It's May 26 and AT&T is blasting me with ads on social media, offering a discounted subscription to HBO Max as long as long I'll sign up for the service sight-unseen. Tempting, to be sure, since the new service promises to combine access to HBO content with a streaming home for AT&T WarnerMedia's other properties, along with some unexpected gems like the Studio Ghibli catalog (several of which I've never gotten around to purchasing). But there's still no clear indication at this point whether or not HBO Max will support 4K HDR anytime soon (for the record, it won't). And I'm not about to pay $11.99, much less $14.99 a month, for an HD-only streaming service.
What's more, I'm still not quite sure if my AT&T unlimited wireless plan will give me free access to HBO Max or not. The information provided in different places across the web falls somewhere on the spectrum between unclear and outright contradictory. In other words, "Hey, some of you are already paying for this service, but we want to make sure you're not certain which of you will. And by the way, if you don't and you really want to get this service at a decent price, you have to commit to a subscription before you know what you're getting or whether it'll be available on your player of choice."
Is it really any wonder that AT&T regularly ranks near the top of the lists of the most hated companies in America, year after year?
(Full disclosure: AT&T Wireless is an affiliate partner of Home Theater Review and gives us a small percentage of the revenue for subscriptions sold through our site. At least for now.)
It's May 27, and HBO Max just launched. On a whim, I try to log in with my AT&T account. An error message tells me that my plan doesn't offer HBO Max. So I go to the AT&T website to see which plans did. Once logged into my account, I'm informed that my plan does, indeed, give me access to HBO Max.
The /r/HBOMax subreddit is on the verge of rioting. I suddenly understand how crackpot remedies like homeopathy and bloodletting became a thing. People are sharing their frustrations with trying and failing to log in. Others are offering the guidance given to them by AT&T customer support. All of it contradictory. What works for one person doesn't work for another. I'm giving this thread another six hours before someone, I'm sure, will suggest sacrificing a chicken.
I call AT&T support myself, after a five-minute search for the phone number and another ten minutes struggling with the automated voice chat. The CSR doesn't know the difference between HBO Max and HBO Now. She thinks I'm calling about DirecTV.
She finally picks up on what I'm laying down and informs me that her supervisor says, "The service just launched, and they're having login problems. Give it 24 hours." Another poster on Reddit says his AT&T CSR told him the service wouldn't even launch until 5pm Eastern, despite the fact that some people are already streaming it.
I'm not satisfied with any of that, so I hit up AT&T chat. The chat agent tells me I might not have access for 72 hours. He also says, "Be positive :)" Just like that, with a stupid smiley face. I'm angry enough to punch a baby koala.
Meanwhile, through some strange combination of luck or blind clicking, a handful of people on Reddit are reporting that they've managed to link their AT&T and HBO Max accounts and are finally streaming. I'm convinced that if voodoo actually worked, those people would be dead now. That, or they'll end up the icons of some new religion.
It's May 28 and I've had enough of this foolishness. Some people on Reddit are reporting that clicking on the link https://www.att.com/acctmgmt/passthrough/startwatchinghbomax finally gave them access to HBO Max. That link sends me into an endless loop of login failures and crashes that I can only get out of by using Task Manager to kill my browser. Some are blaming that problem on ad blockers or scripts. I try another browser. Same stupid login loop. I clear my cache and try yet another browser. Same stupid loop.
Meanwhile, some subscribers who've actually signed up for HBO Max directly and forked over their credit card numbers are unable to log in, either. There are even AT&T employees reporting that they're unable to gain access to the app and expressing frustrations. The HBO Max Facebook page turns into a cesspool even by social media standards.
I call AT&T customer service again (reminder to self: write that stupid number down so I don't have to spend ten minutes searching att.com for it every time I need it). I explain to the new CSR that I'm trying to log into HBO Max by selecting the "Sign in through a TV or mobile provider," choosing AT&T, and logging in, but HBO Max is telling me my plan doesn't include HBO Max access. And yet, I say, when I look at my wireless plan on att.com, it promises that I do have access.
She explains to me, the way you would explain quantum physics to a toddler, that I need to choose the button that says "Sign in through a TV or mobile provider," instead of just logging in directly. I say some very salty words and reminder her that I just told her that I had tried exactly that, and reiterate that when I look at my wireless plan it says I do have access to HBO Max despite the fact that the HBO Max website tells me I don't.
Turns out, after way too much back and forth, that I have an older, grandfathered unlimited wireless plan. She thinks that might be the problem. Would I like to upgrade to the current AT&T Unlimited Elite bundle? Because she knows for sure that includes access to HBO Max.
"How much would my monthly bill go up?" I ask.
"Fifteen dollars a month."
"So your solution to not being able to access the HBO Max app that your website tells me I'm already paying for is to upgrade to a plan that costs $15 more than I'm paying now, which is the exact cost of the HBO Max subscription I don't want to pay more for to begin with?"
"Uhh, OK, I see your point," she says, a little frustrated. "Have you tried using your AT&T Watch TV login?"
My WHAT?! I have no idea what that even is. She sends me a link. I try to log in using my mobile credentials. It fails.
"Ohhh," she says, as if a lightbulb has gone off over her head. "Yeah, HBO Max access is tied to your AT&T Watch TV login." She sends me to a completely different website for AT&T Watch TV support, which only supports chat customer service.
That support agent sends me a link. I get stuck in another infinite login loop. I pound on the keyboard, "All of this trouble just to get access to a stupid HBO app that I'm supposed to have access to as part of my wireless plan?"
"What HBO app?" she asks me in the tiny chat window.
"HBO Max," I reply.
"Just to keep you informed," she tells me, "you will be able to activate free HBO on AT&T TV NOW account. AT&T TV NOW and AT&T Watch TV are two separate services."
