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MSI GeForce GTX 770 Lightning Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
MSI’s Lightning series have always been counted among the best cards in the GPU market. Alongside the Matrix, Super Overclock and Classified, they represent the pinnacle of modern graphics card design by offering overclockers the tools necessary for pushing clock speeds to extreme levels. However, like its competitors, the Lightning’s abilities come at a cost.

As NVIDIA rolled out the new GTX 700-series, MSI follow up quickly with their own lineup of custom, pre-overclcoked versions. In this case the Lightning treatment has been given to the GTX 770, an incredibly affordable $399 graphics card considering the amount of performance it delivers. That affordability has been somewhat negatively impacted by the Lightning’s $70 premium but at $469 it should still be a price / performance darling considering the GTX 780 goes for $180 more.

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A few weeks ago we looked at Gigabyte’s GTX 770 Windforce 3X OC and remarked how it was able to keep temperatures low, which positively impacted clock speeds. MSI has aimed to do the same thing with their GTX 770 Lightning, though their clock speeds are hitting slightly higher levels.

The GTX 770 Lightning’s intent is to be the fastest GTX 770 on the market, at least initially. It looks like they’ve achieved this since no other competitor has been able to hit the Lightning’s Base Clock of 1150MHz yet. Supposedly, ASUS, Galaxy and EVGA are busy working on similarly clocked cards but they’re not quite ready for release. This leaves the Lightning unmatched from a specifications perspective for the time being.

How MSI’s stated frequencies align with the GTX 770 Lightning’s actual in-game performance is another matter altogether due to NVIDIA’s GPU Boost 2.0 technology. The average frequency we saw throughout testing was 1241MHz, which leads us to believe that MSI built in sufficient thermal overhead to ensure heat doesn’t build up to a limit where the core needs to throttle downwards.

Much like Gigabyte’s WindForce, MSI’s GTX 770 Lightning’s upper clock speed remained at 1241MHz within nearly every single game. This was due to NVIDIA’s voltage limit being hit at the exact same time by both cards and GeForce Boost 2.0 effectively slapping down any additional clock speed overhead. Unfortunately, this will cause the more $60 expensive Lightning to loose in a price / performance battle when directly comparing out-of-box performance.

It is a shame to see MSI overlook the memory on their highest-end GTX 770 SKU but with 7Gbps modules running full-tilt, there really isn’t all that much headroom left without some stringent binning.

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Naturally, the most defining feature on the MSI GTX 770 Lightning is the distinctive Twin Frozr IV heatsink and the lone yellow racing stripe running its length. The effect is sleek yet modern and it does help distract slightly from the card’s physical size.

Speaking of size, the Lightning certainly isn’t a compact graphics card since it boasts a length of 12”, making it a tight fit in some older enclosures and many mATX chassis. There’s also a matter of width since at 5”, it is wider than many other cards on the market.

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MSI’s Twin Frozr IV heatsink retains all of the hallmarks from previous generations but adds a few new feature to further enhance cooling. There’s now a so-called “dual form in one” design which uses a uniform fin and base layout in order to enhance performance and optimize airflow. Meanwhile, the two 80mm fans utilize a unique blade design which increases their air movement potential by about 20% and lowers the speed to noise ratio significantly.

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Around the PCB’s leading edge is a pair of non-reference additions: a trio of voltage reading terminals and a small switch. Those voltage read points are a usual occurrence on Lightning cards and they can be used to accurately monitor core, memory and PLL currents.

That switch can be used to select a secondary “unlocked” BIOS which effectively eliminates NVIDIA’s GPU Boost limits and should allow for higher overclocks. More importantly, moving this out of its default position should –in theory- grant access to higher frequencies even without manual tuning since the voltage cap we mentioned previously should be cast aside. We’ll look into this more closely within the overclocking section.

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The Lightning’s underside reveals a wider PCB which not only expands the space allocated for the PWM but also allows for a larger heatsink without breaking the card’s clean looks. MSI has also installed a secondary aluminum heatsink here which disperses the heat from rear-mounted components.

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The GPU Reactor is a unique feature which taps directly into the GPU core’s power grid, is removable (though why someone would want to yank it is a mystery to us) and supposedly improves overclocking stability. While we didn’t experience any clock speed differences with it removed, the added 200% power capacity and cleaner voltage distribution will likely benefit extreme overclockers.

