Now that DVD recorders have reached the brink of mass affordability, everyone is starting to make one. Panasonic was on the scene before just about everyone, however, and its entry-level fifth-generation model--the DMR-E55S--delivers some refinements that set it apart from the and of the world. First on the list: DVD-RAM allows the E55S to perform DVR-like tricks, such as pausing live TV. If you don't need this kind of functionality, if you already own a DVR, or if you find it hard to program a VCR, you should probably go for a different deck. If, on the other hand, you want the most features for your buck, the Panasonic DMR-E55S is a winner.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.The Panasonic DMR-E55S 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 organized, especially the recording information: one glance at the cool-looking spinning-disc icon gives you the status. By the way, if you don't like its silver case, you can opt for the black DMR-E55K instead.
Unlike some players we've seen, the DMR-E55S doesn't make recording dummy-proof. There's no dedicated recording menu like the one we saw on the the, 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-E55S isn't for him or her.
In its favor, 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, finalized 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-E55S some of the functionality of a hard-disk recorder such as TiVo--although, unlike its sibling the DMR-E85HS, it does not contain a hard disk. While a DVD-RAM recording is in progress on the DMR-E55S, 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.