With hard-disk recorders now dominating the market, standalone DVD recorders aren't quite as fashionable as they used to be. But the latest deck in Philips' line-up has the enviable distinction of being the slimmest model ever to land on our test bench. It's also gorgeous, boasting a reflective fascia with a splash of silver that makes it instantly appealing.
Surprisingly, this is the only digital recorder in Philips' current range (including its HDD models) to feature a digital terrestrial tuner that gets you the full Freeview channel package plus digital text and a seven-day EPG, enabling you to plan your week's viewing and set timer recordings with minimal fuss.
The deck also upscales DVDs and TV recordings to 1080i or 720p and pipes them to your hi-def display via the HDMI output. Alternative analogue video connections include component video outputs and an RGB-capable Scart output, which is supported by an RGB-enabled Scart input for recording from external digiboxes.
If you're hooking this up to a surround sound system to take advantage of the Dolby Digital and DTS support, bear in mind that the digital audio output is of the electrical (coaxial) variety.
Flip the deck 180° and you'll find a few handy connections on the front panel. There's a DV input for lossless transfer of digital camcorder footage, plus a USB port that turns the deck into a conduit for your digital media files.
When recording you can select from seven recording modes - HQ, SP, SPP, LP, SLP, EP, SEP - offering between one and eight hours of recording time on a single layer disc, or between two and 14 hours on DVD+R DL.
Editing flexibility has never been a forte of Philips recorders and, despite the appearance of DVD-RW support, we're left wanting yet again. The most sophisticated function on board is the ability to create chapters and hide them so they're skipped when the recording is played back. You can also split titles in half, but there are no playlist editing or chasing playback facilities as they are on other -RW recorders.
Elsewhere, there's an analogue tuner, should your Freeview reception not be up to scratch, and a full complement of DVD playback features, such as repeat, zoom and slow-motion.
Ease of use
We've been critical of Philips' digital recorders in the past for their sluggish operating systems. Happily, the DVDR5500 is slicker and more responsive than its predecessors, with no pauses when calling up digital text, menu options or changing channels.
The main menu is easy to follow and the remote is well laid out and ergonomic, with all the crucial playback and menu control buttons within easy reach of the thumb. The EPG is nicely presented too, listing what's on now and next for eight channels at a time, and coloured keys on the remote makes it easy to navigate.
There are a couple of quirks though - frustratingly you can only change recording mode by entering the set-up menu, and whenever you playback recordings a display obscures the picture until you press the 'info' button.
Viewing Freeview live through the HDMI output reveals that the DVDR5500 is a generally solid TV receiver, with powerful reproduction of strongly saturated colours, tightly contained edges and assured handling of textures and patterns. We did spot some noise in places that made areas of the image seem grainy, plus, the image judders uncomfortably from time to time with quick movement.
But we can't fault the deck's MPEG encoding prowess, given that pictures recorded in HQ are identical to the live broadcast. The powerful colours and fine detail are perfectly preserved, making for very striking recordings with the right material (bright studio-shot programmes look best).
There's more of the same when using SP, which doesn't look too dissimilar to HQ - the differences are virtually impossible to spot.
If you're recording a movie that just dips over the two-hour mark then you don't have to select LP and waste disc space - the 2.5-hour mode SPP mode bridges the gap nicely. It does suffer from slightly more block noise and break-up during fast movement than SP, but not enough to make you think twice about using it.
When you reach LP, the pictures suffer from even more block noise and lack the crispness enjoyed in HQ or SP. For day-to-day viewing the results are fine (and tolerable for the three-hour recording time).
On the whole, the quality of pre-recorded DVDs playback is above average. Viewing movies on a large screen over 42in reveals a touch more noise than we'd expect, but it's within acceptable limits. That aside, colours are vibrant and realistic and the slick upscaling keeps all of the detail intact.
There are no qualms with the quality of the stereo Dolby Digital encoding for TV recordings, as they sound clear and free from distortion. Likewise, movie soundtracks played on a good home cinema system, and even CD playback through the analogue outputs has a bright, breezy quality that makes it consistently enjoyable.
We'd have to admit that the £200 asking price on Philips' own website is too pricey for a standalone deck, considering that you can find DVD/HDD combis with loads more features for under that price online.
But if you absolutely, positively don't need a hard disk and can find the DVDR5500 at a discounted price then it's worth snapping up, as the built-in Freeview tuner, USB port, video upscaling and support for DVD+R DL make it a pretty good all-rounder.