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I/O connectors have been carried over en masse from the reference card so the Lightning receives a pair of DIV connectors, an HDMI port and a lone DisplayPort which is good enough for native 3x1 Surround support. The power connectors have been expanded a bit to a pair of 8-pin inputs due to the GTX 770 Lightning’s overclocking headroom.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Test System & Setup

Main Test System

Processor: Intel i7 3930K @ 4.5GHz
Memory: Corsair Vengeance 32GB @ 1866MHz
Motherboard: ASUS P9X79 WS
Cooling: Corsair H80
SSD: 2x Corsair Performance Pro 256GB
Power Supply: Corsair AX1200
Monitor: Samsung 305T / 3x Acer 235Hz
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64 SP1


Acoustical Test System

Processor: Intel 2600K @ stock
Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB 1600MHz
Motherboard: Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3
Cooling: Thermalright TRUE Passive
SSD: Corsair Performance Pro 256GB
Power Supply: Seasonic X-Series Gold 800W


Drivers:
NVIDIA 320.18 Beta
NVIDIA 320.14 Beta
AMD 13.5 Beta 2



*Notes:

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 3 benchmark runs

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game and all GPU control panels were set to use application settings


Main Test System

Processor: Intel i7 3930K @ 4.5GHz
Memory: Corsair Vengeance 32GB @ 1866MHz
Motherboard: ASUS P9X79 WS
Cooling: Corsair H80
SSD: 2x Corsair Performance Pro 256GB
Power Supply: Corsair AX1200
Monitor: Samsung 305T / 3x Acer 235Hz
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64 SP1


Acoustical Test System

Processor: Intel 2600K @ stock
Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB 1600MHz
Motherboard: Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3
Cooling: Thermalright TRUE Passive
SSD: Corsair Performance Pro 256GB
Power Supply: Seasonic X-Series Gold 800W


Drivers:
NVIDIA 320.18 Beta
NVIDIA 320.14 Beta
AMD 13.5 Beta 2



*Notes:

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 3 benchmark runs

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game and all GPU control panels were set to use application settings


The Methodology of Frame Testing, Distilled


How do you benchmark an onscreen experience? That question has plagued graphics card evaluations for years. While framerates give an accurate measurement of raw performance , there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes which a basic frames per second measurement by FRAPS or a similar application just can’t show. A good example of this is how “stuttering” can occur but may not be picked up by typical min/max/average benchmarking.

Before we go on, a basic explanation of FRAPS’ frames per second benchmarking method is important. FRAPS determines FPS rates by simply logging and averaging out how many frames are rendered within a single second. The average framerate measurement is taken by dividing the total number of rendered frames by the length of the benchmark being run. For example, if a 60 second sequence is used and the GPU renders 4,000 frames over the course of that time, the average result will be 66.67FPS. The minimum and maximum values meanwhile are simply two data points representing single second intervals which took the longest and shortest amount of time to render. Combining these values together gives an accurate, albeit very narrow snapshot of graphics subsystem performance and it isn’t quite representative of what you’ll actually see on the screen.

FCAT on the other hand has the capability to log onscreen average framerates for each second of a benchmark sequence, resulting in the “FPS over time” graphs. It does this by simply logging the reported framerate result once per second. However, in real world applications, a single second is actually a long period of time, meaning the human eye can pick up on onscreen deviations much quicker than this method can actually report them. So what can actually happens within each second of time? A whole lot since each second of gameplay time can consist of dozens or even hundreds (if your graphics card is fast enough) of frames. This brings us to frame time testing and where the Frame Time Analysis Tool gets factored into this equation.

Frame times simply represent the length of time (in milliseconds) it takes the graphics card to render and display each individual frame. Measuring the interval between frames allows for a detailed millisecond by millisecond evaluation of frame times rather than averaging things out over a full second. The larger the amount of time, the longer each frame takes to render. This detailed reporting just isn’t possible with standard benchmark methods.

We are now using FCAT for ALL benchmark results.


Frame Time Testing & FCAT

To put a meaningful spin on frame times, we can equate them directly to framerates. A constant 60 frames across a single second would lead to an individual frame time of 1/60th of a second or about 17 milliseconds, 33ms equals 30 FPS, 50ms is about 20FPS and so on. Contrary to framerate evaluation results, in this case higher frame times are actually worse since they would represent a longer interim “waiting” period between each frame.

With the milliseconds to frames per second conversion in mind, the “magical” maximum number we’re looking for is 28ms or about 35FPS. If too much time spent above that point, performance suffers and the in game experience will begin to degrade.

Consistency is a major factor here as well. Too much variation in adjacent frames could induce stutter or slowdowns. For example, spiking up and down from 13ms (75 FPS) to 28ms (35 FPS) several times over the course of a second would lead to an experience which is anything but fluid. However, even though deviations between slightly lower frame times (say 10ms and 25ms) wouldn’t be as noticeable, some sensitive individuals may still pick up a slight amount of stuttering. As such, the less variation the better the experience.

