Read next: The Apple TV review.
Starting today, millions of people in the US can buy HBO without cable. HBO Now has officially launched across Apple TV and iOS. Subscriptions can be purchased directly through iTunes — your first month is free — and the HBO Now iPhone app hints that Cablevision will begin selling the service very soon. So now that it's here, what's HBO's standalone service like to use? Well, it's very familiar. It's HBO Go sans cable. In other words, it's exactly what we were anticipating, and that's fine.
Setting up an account
We had some trouble registering for the service in the immediate moments after it went live this morning. Things seem to be settling now, but some users are still experiencing problems. As you go through the set-up process, you'll agree to a bunch of fine print most people will probably ignore. But there's some interesting stuff in there. For one, HBO is reserving the right to change the amount of simultaneous streams that customers can watch whenever it chooses and without warning.
HBO may change the maximum number of simultaneous streams and/or registered devices that you may use at any time.
HBO reserves the right to shut down password sharing
Should login sharing become a real problem that eats into HBO Now's success, the company has given itself full allowance to get much stricter about where and when you can watch. But don't be alarmed just yet. Knowing that this is a service for cord cutters, HBO is at least partially open to the idea of users sharing HBO Now between family members. Another section of the user agreement mentions that you can add "authorized users" who can use the service under your own account. HBO warns that this should only be used for people living in the same household, but will that be something it somehow tries to enforce? There's no telling right now.
It's just what you'd expect (for now)
Once you successfully register, you'll find that the HBO Now app on Apple TV is largely identical to HBO Go. And there's no reason it shouldn't be; HBO has made clear from the start that Now would offer its full vault of original shows and catalog movies. You're not losing anything here compared to cable customers, nor should you expect to get anything extra. At least, not yet. Fast Company's interview with CEO Richard Plepler hints that HBO Now may eventually offer programming that won't appear on the main, linear network. Those possibilities are exciting, but they're not here at launch.
Aside from the home screen, HBO Now's main navigation bar is divided into six sections: Watchlist, Series, Movies, More, Search, and Settings. Aside from "More," which is where you'll find HBO sports and comedy specials, they're all pretty self explanatory. From anywhere in the app, you can add shows and movies to your Watchlist. Series is where you'll find HBO's long history of acclaimed original shows like The Sopranos or current hits like Game of Thrones. As for movies, HBO has a pretty extensive collection of on-demand films, and helpfully gives you the precise date when each one will be leaving the service.
As usual with Apple TV apps, navigating around is dead simple. It's incredibly user friendly and obvious; select any show or movie and you can start playing it instantly, watch a brief preview, add it to your watch list, or hit "more" for cast and crew information. So the Apple TV channel is functional, but also a bit bland and inelegant. Especially in the movies section, expect to find yourself scrolling through large grids of icons, which has become another hallmark of the Apple TV experience. None of that's a huge annoyance on iPhone or iPad, where things are laid out better and browsing content is faster and more efficient since you're swiping through everything.
The Apple TV experience is a bit boring, but it works just fine
If HBO Go is any indication, the company will have more freedom to experiment with menus and user interface whenever Now inevitably reaches other living room boxes and game consoles. (See: HBO Go on PlayStation 4.) Still, it's perfectly usable on Apple TV, and you're here for the content more so than the app itself. Playback seems to work just fine. Streams start up promptly and display in HD without any noticeable buffering or freezing issues, so MLB Advanced Media seems to be doing a decent job handling the backend of HBO's standalone service. So far, anyway. We'll see how things hold up Sunday night when the internet is in full Game of Thrones mode. Reliability may go out the window.
If you're in Apple's ecosystem, it's a no brainer
Signing up for the free month's trial of HBO Now is something of a no brainer. This is something people have spent years waiting for, and it won't take long to decide whether HBO's content library is worth your $14.99 each month. And even then, remember that there's no commitment involved, so you can theoretically come and go whenever your favorite HBO shows are in-season. Obviously the company would prefer you stick with it, but there's nothing that says you have to.
At launch, HBO Now on Apple TV is just what we expected it to be. It's HBO Go without the costly cable package. If you don't have any Apple devices around, jumping in right now might not make the most sense. Cord cutting Android users will need to keep borrowing someone else's HBO Go login for now. In the months ahead, HBO Now should develop into a richer experience and one available on many more devices. But for right now, all you need is the internet — and Apple. Thankfully, an Apple TV will only cost you 69 bucks.