HBO Max vs. Netflix: Which streaming service is best for you? – CNET

Get ready to watch another 10,000 hours of TV, movies and old Friends. On May 27 HBO Max, the last and biggest new streaming service to launch in the last few months, finally becomes 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.

Unfortunately 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 won’t know for sure until we can give HBO Max the full review treatment, but we have enough information so far to stack them up. Here goes.

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 as well as numerous exclusives 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 and The Matrix trilogies, Lego and DC movies and even beloved anime titles from Studio Gibli. The downside? It’s expensive.

Read CNET’s primer on HBO Max.

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 its $9 monthly starting price is a bargain.

Read our Netflix review.

Quick comparison

Netflix HBO Max
Monthly price Starts at $9 $15
Ads No No
Availability Now May 2020
Top titles Stranger Things, The Office, Breaking Bad, 13 Reasons Why Game of Thrones, Friends, Big Bang Theory, Rick and Morty
Mobile downloads Yes Yes
4K HDR available Yes (on Premium plan) Unsure
Number of streams: 1 (2 for Standard, 4 on Premium) Unsure

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 now. That includes not only Game of Thrones but every new HBO show including the recent season finales of Westworld, Run and My Brilliant Friend and the series premieres of Betty and Hard. And that’s just in May

Max will also get six exclusive originals at launch that “normal” HBO  subscribers won’t be able to watch. The biggest is Love Life, a romantic anthology series starring Anna Kendrick and produced by Kendrick and Paul Feig, known for hit comedies including Bridesmaids. There’s also underground drag ball competition Legendary, a Me-Too documentary about Richard Simmons and three kid-centric titles: Looney Tunes Cartoons, The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo and Craftopia, which is hosted by YouTuber Lauren Riihimaki.

There’s a lot of shows on HBO Max.

Screenshot by CNET

The novel coronavirus pushed back the Friends reunion special and will likely affect more HBO Max originals. The company says 12 more will launch over the summer — including Adventure Time: Distant Lands and American Pickle, the Seth Rogen comedy that will be HBO Max’s first original film — but the status of other big titles such as Green Lantern are up in the air. 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.

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

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. Highlights in May include Ryan Murphy’s limited series Hollywood, the fourth season of Workin’ Moms and the fifth season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg

Tiger King is just the latest of Netflix’s runaway hits.


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 on HBO’s 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 will premiere on Netflix instead of in theaters.

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Still unknown: Roku, Fire TV and 4K HDR support

We still don’t know exactly how many devices HBO Max will launch on, but Netflix is available pretty much everywhere so it’s tough to imagine HBO will beat its device count on day one. 

HBO says the Max service will be available on a “very wide array of devices,” including phones, tablets, the web, connected TVs and game consoles. That list at launch officially includes Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Apple TV) and gear that runs Google’s Android operating system for phones and tablets, as well as Android TV devices, Chromebooks, Google Chromecast and Chromecast built-in devices like Vizio TVs. Xbox One, Playstation 4 and Samsung TVs (2016 and newer) will also get an HBO Max app at launch.

So far HBO Max has yet to confirm availability on Fire TV and Roku. Meanwhile Netflix has a dedicated button.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But one popular device may not get HBO Max, at least initially. AT&T’s incoming CEO, John Stankey, recently said that Amazon’s Fire TV products may not have an HBO Max app at launch. Meanwhile we’d be surprised if Max didn’t launch on the most popular TV streaming service, Roku, but it’s not official there yet either.

HBO has yet to specify whether support for high-quality 4K and HDR video will be available at launch, although it did say previously that “4K HDR is a part of the HBO Max product roadmap.” It also hasn’t specified how many simultaneous streams it offers. 

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

Netflix plans

Basic Standard Premium
Monthly price $9 $13 $16
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 $15 a month. You can get it for the equivalent of $12 a month if you pay for a year in advance, and 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 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 and 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 based on what we know so far, 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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