A CD burner is the informal name for a CD recorder, a device that can record data to a compact disc. CD-Recordable (CD-R) and CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) are the two most common types of drives that can write CDs, either once (in the case of CD-R) or repeatedly (in the case of CD-RW). In the recording process, the data is actually etched into the disc (burned) with a laser, as compared with non-recordable CDs. Audio CDs and CD-ROMs are pressed from copies of the original recordings (which are burned by lasers). Since the non-recordable CDs are manufactured in this manner, they can not be written, or rewritten in a desktop environment.
CD-Rs and CD-RWs, like all CDs, are made up of a polycarbonate substrate, a thin metal coating, and a protective outer layer. In a CD-R, 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. Some CD-Rs have an additional protective layer to make them less vulnerable to damage from scratches, since the data - unlike that on a regular CD - is closer to the label side of the disc. A pregrooved spiral track helps to guide the laser for recording data, which is encoded from the inside to the outside of the disc in a single continuous spiral. The laser creates marks in the dye layer that mimic the reflective properties of the pits and lands (lower and higher areas) of the traditional CD. The distinct differences in the way the areas reflect light register as digital data that is then unencoded for playback. With packet writing software and a compatible CD-R or CD-RW drive, it is possible to save data to a CD-R in the same way as one can save it to a floppy disk, although - since each part of the disk can only be written once - it is not possible to delete files and then reuse the space. The composition of the dye is permanently transformed by exposure to the laser.
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 dielectric layers 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 binary 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.
The first CD recorders were made available in 1988, but were not an option for the average home recorder because, with the requisite hardware and software, they cost upwards of $100,000. At a weight of 600 pounds, the Meridian Data CD Professional was the first CD recorder. Today's CD recorders typically weigh a few pounds and can be bought for less than $300.