CD-RW (for compact disc, rewriteable) is a compact disc (CD) format that allows repeated recording on a disc. The CD-RW format was introduced by Hewlett-Packard, Mitsubishi, Philips, Ricoh, and Sony, in a 1997 supplement to Philips and Sony's Orange Book. CD-RW is Orange Book III (CD-MO was I, while CD-R was II). Prior to the release of the Orange Book, CDs had been read-only audio (CD-Digital Audio, described fully in the Red Book), to be played in CD players, and multimedia (CD-ROM), to be played in computers' CD-ROM drives. After the Orange Book, any user with a CD Recorder drive could create their own CDs from their desktop computers. CD-RW drives can write both CD-R and CD-RW discs and can read any type of CD.
Like regular CDs (all the various formats are based on the original Red Book CD-DA), CD-Rs and CD-RWs are composed of a polycarbonate plastic substrate, a thin reflective metal coating, and a protective outer coating. CD-R is a write once, read many (WORM) format, in which a layer of organic polymer dye between the polycarbonate and metal layers serves as the recording medium. The composition of the dye is permanently transformed by exposure to a specific frequency of light. In a CD-RW, the dye is replaced with an alloy that can change back and forth from a crystalline form when exposed to a particular light, through a technology called optical phase change. The patterns created are less distinct than those of other CD formats, requiring a more sensitive device for playback. Only drives designated as "MultiRead" are able to read CD-RW reliably.
Similar to CD-R, the CD-RW's polycarbonate substrate is preformed with a spiral groove to guide the laser. The alloy phase-change recording layer, which is commonly a mix of silver, indium, antimony, and tellurium, is sandwiched between two layers of dielectric material that draw excess heat from the recording layer. After heating to one particular temperature, the alloy will become crystalline when it is cooled; after heating to a higher temperature it will become amorphous (won't hold its shape) when it is cooled. By controlling the temperature of the laser, crystalline areas and non-crystalline areas are formed. The crystalline areas will reflect the laser, while the other areas will absorb it. The differences will register as digital data that can be unencoded for playback. To erase or write over recorded data, the higher temperature laser is used, which results in the non-crystalline form, which can then be reformed by the lower temperature laser.
CD-RW discs usually hold 74 minutes (650 MB) of data, although some can hold up to 80 minutes (700 MB) and, according to some reports, can be rewritten as many as 1000 times. With packet writing software and a compatible CD-RW drive, it is possible to save data to a CD-RW in the same way as one can save it to a floppy disk. CD recorders (usually referred to as CD burners), were once much too expensive for the home user, but now are similar in price to CD-ROM drives.