HBO Max vs. Disney Plus: Streaming television showdown
HBO's new streaming service HBO Max went live last week -- the last in a slate of multimillion-dollar ventures into the world of streaming this past year, following Disney Plus, Peacock and Quibi during a time when we're at home and streaming more than ever.
While streaming titan Netflix may be HBO Max's biggest rival, Disney Plus is a close second: Both are major new streaming services with extremely popular TV series and films in their catalog, several of which are aimed at kids.
With millions of people struggling with financial difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic, paying for both HBO Max and Disney Plus may be too much. But how do you choose?
Here's how the two newer streaming services stack up, based on everything we know about HBO Max at launch.
Read more: HBO Max vs. Netflix: Which streaming service is best for you?
There are a lot of differences in content, which we'll cover below, but the biggest difference up front is the price. HBO Max is basically double the monthly cost of Disney Plus.
Just like regular HBO, the HBO Max costs $15 a month -- unless you signed up for a preorder deal paying for a year in advance, dropping the price to the equivalent of $12 a month. You can also find discounts from HBO's corporate parent AT&T if you subscribe to its wireless phone and TV plans.
Disney Plus is much cheaper at $7 a month or $70 a year -- and free for at least a year if you're a Verizon Unlimited, Fios Home Internet or US Mobile customer. There are also options to bundle Disney Plus with Hulu and ESPN Plus.
HBO Max wins for variety (especially for grown-ups)
Disney Plus has a large slate of popular films and TV shows thanks to its ownership of Star Wars, Marvel, and The Simpsons -- and the entire library of Pixar, Disney Signature Series and Disney Vault lines of classic hand-drawn animated movies. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Disney Plus has gotten a few movies streaming earlier than expected, like Frozen 2 and Onward, while others like Artemis Fowl will bypass theaters and move straight onto the service. It will also be the home of the filmed version of a small theater production called Hamilton in July.
HBO Max offers more variety, especially content for adults as well as children. At launch, it has 10,000 hours of content to stream, including all the shows and movies on HBO, plus a selection of high-profile licensed content, like Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Rick and Morty and South Park. It also has the full sets of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix trilogies, DC movies like Joker and Wonder Woman, classic films like The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca, and newer hits like A Star is Born and Crazy Rich Asians -- not to mention almost the entire catalog of Studio Ghibli anime films that have never been released for streaming in the US before.
Disney Plus has struggled to have many breakouts when it comes to its original content -- the major exception being The Mandalorian, which became a massive hit thanks in part to Baby Yoda.
HBO Max may be better suited to original content: It's already streaming six Max Originals, including an anthology series called Love Life starring Anna Kendrick that follows one character through a new romantic relationship each episode. None of the six shows have been major breakouts yet. But HBO executives said the service is on track to release 30 originals in its first year and 60 in its second, even with the pandemic delaying some content, like the highly anticipated Friends reunion special.
Both services think of the children
When it comes to content for kids, you would guess that family-friendly Disney Plus has the edge over HBO, which made its name on more adult content like The Sopranos and Sex and the City. But HBO Max is making a big bet on families with kids subscribing, too. The new service offers kid-friendly originals like new Looney Tunes cartoons and Sesame Street episodes, and the Cartoon Network catalog. It's also home to Doctor Who and the Lego movies, along with almost every Studio Ghibli film.
While Disney Plus is more focused on shows and movies for kids in general (with nothing rated M or R on the platform), there is some more intense PG and PG-13 content that might not be appropriate for the youngest viewers. Parents can create a profile for their child, and toggle the Kids Profile setting to On, which prevents PG and PG-13 content from appearing on the profile. But it's not perfect for every age group -- you can't enable PG content and disable PG-13 content. Plus, a child could technically just switch over to another profile to watch those shows.
HBO Max's profiles for kids are more customizable. Parents can decide which rating levels kids can access, down to G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 for movies and TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14 and TV-MA for television shows. You can also enable a four-digit passcode that a child would need to enter to get out of their profile and into their parent's. Of course, your kid might be savvy enough to figure that passcode out, but it's something.
On HBO Max, you can also connect two profiles to create a separate, joint-watching space for shows you watch with your kid, so as not to mess up the recommendation engine on your own profile.
When it comes to pure content for kids, Disney Plus probably wins out. But for more customizable kids profiles and some great non-Disney movies, HBO Max has the edge.
Both designs take a page from Netflix (and add hubs)
In terms of usability, Disney Plus has a user-friendly design with row after row of tiles, sorted by Recommended for you, New to Disney Plus, Continue watching, etc. -- similar to Netflix and many other popular streaming services. HBO Max also follows the same general design, although HBO seems to have put some thought into making the platform more visually appealing, with fewer tiles on a screen and more breaks to let your eye rest.
Disney Plus has a hub for each of its properties at the top of the home page, where you'll find Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic. HBO Max has a similar hub when you scroll down your profile page, but it looks busier and with less recognizable names, like Studio Ghibli and Sesame Workshop.
Instead of solely using a recommendation engine to surface new content for users, HBO Max will also have curated content from celebrities, to bring a more human touch. However, those recommendations are not yet available. You also can't transfer over your watch history from your HBO Go or HBO Now app, so you won't find any personalized recommendations at first.
HBO Max does curate collections of movies around a theme, like time travel. Disney Plus has a version of this as well, with collections like Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, The Simpsons Predict and Disney Through the Decades.
HBO Max: No Roku, Fire TV or 4K HDR support
Disney Plus is available pretty much everywhere. Meanwhile, HBO Max is available on Apple and Android devices, Google Chromecast, Xbox, PlayStation 4 and newer Samsung smart TVs -- but not yet on Roku or Amazon's Fire TV products, which is a big downside, since those are very popular streaming devices.
Disney Plus offered support for both 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos surround sound at launch (depending on the content), along with up to four simultaneous streams. Meanwhile, HBO Max offers three simultaneous streams, but doesn't have 4K HDR or Dolby Atmos at launch -- though executives say both are coming at some point in the future.
The happiest streaming service on Earth
If you're looking purely for children's content that includes every Disney classic and the Star Wars and Marvel franchises for older kids, you can't go wrong with Disney Plus -- especially for the price. But HBO Max has a massive catalog of shows and movies you won't find streaming anywhere else, and more customizable parental controls. Plus, if you're already an HBO Now subscriber, you'll be paying the same price for lots more content. If you've already exhausted the Disney catalog, it's worth giving HBO Max a try.