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Thread: Ten-Eighty: Our review of the Sony Xperia ZL

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    Ten-Eighty: Our review of the Sony Xperia ZL

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    2012 was an exciting year for phones. High definition 1280x720 displays became common along with quad core processors. A few years ago, I would have never imagined that phones would sport specs like this. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any better, we now have phones with even higher 1920x1080 displays. That’s right, the same resolution as the TV hanging in your family room.

    First out of the block here in Canada is Sony with their Xperia ZL. Check out its specs courtesy of Wikipedia:


    • 5” 1080 x 1920p full HD Reality Display with Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2
    • 13MP Fast Capture camera with Exmor RS for mobile, the first image sensor with HDR video for smartphones
    • 1.5 Ghz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor
    • 2GB RAM
    • Compact design - display is 75% of front panel
    • One-touch functions
    • IR blaster - television remote support
    • TFT capacitive touch screen.
    • Available in two colors, black and white.
    • Will be upgrade to Android 4.2 after launch.
    • size 131.6 x 69.3 x 9.8 mm (5.18 x 2.73 x 0.39 in)
    • Weight 151 g (5.33 oz)


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    The ZL has a nice organic shape because the back is curved with a texture.

    That said, the plastic on the back could be slightly thicker. There are some soft spots on the back that you can press in. I wouldn’t say it makes the ZL feel cheap but it is a little disappointing. It’s covered with rubberized paint which contrasts nicely with the cover.

    The power button sits half way down the right side instead of being close to the top right or the top of the phone like on many other phones. If you’re coming from another phone, you might not be used to this but actually, it’s a really good idea.

    When you hold a phone, you usually grip it near the bottom. Since phones have gotten so large in the past 3 years, the power button has been getting further and further away from the bottom. That means when you pick up the phone you kind of have to shimmy your thumb or fingers up the side to press the power button. With it in the middle of the sign you don’t have to do this. It’s a great idea.

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    It’s worth pointing out that the ZL is one of the few smartphones out there that has a hole for a lanyard. If you have a sushi shamed phone charm rejoice, you can use it with the ZL.

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    Apple spent a lot of time telling us that their retina displays with their 320 ppi density were so awesome because at that point, you can no longer see the individual pixels.

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    So is there a difference in sharpness? I’ll be honest, when I first saw the ZL I definitely thought I saw a difference but once I had it next to my iPhone 5, at ordinary viewing distances I’d say no, there isn’t much of a difference. I screen captured the Z and then viewed the image on my iPhone and my eyes can’t tell a difference in sharpness. I really have no idea how to photograph this to show you what I mean but take my word for it.

    Next, I tried looking at some websites. Higher pixel densities really shine when it comes to really small text. I loaded the desktop version of wikipedia on both the ZL and the 5 and zoomed all the way out. At first, I thought the ZL was much better till I realized that the 5’s small display meant that it also made text smaller which put it at a disadvantage. Still, the 5 has a smaller 4” display so there’s not much you can do if you want to zoom all the way out.

    Anyways, if I make the 5’s display the entire width of wikipedia there’s a difference but a big part of that is because of it’s smaller screen and not the lower pixel density. If I view it so that the text on both are approximately the same size then the difference is hard to spot.

    So what’s the point of the Z’s 440ppi display? The 440 ppi allows for screens bigger than around 4.6” while maintaining the “so sharp your eyes can’t tell the difference”ness of the display. Had they stuck with a 1280x720 on the ZL it wouldn’t be ‘retina’ sharp.

    Still, a camera will do a good job of illustrating the difference between the iPhone’s display and the ZL’s. I took a picture of both at my camera’s minimum focusing distance. Check it out.

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    While the display is insanely sharp, it does make some sacrifices over last year’s displays. My 2 favorite displays of 2012 where the iPhone 5 and the HTC One X. Compared to those 2 displays, the ZL a significant amount of off-angle colour shift. It’s so dramatic that the ZL’s sweet spot is probably only 10 to 20 degrees off-center. Once you go off-center, the display gets a white cast to it. Just look at the picture. Note that I went to a more extreme angle to emphasize the colour shift.

    Since it goes white, I suspect the colour shift has something to do with the backlight. I’m just speculating here but there’s probably a gap between the digitizer and the display.

    While not a dim display by any means, it’s not as bright as the One X and 5’s displays though it is brighter than the Galaxy S III.

    While it’s not terrible in direct sunlight, it’s also not as good as the iPhone 5 and One X in this regard.

