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-E55S 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-E65S 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-E55S 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 colors, 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 finalized 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-E55S 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.