HBO Max app for Apple TV gets much-needed refresh

A version of the HBO Max app running on an Apple TV device.
A version of the HBO Max app running on an Apple TV device. (Images courtesy Warner Bros. Discovery/Apple, Inc.; Graphic by The Desk)

A refreshed version of the HBO Max streaming application for Apple TV is rolling out to users starting this week, officials at HBO’s parent company WarnerMedia affirmed.

The refresh comes after WarnerMedia acknowledged last year that the HBO Max experience on various platforms left a lot to be desired, with customers complaining that HBO Max’s connected TV app for Apple TV, Roku and other devices was buggy and difficult to use.

Despite the issues, at least one survey published last September said HBO Max had the highest customer satisfaction among competing streaming video services.

Last year, WarnerMedia said it was rolling out a fix of its Roku app to address some of these concerns. The fix involved a refreshed user interface and enhanced playback controls that largely seemed to satisfy concerns from subscribers of the $10 to 15 a month service.

A refreshed version of the HBO Max app has also rolled out to users who stream shows and movies using Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Tizen, Vizio Smartcast, LG WebOS, PlayStation and Comcast X1 devices. (Comcast’s X1 also powers Cox set-top boxes, which received the refreshed HBO Max app as well.)

This week, company officials confirmed an updated version of the HBO Max app was rolling out to Apple TV customers that fixed many of the same issues. The refreshed app includes a full “My Stuff” experience for Apple TV users that will allow customers to update their content queue with ease.

Other changes involve behind-the-scenes technology that should involve a better app experience without too many noticeable visual changes.

In an interview published by TV marketing blog The Streamable this week, a company executive admitted some bugs in the early iteration of the HBO Max app were due to internal decisions to use existing technology platforms that powered two other HBO-branded applications, HBO Go and HBO Now.

That decision was made in the interest of speed, according to product management executive Sarah Lyons, as competing streaming services from Paramount Global, Discovery and the Walt Disney Company.

“That decision was made back then, and I think [it was] the right one, because it got us out there and got us to scale quickly,” Lyons said in the interview. “But we always knew that that platform was never originally built for where we were going which was a global product, …[and] it was originally not intended with [direct-to-consumer subscriptions] in mind, either.”

In 2020, WarnerMedia acquired a technology company called You.i that has helped power the refreshed versions of the HBO Max app for various platforms. The refreshed app for Roku, for example, led to a 90 percent reduction in crashes when users streamed TV shows or movies on the service, Lyons said.

The timing could not have been better: With Americans largely at home due to the pandemic, many were looking for new streaming options. In late 2020, then-WarnerMedia head Jason Kilar made the decision to distribute new film releases on HBO Max at the same time they were scheduled to screen in movie theaters. The move helped spur consumer interest in the service, which saw a significant increase in subscribers.

Apple may have been seen as less of a priority for WarnerMedia since its share of the marketplace is smaller compared to Roku, Amazon Fire and Android TV (Google TV), but that’s not to say it was ignored completely.

“Apple users are very used to that ecosystem and how that ecosystem behaves,” Lyons said. “The way that they scrub on the remote is really important to them, and candidly, we had not had some good scrubbing experiences in the past…so we were very conscious of trying to make sure that the scrubbing and swiping on the remote works well.”

Apple itself must have thought the same thing: Last year, as part of a refresh of its Apple TV hardware, the company introduced a new remote control that features physical control buttons with an integrated trackpad. The new remote means customers can now choose between navigating apps using physical button presses, swipes or some combination of the two.

The Apple TV comes in three versions: a high-definition model that costs $150, a 4K-capable model with 32GB of space at $180 and a similar 4K model that bumps the space up to 64GB for $200. All three models include the new Siri remote with physical navigation buttons.