    I wouldn’t say the ZL’s display is a disappointment but you do make some sacrifices if you want the super high resolution. The colour shift makes it a poor choice if you want to show a group of people something on your screen.

    One interesting about the ZL’s display is that it actually has a screen protector. It appears to be a PET type plastics screen protector (as opposed to a polyurethane one like an “Inivisible Shield from Zagg”). I like PET type protectors because they’re much harder and feel just like a screen. The problem with the protector is that it’s not as hard as the glass underneath so it does scratch pretty easily. So if you do scratch your ZL, chances are that the glass is fine.

    Another advantage of the protector is that if you do manage to shatter the ZL’s screen it won’t come apart because the protector will keep the glass together.

    One nice thing about the ZL is that it supports penta-band HSPA+ and LTE. That means if you get the LTE version you don’t have to choose between LTE and compatabilty with Wind/Mobilicity and to a lesser extent, T-Mobile. If you unlock it, it’s great for roaming. I used mine on TELUS and Rogers LTE plus I was able to get onto Wind (Home).

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    Camera, speaker

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    lanyard connector

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    microSD, microSIM card slots. 64GB microSD works just fine.

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    lanyard connector, microUSB

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    headphone jack

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    volume, power, camera buttons

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    indicator LED

    Like on most other high-end phones the ZL supports both 2.4 and 5Ghz WiFi. I originally stated that the ZL only came with 2.4Ghz - I was mistaken.

    Camera:

    While the ZL has a 13 megapixel camera, it’s a poster child for why more megapixels aren’t always better. Indoors the sensor is incredibly noisy. Normally, I’m not bothered by noise because it helps tell the story about how much light there was when you took the picture but with the ZL, it looks like there wasn’t enough light in almost all pictures.

    Still, one thing I like about the ZL is that the camera has been tuned for the real world. Some cameras take awesome pictures if both you and your subject can stay very still. Cameras like this are great for ‘easy’ shots like if you’re a foodie but whenever you try to take a picture of something interesting you always get blur. Sony cameras from last year were guilty of this.

    The way I see it, a noisy picture is better than a blurry, less noisy picture.

    First off, the shot-to-shot speeds are dramatically improved over last year’s Xperia’s. I’m not sure whether it’s a function of the faster processor or whether Sony’s engineers are tuning the software differently.

    The software itself feels exactly like a mid-range to higher end point and shoot. In auto mode, the ZL tries to guess what you’re trying to shoot and switches between the different modes automatically. For example, if you point it at someone with a soft looking face, it switches to infant mode. If your subject is moving around, it uses sports mode. That sort of thing.

    I really like how there’s a dedicated shutter button which you can press to launch the camera. The ZL launches the camera really quickly. You can set it up to automatically take a picture when you launch the camera with the shutter button. Xperia cameras from last year had this feature too but it works better on the ZL.

    I love how fast the ZL camera is. Not only does it launch and shoot quickly, it has a really awesome burst mode. Sony claims around 10 frames per second. I didn’t time it but I don’t think it’s quite 10 frames per second but it’s close to it. More impressively it’s able to maintain this high burst rate until you run out of memory. It only takes seconds to shoot 100+ photos.

    In order to get this high speed some sacrifices have to be made: The highest resolution is 3920x2204, that’s about ~9 megapixels. The ZL crops the center of the frame so burst pictures are more ‘zoomed in’ plus it boosts sensor sensitivity so that pictures are more noisy. As far as I’m concerned, these are all acceptable compromises.

    I have to admit, the fast burst mode is pretty addictive. While it’s pictures aren’t excellent it does a fantastic job of capturing the moment.

    While every camera phone has noise indoors, the ZL’s noise is more noticeable. Here’s where the super-high resolution display works against the ZL. When you take pictures with it, you notice the noise more.

    If you select the right mode there is pretty effect noise reduction though it does reduce the image’s resolution.

    Compared to my Galaxy Note 2 and iPhone 5 cameras, I thought the ZL pictures seemed to lack some dynamic range. The exposure seemed to be less accurate also.

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    Outdoors, I think the ZL captures a tiny bit more detail but indoors it captures less because of noise.

    There’s a HDR video mode. In HDR mode, I think the ZL takes twice the number of frames per second over-exposing even frames and under-exposing odd ones. Then adds the 2 frames together to create HDR videos. HDR videos really help in bringing details in shadows and really bright parts. Just check out the picture.

