most in streaming, and I think they’ve succeeded here. I look forward to seeing the next evolution of the platform circa 2025, after Comcast buys Warner Bros. Discovery and we meet here again to review Peacock Max: The one to watch for HBO and Housewives.