If you have ComCast cable, you may be facing a rather significant (more expensive) change in your service plan. Using an import or "tunerless" recorder requires what is often referred to as "standard tier" service: basic boxless cable, or basic with ComCasts new "free" mini-decoder, won't cut it. You need the full-sized full-featured digital decoder box: these usually have their own timer (aka reminder) system integrated with their onscreen program guide grid. Most cable systems let you preset up to 8 reminder timers on 8 different channels up to approx 6 days in advance. Generally you use the remote to click on a show or movie title displayed on the grid, and a menu of options appears to set a timer or reminder that will cause the box to automatically tune to that program when it airs.
The drawback is the full-size box is not always available for the cheapest possible service plan: to get a decoder box with the timer feature, you may need to upgrade your monthly service to at least one step above basic. Also, some cable systems have stopped offering the timer feature altogether: the only way to get it is to sign up for their integrated decoder box/recorder service (which pretty much defeats the point of owning a DVD/HDD recorder). Its best to check with friends or relatives: find someone who has the normal full-sized decoder box (without the built-in recorder), and play with the remote to see if you can set a timer in the program guide. If so, just order that same box from ComCast.
If you don't already have a full-sized decoder box, and your budget can't accommodate the upgrade, you're stuck with the dinky little "free" converter pod ComCast rolled out to most customers last year. This mini converter has no program guide or timer functions, so you could only record one channel at a time to an import Panasonic EH59. The same applies if you connect an off-air ATSC converter box instead: these also have no timer feature, you can only record whatever channel is currently set on the box.
You only need one external decoder box for a Panasonic EH59, depending on how you get your TV signal. Off-air, you'd need one of the little ATSC converter boxes that were popularized in 2008 when USA moved to digital broadcasts. For cable, you need the standard decoder box. Satellite, again the standard decoder box.
The alternative, Magnavox MDR533 (currently on sale for $199
), does have a built-in, up-to-date digital tuner. It works great for off-air recording, and can usually pull some (but not all) channels off the bare cable wire. Cable in USA is very rapidly migrating to required decoder boxes, so the long-term utility of the Magnavox cable tuner is doubtful. However, if you can receive channels with a roof antenna, the convenience of the Magnavox tuner can easily trump the familiarity and features of a Panasonic EH59. Depends on your priorities.