Max has arrived and it will feel very familiar to HBO Max customers

Today marks Warner Bros. Discovery’s big debut of Max, the new streaming service that bundles all of the company’s entertainment into a single destination. All eggs go in one basket, and yes, HBO is still getting a prominent focus – even if it’s no longer in the name.

I got an early preview of Max at the Warner Bros. office last week. Discovery in New York City, and I was initially struck by how closely it resembles the HBO Max app it replaces. The home screen, show and movie pages, and overall user experience will feel instantly familiar to anyone who makes the switch. But just because it looks like similar doesn’t mean it’s a recycled app: Warner Bros. Discovery has largely rebuilt Max with an emphasis on easier navigation, deeper personalization, and more reliable offline downloads. The company wants to showcase the breadth of additional content that comes with Discovery without overwhelming customers.

We dove right into the app demo, so I can’t speak to the account sign-up process or how smooth the HBO Max to Max migration will be for current customers. (At least Max includes new login options such as Wi-Fi login and a QR code you can scan to log in from a mobile device that’s easier to type than a TV.) Some day one glitches seem inevitable . But what I saw seemed like a promising starting point. “Both companies had great technology stacks. But we wanted to build something that was the best of both worlds,” said Avi Saxena, chief technology officer of Warner Bros. Discovery.

One area that has received a lot of attention is navigation. On TV platforms, left-hand navigation has been drastically simplified to just three sections: Search, Home, and My stuff. The primary home screen features the usual elaborate artwork and autoplay video we’ve come to expect from major streaming services. At the top are categories (or “lenses,” as Warner Bros. Discovery calls them) such as Home, Series, Movies, HBO, and New and Notable. Yes, HBO is getting its own place here to make it easier to tap into that network’s critically acclaimed programming. You can avoid the Discovery stuff altogether if you want. But on the main screen and throughout the rest of the app, Max isn’t shy about content from all of the Warner Bros. properties. Mix Discovery. New and noteworthy is where you can find the latest additions to the service and see what Max will be leaving in the near future.

“We are exploring what we can do with live content and sports and news”

Throughout the app – in the content carousels and various collection pages – Warner Bros. Discovery that it offers more personalization than before. It’s a mix of human curation and algorithms at play; the latter will carry more weight once people actually start using the app and indicate what content suits their tastes. All told, Max will have twice as much content as HBO Max, so Warner Bros. Discovery wants to bring up all the shows that are most relevant to you. And while sports and live, linear streaming aren’t exactly Max’s main focuses, it sounds like that could change over time.

“We’re exploring what we can do with live content and sports and news, and we’ll talk more about that later in the year,” said Tyler Whitworth, Warner Bros. chief product officer. Discovery, me last week. “We think there are some really interesting opportunities there.”

Like HBO Max, Max supports different profiles per account. For new signups, a default child profile is added in addition to the primary profile; this account is limited to PG rated content and below, but parents can adjust their own rating threshold. You can also set a PIN code to prevent children from switching profiles when you are not around. Migrated accounts see all of their existing profiles when they move to Max, so if you didn’t have a child account before, you don’t now.

Max’s offline downloads should be more reliable than on HBO Max.
Image: Warner Bros. Discovery

Smoother offline downloads

A few months ago, I was on a plane with an iPad loaded with a handful of HBO Max downloads. But when I went to play them, the app gave an error saying it couldn’t reach the internet – and I couldn’t access it each of that offline content. I later discovered that this was a common complaint. There were workarounds; putting your device in airplane mode would make HBO Max realize it was offline and make your downloads playable. But I just learned that pro-tip after landing, and it was a super frustrating experience.

Warner Bros. Discovery has heard some of this feedback, and with Max, the company’s development team has completely redesigned the codebase for offline downloads. The result should be a more stable and reliable system that does not fail at the worst possible moment, such as on an airplane runway. “We’ve dramatically improved the speed,” Saxena told me. “We have our own encoding platform, so we encode the videos in a very efficient way, so the download size is very small and the downloads are very fast.” The team also tried to better account for varying network conditions.

Max launches on every popular platform you can think of: there are 15 in all. AirPlay and casting features are still present, though Apple’s SharePlay is not supported at launch, nor is the frame rate or dynamic range on the AppleTV. And Warner Bros. Discovery uses its own player rather than the native tvOS version, so you can’t browse content as easily with the Apple TV remote.

4K is an advantage for Ultimate only

If you want to experience Max with the best image quality possible, you’ll need to subscribe to the $19.99 Ultimate plan. Some customers are frustrated that 4K resolution is still limited to specific levels and now costs even more than on HBO Max.

“We recognize that there are many customers who like to get their content in the best possible video and audio,” said Whitworth. “The number of shows we offer in 4K is significantly greater.” The company confirmed on Monday, publishing a long list of movies and TV shows streaming in 4K at launch. Warner Bros. Discovery has announced that it will be adding more 4K content to the service monthly. “As we thought about how to give customers the right options for what they want, with the expanded offering going forward it would be well positioned in the Ultimate tier,” said Whitworth.

The good news for current HBO Max subscribers is that they’ll keep all of their existing subscription benefits (including 4K) for the same price they’ve been paying for at least six months.

This is just the beginning

From my conversation with Warner Bros. Discovery, it’s clear that there’s already a roadmap for where Max goes from here. The company plans to closely monitor customer feedback and prioritize updates and tweaks based on what subscribers say. Large teams are on hand to support the service’s debut and keep things running, but bugs and occasional issues seem almost certain with this major migration.

You can try Max for yourself starting today: The new app has been rolled out on many platforms – streaming devices, smart TVs, gaming consoles and more – and Warner Bros. Discovery has said that “a large portion” of HBO Max subscribers are switching their apps to Max with today’s software update. In some cases where that’s not possible, you may need to download a standalone Max app to get started. Don’t be surprised if it all feels very familiar. But if Warner Bros. Discovery has done its job, Max should run smoother across the board than HBO Max did.

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