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    That said, the colour in HDR video looks, for lack of a better word, like an HDR photo which is kind of distracting so while it has a use, you probably don’t want to use it all the time.

    I really enjoyed the ZL’s camera. With it’s fast speed and excellent software, there are times I forget that I’m using a smartphone and not a dedicated camera. It’s a huge step up for Sony.

    For their next camera, Sony needs to either stick a better 13 megapixel sensor in the ZL or a more sensitive, lower resolution one.

    Software:

    The ZL ships with Android 4.1.2. Sony has promised a 4.2 update soon. My experience is that Sony does a decent job of keeping their Android phones up-to-date. You won’t get your update as quickly as you would with a Nexus phone but you will get it eventually.

    Like the upcoming HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, the ZL has built-in IR blasters which you can use to control your home theater.

    I tested the range and am actually very impressed. As long as it has line-of-sight, the ZL’s IR blasters can reach over 30ft!

    The IR blasters are located next to the power button (you can't really see them).

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    I’m also very impressed with the software. While it doesn’t have a built-in EPG, like the HTC One, I think the ZL’s remote is much more useful because it’s a remote. If you want to see your EPG, you can just look at your TV.

    By default, Sony wants you configure each device as a separate remote. Each device is pigeon-holed into a category (TV, set top box, etc). There’s a main screen where you choose which device you want to control. While this is very intuitive, I’m not a fan of this since most of the time you’ll have to switch from remote to remote. The remote software can actually can learn codes, it supports macros plus you can rename buttons.

    Here’s what I would do. I would setup a custom device and learn all the keys. Let’s assume most people have a TV, a set top box or media player, and possibly a receiver.

    For the TV, all you need are the power and source buttons. For your set top box you want the power, numbers, play, pause, stop, fast forward/rewind and guide keys. If you have a fancy receiver, you’ll want source, power and volume buttons.

    With the Sony software, I would create a custom device to learn all these keys and then create macros if I wanted to change device or power up/power down.

    I suspect that Sony doesn’t realize just how powerful their software is because you can’t resize the buttons. If you could do that, then you could create an entire custom IR layout. They also need to make it so you can create macro buttons ON the main remote screen instead of having to access them via a tab.

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    When you switch programs, there’s a neat ‘small apps’ feature which I first saw on the Xperia T. Small apps are programs which fit in a small window and hover over the rest of the phone. While the built-in ones are more focused on utility like a calculator, timer, notes, voice recorder you can download more from Google Play. Looking at Google Play they are more like a unit converter, camera, orientation lock, task manager, etc.

    All of the built in media related software is custom with an emphasis on making them play friendly with media related accessories. The music app has a button to send the song to a DLNA device right on the main screen. Other phones can do this too but it usually takes a few extra steps.

    I’m extremely disappointing that the ZL doesn’t have better codec support. The Sony brand used to be synonymous with media so I find it counter-intuitive that the ZL doesn’t playback more videos that I throw at it. That said, Sony also has a history of crippling their devices to not playback everything (ie Minidisc) so I guess maybe it would be counter-intuitive if it was capable playbacking everything.

    I like how Sony handles when you want to put an icon on the homepage. Normally, when you tap and hold an icon it automatically puts it on the home screen. With the ZL, if you hold an icon, first it gives you the option to rearrange the icons in your main menu. That’s smart compared to say TouchWiz where you have to hit menu and then organize if you want to rearrange the main menu.

    Performance:

    SunSpider is a universal browser benchmark which measures javascript performance. Since it runs in a browser, we can use it to compare devices that run on different platforms.

    SunSpider (lower is better):
    Nokia Lumia 920: 909.1
    Apple iPhone 5: 911.7
    Samsung Galaxy Note 2: 1205.9
    Blackberry Z10: 1767
    LG Optimus G: 1818
    Sony Xperia ZL: 1877.2
    Samsung Galaxy S III: 1959.4

    While SunSpider results are always interesting, I need to point out that the browser you run it on has a big effect on the result so I wouldn’t read too much into these.

    Peacekeeper (higher is better):
    Nokia Lumia 920: 303
    Blackberry Z10: 407
    Sony Xperia ZL: 410
    LG Optimus G: 456
    Samsung Galaxy S III: 476
    Samsung Galaxy Note 2: 797
    Apple iPhone 5: 895

    Peacekeeper is another cross platform browser benchmark. It’s more focused on HTML 5. Again, the browser has a big impact. The Android phones here are all running Chrome, while the other ones are all running their default browsers.

