The Panasonic DMR-E55 stands taller than almost every regular DVD player out there, and its chunky-looking face is less stylish than most. Its central, animated display is well organised, especially the recording information: one glance at the cool-looking spinning-disc icon gives you the status.
Unlike some players we've seen, the DMR-E55 doesn't make recording dummy-proof. There's no dedicated recording menu like the one we saw on the the Lite-On LVW-5005, so we found ourselves sometimes making basic mistakes -- such as recording via the wrong input. Beginners may have to resort to the dense manual to get started on a recording. Bottom line: If the intended user finds operating a VCR difficult, the DMR-E55 isn't for him or her.
In its favour, Panasonic has added a sort of metamenu to make things a bit easier. Pressing the cryptic Function button with a home-brewed DVD in the tray brings up an onscreen display that leads to options such as Direct Navigator, a menu of thumbnails that correspond to different recordings on a disc; Timer Recording, for setting up timers or entering VCR Plus numbers; Flexible Recording (see Features); and Player and Disc Setup menus. Also new for this year's model, finalised discs have a top menu that includes thumbnail icons for each program.
The remote is cluttered with buttons below the cursor control that allow direct access to the more advanced functions, but most users will prefer to use the onscreen menus. The medium-size clicker is otherwise easy to use.
As we mentioned in the intro, the DVD-RAM format gives the Panasonic DMR-E55 some of the functionality of a hard-disk -- although, unlike its sibling the DMR-E85H, it does not contain a hard disk. While a DVD-RAM recording is in progress on the DMR-E55, you can watch it from the beginning or play back something else. Basic editing, such as shortening segments (read: removing commercials) and dividing one program into two, is also available, although you're better off performing advanced video editing on a PC.
The four recording modes give you 1- to 6-hour discs; the picture quality decreases as the length increases. There's also a convenient Flexible Recording mode that lets you fill the remainder of a disc with an exact amount of video, say, 2 hours and 35 minutes.
DVD-RAM is much less compatible than -RW or +RW formats, so you'll want to use the rewritable discs for those expendable TV recording sessions. Highly compatible write-once DVD-Rs are best for archive-worthy video that will play back on virtually any DVD player.
The Panasonic DMR-E55 includes VCR Plus, but the recorder's inability to control a cable or satellite box limits its real-world usefulness for TV recording. (For example, you'll have to set your tuner box to the correct channel beforehand for timer recordings.) To get that kind of control, you'll need to step up to the DMR-E65 or another recorder that has an IR blaster.
The back panels each have two A/V inputs with S-Video, and there's another behind a flip-down door on the front. Also on the rear are an RF input and output for cable or an antenna (just like on a VCR), a pair of A/V outs with S-Video, a progressive-scan component-video output, and an optical digital output. The only missing item is FireWire, which is available on the step-up models.
As we expected, the Panasonic DMR-E55 delivered video quality superior to VHS and on a par with that of other DVD recorders we've tested. Even in the 4-hour EP mode, recordings looked stable and had well-saturated colours, although blocky MPEG noise tinged the images. The 2-hour SP mode nearly eliminated that problem in the backgrounds, and the 1-hour mode's smooth picture was almost indistinguishable from the original.
A serious difference in resolution separates the SP and EP modes: SP measured 450 lines, while EP came in at barely 230. You should avoid the 6-hour LP mode; it was significantly softer than EP, tended to introduce stutter in pans, and managed barely 200 lines of resolution.
After recording, we checked out a finalised DVD-R disc and noted that it played in eight newer players and one older one in our test facility but not on another old player. The DMR-E55 itself played back most of the test discs in our compatibility suite, although it couldn't handle DVDs with MP3 files, CDs with JPEG files, or a pair of older DVD-RW discs. Progressive-scan video playback was fine.