Netflix vs HBO Max: why it’s a closer fight than you think

HBO Max just became the latest streaming service to enter a very busy landscape, and its ambitions clearly go beyond just bringing HBO's high-end cable remit to a wider audience. Netflix is the competitor that HBO Max really has in its sights, and that's why it's making such a mass market play with this new streamer.

Netflix has spent the last few years rolling out content that appeals to every demographic you can think of, while HBO's dramas, comedies and documentaries are firmly targeted at prestige TV-watching adults. 

Now, HBO Max is closing the gap with more shows targeted at family audiences. The last-second addition of the entire Harry Potter series to the service likely comes from that mindset. Like Netflix, HBO Max wants to be a streaming service with content for everyone. 

So, how do the two compare on first glance? Below, we made a quick comparison between HBO Max and Netflix in the US based on our initial experience with the newer service. We'll have a full HBO Max review coming on Friday with more in-depth thoughts on the subjects below.

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Netflix vs HBO Max: price

Netflix has three price tiers: Basic ($8.99 per month), Standard ($12.99 per month) and Premium ($15.99 per month). Standard gets you full HD streams, Premium gets you 4K.

HBO Max has one flat price for all of it, $14.99. That's on the high side, but it's exactly what people already pay for HBO Now, and you get a bunch more content for the money. That said, to people who don't already have HBO, a service that costs more than the standard tier of Netflix may be a harder pill to swallow. You don't get 4K streaming right now, either. More on that below. 

Still, if the price is a little high, an ad-supported version of HBO Max is apparently in the works for 2021, which should take the price down a little. 

The winner? Netflix

Netflix vs HBO Max: 4K and HDR

Netflix offers many high-profile originals in 4K, if you're prepared to pay for it as part of the $15.99 Netflix Premium Plan. HBO Max launched without 4K streams or HDR, which will be a point of contention for some given the high price. In future, though, this will be added to the service, a spokesperson has confirmed. 

"4K HDR will not be available on HBO Max at launch but we look forward to delivering this in the future," we've been told.

Since Disney Plus managed to include 4K and HDR in one $6.99 price tier at release, it's a little disappointing HBO Max doesn't support either yet. But that will change eventually.

The winner? Netflix

Netflix vs HBO Max: TV shows

In terms of original shows, HBO Max doesn't have anything to get really excited about yet, with a new series of Looney Tunes cartoons and Paul Feig/Anna Kendrick anthology show Love Life among the highlights. The appeal instead lies in its HBO archive, with everything from Succession to The Sopranos and The Larry Sanders Show ready to watch. HBO is responsible for many of the greatest TV shows ever made, which continues to be the case today. 

Additionally, numerous older shows are available here from outside of HBO, like The Big Bang Theory and Friends, as well as a healthy portion of British shows like Luther and Doctor Who.

Netflix, meanwhile, now has an enviable suite of original shows to enjoy, and that catalogue has been built up over many years now. HBO Max will take a while to catch up, but it's absolutely no slouch in its present form. 

You could call this an argument of quantity vs quality. As a premium cable channel, HBO makes far fewer shows than Netflix, but with an incredibly high hit rate. Netflix has plenty of new shows every single week, but many series you'll probably never watch. Still, for breadth and regularity of content, Netflix is still the king for TV. We look forward to seeing HBO Max challenge that, though.

The winner? Netflix

Netflix vs HBO Max: movies

This is too tough to call, but if you appreciate old cinema, HBO Max's curated TCM archive is perhaps the best thing about it. You've got a mix of international cinema in there, and all-time classics like Casablanca, Ben-Hur, Gone With the Wind and Eraserhead.

Most of the Warner blockbuster franchises are out in full force, and the service even has all eight Harry Potter movies at launch, which is a welcome surprise. You can stream Joaquin Phoenix's Oscar-winning Joker right now, as well. HBO Max has also splashed out for the complete Studio Ghibli archive of anime movies (minus Grave of the Fireflies, which is over on Hulu), all available for launch. You can also watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy from day one.

Netflix has plenty of great licensed movies, too, and an absolute ton of originals, but right now the breadth of the HBO Max library makes an immediately exciting first impression. This feels like a real cinema lover's offering, which you'd expect from a movie studio that's been around as long as Warner Bros. That could easily change over time, though, as Netflix makes more awards contenders like Marriage Story and The Irishman and continues to secure great older movies to stream.

The winner? It's a tie

Netflix vs HBO Max: user experience

Given that we've spent years with Netflix and only a few hours with HBO Max, we're not prepared to declare a winner on this yet. Netflix's algorithmic recommendations and homepage layout still make for a world-class user experience, as do the easy-to-manage watch lists and profiles.

HBO Max has plenty of great features at launch. Profiles and watch lists are here from the start, and the way content verticals function as channels works nicely. HBO, Crunchyroll, Cartoon Network, TCM, DC Comics, Adult Swim, Studio Ghibli and Looney Tunes are the channels you can explore right now, and the amount of content for each varies. You can create kids' profiles, too, and it's easy to search the library for the thing you want.

The homepage is curated, with an 'Editor's Picks' selection of HBO shows, as well as Featured Series and Featured Movies. We've only spent time with HBO Max in-browser so far, though, so we'll wait until our HBO Max review before making a call on the app experience and UI after extensive use. 

The winner? TBD

In conclusion: there is a place for both, if you can afford it

No one expects a new streaming service to unseat an existing champion, but HBO Max makes a good first impression. The core of HBO's library means you're automatically starting with many of the best TV shows around on Max, and Warner Bros is swinging hard for Netflix by making the most of its decades-old properties.

Loads more is coming to HBO Max in June, too, with the release of the complete South Park series and many more movies. Warner has a big archive to unravel, here, and we hope to see each of its channels grow over time. 

Netflix, meanwhile, continues to shotgun out new series and movies every single week. It's hard to see ourselves ever having the urge to unsubscribe from Netflix in the near-future, but HBO Max's programming range is so different that we can see how both have a place.

That is, if you don't mind spending over $30 a month on streaming services.

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