    Vellamo (HTML 5):
    Sony Xperia ZL: 2174
    Samsung Galaxy Note 2: 1864
    LG Optimus G: 1713
    Samsung Galaxy S III: 1630

    Vellamo is an Android only benchmark that also tests browser performance. Here the Xperia ZL does really well. If you’re wondering why the Optimus G with it’s identical processor and lower resolution screen does poorly here it might have something do with the fact that the G I benchmarked here was running Android 4.0.

    Vellamo (Metal):
    LG Optimus G: 643
    Samsung Galaxy Note 2: 628
    Sony Xperia ZL: 626
    Samsung Galaxy S III: 580

    Here, there’s only about a 10% difference between high and low scores here. My guess is that it doesn’t really really need more than 2 cores to run well.

    GL Benchmark 2.7 on-screen (frames per second):
    Sony Xperia ZL: 12
    Samsung Galaxy Note 2: 6.5
    Samsung Galaxy S III: 7.3
    Huawei D Quad XL: 6.2

    GL Benchmark 2.7 is an gaming benchmark that measures OpenGL performance. 2.7 is the new version which requires a lot more horsepower to run. None of the phones here do well. You’ll also notice that I compared the ZL with lower resolution phones which puts the ZL at a disadvantage since it has more pixels to push.

    Anyways, despite the handicap the Xperia ZL beats the competition handily. Good job.

    I guess one complaint you could make about the ZL is that it doesn’t have Qualcomm’s newer Snapdragon 600 processor. I haven’t benchmarked a phone with these personally but I doubt you’re going to see much of a difference performance wise. Both chips appear to be quite similar.

    Anyways, the ZL did quite well in the benchmarks and more importantly. I thought it felt snappy. With 2GB of RAM, it’s going to be juggling a lot of programs at once and it does so well. It feels a little more responsive than my Galaxy Note II.

    Battery life:

    Power management. Sony has included an interesting power saving features called STAMINA mode - my guess is that you have to yell it out when you say it. STAMINA suspends everything except for calling and text when the screen is off. If that’s too restrictive you can choose which programs can still run when the screen is off. It’s a good idea since we’re not always aware of what’s still running when we turn our screens off.

    I haven’t done formal battery testing but my seat-of-the-pants feeling is that the ZL’s battery life is similar to last year’s Galaxy S III which is impressive since the battery is only slightly bigger but has to power a quad-core processor and a bigger screen. That said, this means the ZL will probably struggle to make it through the day unless you’re a light user.

    Sound:

    I like how the headphone amp sounds. While it won’t make you deaf, like the HTC One X+ and 8X, it’s about the same loudness as the iPhone 5 but every so slightly cleaner and meatier sounding.

    The built-in speaker is pretty loud. Sound quality from it is pretty good. It’s a little more clear and airy sounding than the iPhone 5 which is a little meatier. Both are pretty good as far as built-in speakers go.

    As a Phone:

    While it’s not quite as loud as the iPhone 5, the ZL’s maximum earpiece volume is pretty close so it’s decent. Sound quality is slightly harsh with a little bit of hiss but it’s also pretty decent.

    Maximum speakerphone volume is similar to the iPhone 5. Speakerphone sound quality is actually little cleaner sounding than the iPhone though it sounds slightly processed.

    Conclusion:

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    If you’re like me and moan about how phones are getting too big then you’ll be happy to know that the ZL is about the same size as the Galaxy S III. While you won’t mistake it for a small phone, the bigger screen hasn’t really resulted in a bigger phone.

    With 5” of screen real estate, I’m a little disappointed that Sony hasn’t done more to allow you to multitask. While the Small Apps are a fantastic idea, it would be nice if they had something like Multiview on the Samsung Note II.

    If you look on paper, you’ll notice that the ZL is very similar to the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. So why should you buy the Xperia ZL over them?

    First off, the ZL is a pretty compact phone given it’s screen size. It’s like a 5” phone in a 4.8” phone’s body. Then again, the HTC One has a 4.7” screen. Is the extra screen size noticeable? I’d say yes but it’s not a huge difference.

    I think where the ZL shines in integration with your home theater. While the S4 and One can do all the same things the ZL can do, Sony has placed more emphasis on this when developing the software so that it’s a little easier to integrate. That said, it integrates best if you have very, very recent equipment. If you’re sporting a 3yr old home theater, you may find you’ll need to buy a few accessories.

