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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | CD-ROM Drives | Rewriteable CD (CD-RW) ]

CD-RW, CD-R and CD-ROM Compatibility

There are a number of compatibility issues associated with CD-RW. First and foremost is the fact that CD-RW media are not backward-compatible with many regular CD-ROM drives. Due to the lower reflectivity of the CD-RW media, regular drives can have problems reading them. In essence, the CD-RW media just does not emulate the pits and lands of a regular pressed CD well enough to fool a standard reader.

Another problem is that CD-RW media are recorded in a multi-session format. Single-session disks are written an entire disk at a time, which obviously isn't practical for a rewriteable medium. Many regular CD-ROM drives are multi-session compatible, but many are not.

One of the great strengths of CD-R is the fact that once you create a disk, it can be read in basically any reasonably-modern PC that has a CD-ROM player. Since CD-RW media does not have this large advantage of universality, it is, in my opinion, relegated into "the pack" of competing removable mass storage formats, such as removable hard disks, high-capacity floppies, and magneto-optical drives. All of these provide removable, rewriteable storage at different price points, and all share the disadvantage of not being readily usable on PCs that don't have the right type of special drive.

It is possible to make a small change to the way regular CD-ROM drives are made to compensate for the different media used by CD-RW. This is now happening in the market, and the latest regular CD-ROM drives now will read CD-RW media.

It is possible that this change will be incorporated into the standard designs of drive makers in the future. Of course, this will do nothing for the older drives that were manufactured and sold before CD-RW even existed.

Note: CD-R disks made in a CD-RW drive can be read in any drive that can read CD-R media. In other words, the compatibility problem is with the CD-RW media, not the CD-RW drives. If a CD-R disk is made in a single session, it should be readable in any regular CD-ROM drive; if it is written in multiple sessions, a multi-session drive is required. These are the same rules that apply to regular CD-R drives and media as well.

Next: CD-RW vs. CD-R

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