And, it turns out, two completely different support sites.
You know that scene in "Duck Amuck" when Daffy loses his shit? That's me right now.
But thankfully, mercifully, it's bedtime. I'm done for the day. Another reminder to self: watch "Duck Amuck" if I ever get access to HBO Max. Assuming it's even available. Who knows?
It's May 29 and I've jumped through all the right hoops and pressed all of the right buttons that I didn't even know existed (and wasn't told about until the third level of customer service chat) and have finally gotten out of the login loops that plagued me the day before.
I finally have access to HBO Max. Not through my beloved Roku Ultra (reviewed here), mind you. Turns out, HBO Max is available on neither Roku nor Amazon Fire TV. Luckily, I have an Apple TV 4K (reviewed here) because it's my part of my job to cover all of the major streaming platforms and devices. Whatever.
Maybe it's just the frustration of the past few days talking here, but HBO Max wasn't worth the effort. And it won't be for me until the service offers 4K HDR streaming. And look, I get it: I could count the number of top-tier streaming video services that have launched without issue on Rick Allen's left hand. Server overloads, login problems, interrupted service, and so forth are simply to be expected. Even a corporation as massive as Disney couldn't pull off a modern video streaming service launch entirely without a hitch, and I'm convinced that Apple only did so because of a relative dearth of content. But with that said, the launch of HBO Max has been so uniquely horrible that one can't help but wonder if there's a saboteur at works behind the scenes.
What's that old saying, though? "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." I think the real problem here is that AT&T is simply made up of so many conglomerate companies that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.
Still, that's no excuse for launching a streaming service this bad in the year 2020. And it's not just the login problems, either. HBO Max's browsing functionality is lame. Completely lame. And its search functionality isn't much better. At least its designers had the temerity to rip off Disney+'s "Hubs" concept. Max offers direct access to different content portals, like "Studio Ghibli," "Looney Tunes," "Adult Swim," "DC," "TCM," etc. But it buries them all the way at the bottom of the app, which makes no sense.
For every upside, there seems to be a major downside. The HBO Max giveth, and the HBO Max taketh away. I was super excited about the idea of finally catching up on Rick & Morty (the one broadcast TV show that I truly miss keeping current on since cutting the cord). Turns out, HBO Max only has seasons one through three, same as Hulu. And the only versions of the Lord of the Rings films available via the service are the unwatchable theatrical cuts (okay, to be fair, Fellowship of the Ring and Return of the King are watchable in their truncated forms, but The Two Towers is a mess, making the lack of Extended Editions inexcusable).
Then again, I love the fact that Adventure Time is organized in chronological order, with the special miniseries like "Stakes" and "Islands" nestled within the seasons in which they aired.
Another big plus is that HBO Max streams at a much higher bitrate than the completely unwatchable HBO Go and HBO Now services. FlatpanelsHD is reporting bitrates up to 13 to 14 Mbps for some content, which is two to three times the rate of other HBO streaming apps.
My wife and I sat down to watch bits and pieces of Spirited Away, since we had just watched it on Kaleidescape the day before, and were pleased to discover that HBO Max's presentation really holds up well enough against full-bitrate downloads or discs.
On the other hand, HBO Max still relies on the outdated AVC video codec, which puts it at a major disadvantage compared with streamers who use HEVC. As I pointed out in a controversial post a few months ago, AVC just can't keep up with HEVC in terms of quality at lower bitrates. As the graph below (taken from the white paper Impact of H.264/AVC and H.265/HEVC compression standards on the video quality for 4K resolution), HEVC starts to approach the level of diminishing returns at around 16 Mbps, and is virtually indistinguishable from higher bitrate discs by the time you get into the 25 to 30 Mbps territory employed by services like Disney+ and Apple TV+. AVC, on the other hand, doesn't really reach diminishing returns territory on this chart, which maxes out at 30 Mbps.
So while HBO Max's enhanced bitrate is appreciated, and is pretty spectacular for HD streaming, it's no substitute for 4K/HEVC.
Does that really matter when you're watching Friends and Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and all of the other broadcast classics that seem to be the main draw of HBO Max? Probably not. But should you pay $15 per month for access to such archives?
That's really ultimately up to you. And if you're already paying $15 every month for HBO Now, it's a no-brainer upgrade. You'll get a decent amount of additional content for the same price.
But for anyone who's on the fence about subscribing, my recommendation for now is that HBO Max just isn't worth it. Not if you're going to pay for it directly, and especially not if you're already paying for the service by way of overpriced wireless and internet and satellite packages offered by AT&T, and you just want to get this account linked to that account so you can watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force in your Cheeto-stained underdrawers.
The launch of HBO Max has been a mess. Actually, that's far too kind. It's like a mini metaphor for 2020 as a year. It's a mishandled, mismanaged, unnecessary train wreck of a thing, and to be quite frank, if it weren't such an atrocity nobody would be talking about it a week from now.
I've been hanging onto my AT&T mobile service for a while now -- after my wife and daughter got fed up with their crappy service and support and left for another provider -- just to get that HBO Max login that I thought I might get as part of my wireless plan. Now that I got it, I'm shopping for new iPhones on Verizon's website. No reward is worth this.
Postscript: Late in the afternoon of May 29, after this article was filed and laid out, but before it went live, AT&T sent out this helpful email blast alluding to the fact that HBO Max access was tied to this AT&T TV Now thing that I didn't even know existed before this flustercuck. Thanks, y'all. This would have been super helpful 60 hours earlier.
• Read Home Cinema's Streaming Future Is Now at HomeTheaterReview.
• Read If Apple Is Buying Disney, They Should Pop for DirecTV, Too at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Read One Thing We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Cord-Cutting at HomeTheaterReview.com.