Except for its relatively thick black case and a big, unattractive DVD Recording logo on the drawer, the E50K looks pretty much like a regular DVD player. The unit is also available in silver as the DMR-E50S. The central, animated display is well organized, especially the recording information: one glance at the cool-looking spinning-disc icon gives you the status.
Access to the E50K's many functions is provided by a series of boring, complicated menus that beginners will find hard to understand. Unfortunately, the manual is dense and doesn't do a very good job of explaining the options.
Unlike the step-up DMR-E60S, the E50K has the same clunky, plastic remote that came with earlier Panasonic recorders. The control's principal downfall is a slide-down hatch that inconveniently conceals a slew of useful buttons, such as Open/Close. Very little space separates the keys, and the three menu buttons look too alike. But once we were accustomed to the layout, we appreciated the ability to access functions without resorting to the menu.
This entry-level deck comes with a 64-page manual and can present quite a learning curve. Thanks to the DVD-RAM format, the E50K gives you some of the functionality of a hard-disk recorder. While a recording is in progress, you can watch it from the beginning or play back something else. Basic editing, such as shortening segments and dividing one program into two, is also available. That said, you're better off performing advanced video editing on a PC.
Each disc you burn bears a relatively unattractive, unalterable main menu. The four recording modes give you one- to six-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 a certain amount of video--say, 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Although DVD-RAM isn't compatible with as many machines as the other two rewritable DVD formats, Panasonic says more manufacturers, such as Samsung and Hitachi, will produce DVD-RAM-capable players in the future. You can also record on write-once DVD-Rs. They're highly compatible and less expensive than DVD-RAMs, which cost $5 to $8 per disc.
The E50K includes VCR Plus, but the recorder's inability to control a cable or satellite box limits its real-world usefulness for TV recording. The front and back panels each have two A/V inputs with S-Video. 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 items are a FireWire input, which is available on the E60S, and a component-video input. Philips's DVDR75 and DVDR80 have both connections but cost more.
As expected, the E50K delivered video quality superior to VHS's. Even in the four-hour EP mode, recordings looked stable and had well-saturated colors, although blocky MPEG noise tinged the images. The two-hour SP mode nearly eliminated that problem in the backgrounds, and the one-hour mode's smooth picture was almost indistinguishable from the original, even on our large Samsung HLN617W reference set.
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 six-hour LP mode; it was significantly softer than EP, tended to introduce stutter in pans, and managed barely 200 lines of resolution.
In our side-by-side comparison of the E50K and Philips's DVDR75, we played the Monsters, Inc. DVD via S-Video. Overall, the Panasonic in its one- and two-hour modes won by a very slight margin. The Philips introduced more MPEG blocks but also looked a tiny bit sharper, especially in the background and the walls of Sully and Mike's apartment. In the four-hour mode, the Philips edged out the Panasonic by a blue hair: Sully's coat was noticeably more detailed compared with the E50K's oversmooth rendition. The Philips delivered an impressive 275 lines of resolution in EP.
At one point, we tried a somewhat scuffed DVD-R blank. The player went into Recover mode and spit out the unusable disc. Progressive-scan DVD playback was fine, although we did see some jagged edges in 30-frame-per-second video-based material.