    The rest of the ZL is a competent phone. In most areas, it’s an improvement over previous Xperia phones. It’s fast and has got flexible radio banding so it will be easier to roam with it. I really like the textured back. There are too many slippery phones out there right now.

    Overall, I'd give it 8.5 Howies out 10.

    Pros:

    • sharp screen
    • flexible LTE banding
    • camera is fast
    • camera software
    • small apps
    • nice design
    • strong IR blaster range
    • dedicated camera button


    Cons:

    • significant off angle colour shift
    • gets hot
    • battery life
    • camera has a lot of noise
    Last edited by howard; 04-08-2013 at 07:17 PM. Reason: updated camera section

  2. #2
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    About WiFi the above reivew is incorrect. The Xperia ZL does have 5Ghz mine has NO problem connecting to 5ghz in several places.
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    Quote Originally Posted by hyelton View Post
    About WiFi the above reivew is incorrect. The Xperia ZL does have 5Ghz mine has NO problem connecting to 5ghz in several places.
    Thanks for pointing that out. You're right. I must have been too far from my wireless router for the ZL to see my 5Ghz.

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    Quote Originally Posted by howard View Post
    Thanks for pointing that out. You're right. I must have been too far from my wireless router for the ZL to see my 5Ghz.
    Wireless Signal on my ZL does not seem as good as my Note II though . My DIR-826L puts out a pretty good 5ghz signal very well close to the 2.4ghz compared to most other routers.

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    Anyone with a ZL have trouble tethering? When I turn on the wireless hotspot I always get an error message.

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    Would you happen to be a member of xda forums? There was a member there in Canada have the exact issue. You would need to get the phone exchanged.

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    I am a novice. Can any one (VisionsDevine) give me specific instructions on how to setup and use tethering on my laptop. I am in the mountains and have cell phone service but no cable or dial up service.
    Thanks so much,
    RWS000

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    Oh, I have Straight Talk service.
    RWS000

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    I can already see that little door being a problem. since you can't replace the whole back what do you do when that door doesn't stay closed or breaks off? And you know it eventually will.

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    Any thoughts on this phone vs. the LG Optimus G E973???

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    I had both. The screen on the ZL is gorgeous when you look head on, but if you were looking from any other angle, it was horrible! It would fade out. But the ability to us a microSD was nice compared to the Optimus G's lack of a microSD slot. I thought the Optimus G had a premium feel compared to the ZL, and flimsy flap for the sim card (on the ZL) and sd card was cause concern.

    Wasn't a fan of either display in sunlight, or either camera. The Xperia ZL's in particular was horrid! So much noise. When gaming, the Optimus G seemed to run my emulators quicker, as well as some games like Infectonator. I also preferred the colours.

    I'd say save your money and go for the Optimus G if those are your choices.

    Sent from my GT-I9500 using The HowardForums.com App mobile app

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    Interesting... you're the first to say go for the Optimus G. Will keep that in mind! Thanks for the reply!

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    For the price point the ZL is at, I was really disappointed! People tend to shy away from LG because of lack of support and subpar products in the past, but they are slowly getting better.

    Both phones are running on the exact same processor and offer LTE support (depending on your carrier). The Optimus G was the basis of the Nexus 4, so if LTE isn't an issue you may also want to consider it. To be honest other than the faster Android updates, I think there were less problems in the Optimus G. What it comes down to is what you use your phone for, and how important the SD card is. The ZL has a better battery, but the Bravia screen will drain it. I always carry an external and was using it more with the ZL than my Optimus G. It is a bigger screen though, so that's something else to consider. I hate the angle visibility. What's the point of having the most gorgeous screen of you can't see anything when you look to the side? i was also shocked my games ran better with the Optimus G, but I think this is based on Sony's UI. I think it causes the phone to lag.

    Honestly if you're signing a contract or can save a little more $$ I'd recommend choosing the HTC One or the S4, but the Optimus G was my back up phone until I got my S4, and it was pretty fast after the 4.1.2 update. I do like the Note 2, but my hands are too small for it.

    If you're in the States, there's also the Optimus G Pro.

    Anyway out of the 2, I still recommend the Optimus G, but if you can hold out for either the HTC One or S4, that would be my try recommendation.

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    Just got word that the ZL has been discontinued on Bell.

  15. #15
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    I'm guessing that's why the ZL was offered recently as a $0 phone. That and they just brought in the Z. Still really happy with my choice of the ZL.

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