In order to determine accurate onscreen frame times, a decision has been made to move away from FRAPS and instead implement real-time frame capture into our testing. This involves the use of a secondary system with a capture card and an ultra-fast storage subsystem (in our case five SanDisk Extreme 240GB drives hooked up to an internal PCI-E RAID card) hooked up to our primary test rig via a DVI splitter. Essentially, the capture card records a high bitrate video of whatever is displayed from the primary system’s graphics card, allowing us to get a real-time snapshot of what would normally be sent directly to the monitor. By using NVIDIA’s Frame Capture Analysis Tool (FCAT), each and every frame is dissected and then processed in an effort to accurately determine latencies, frame rates and other aspects.

We've also now transitioned all testing to FCAT which means standard frame rates are also being logged and charted through the tool. This means all of our frame rate (FPS) charts use onscreen data rather than the software-centric data from FRAPS, ensuring dropped frames are taken into account in our global equation.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Assassin's Creed III / Crysis 3

Assassin’s Creed III (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/RvFXKwDCpBI?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

The third iteration of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is the first to make extensive use of DX11 graphics technology. In this benchmark sequence, we proceed through a run-through of the Boston area which features plenty of NPCs, distant views and high levels of detail.


2560x1440

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Crysis 3 (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/zENXVbmroNo?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Simply put, Crysis 3 is one of the best looking PC games of all time and it demands a heavy system investment before even trying to enable higher detail settings. Our benchmark sequence for this one replicates a typical gameplay condition within the New York dome and consists of a run-through interspersed with a few explosions for good measure Due to the hefty system resource needs of this game, post-process FXAA was used in the place of MSAA.


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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Dirt: Showdown / Far Cry 3

Dirt: Showdown (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/IFeuOhk14h0?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Among racing games, Dirt: Showdown is somewhat unique since it deals with demolition-derby type racing where the player is actually rewarded for wrecking other cars. It is also one of the many titles which falls under the Gaming Evolved umbrella so the development team has worked hard with AMD to implement DX11 features. In this case, we set up a custom 1-lap circuit using the in-game benchmark tool within the Nevada level.


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Far Cry 3 (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/mGvwWHzn6qY?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

One of the best looking games in recent memory, Far Cry 3 has the capability to bring even the fastest systems to their knees. Its use of nearly the entire repertoire of DX11’s tricks may come at a high cost but with the proper GPU, the visuals will be absolutely stunning.

To benchmark Far Cry 3, we used a typical run-through which includes several in-game environments such as a jungle, in-vehicle and in-town areas.



2560x1440

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Hitman Absolution / Max Payne 3

Hitman Absolution (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/8UXx0gbkUl0?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Hitman is arguably one of the most popular FPS (first person “sneaking”) franchises around and this time around Agent 47 goes rogue so mayhem soon follows. Our benchmark sequence is taken from the beginning of the Terminus level which is one of the most graphically-intensive areas of the entire game. It features an environment virtually bathed in rain and puddles making for numerous reflections and complicated lighting effects.


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Max Payne 3 (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/ZdiYTGHhG-k?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

When Rockstar released Max Payne 3, it quickly became known as a resource hog and that isn’t surprising considering its top-shelf graphics quality. This benchmark sequence is taken from Chapter 2, Scene 14 and includes a run-through of a rooftop level featuring expansive views. Due to its random nature, combat is kept to a minimum so as to not overly impact the final result.


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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/okFRgtsbPWE" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Tomb Raider is one of the most iconic brands in PC gaming and this iteration brings Lara Croft back in DX11 glory. This happens to not only be one of the most popular games around but it is also one of the best looking by using the entire bag of DX11 tricks to properly deliver an atmospheric gaming experience.

In this run-through we use a section of the Shanty Town level. While it may not represent the caves, tunnels and tombs of many other levels, it is one of the most demanding sequences in Tomb Raider.


2560x1440

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Temperatures & Acoustics / Power Consumption

Temperature Analysis


For all temperature testing, the cards were placed on an open test bench with a single 120mm 1200RPM fan placed ~8” away from the heatsink. The ambient temperature was kept at a constant 22°C (+/- 0.5°C). If the ambient temperatures rose above 23°C at any time throughout the test, all benchmarking was stopped..

For Idle tests, we let the system idle at the Windows 7 desktop for 15 minutes and recorded the peak temperature.


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Much like its competitor, Gigabyte’s GTX 770 WindForce OC, the Lightning posts some excellent temperature results with the core never making it to the 80 degree mark. This is particularly important since NVIDIA’s GPU Boost will start throttling the moment core temperatures get to that point.


Acoustical Testing


What you see below are the baseline idle dB(A) results attained for a relatively quiet open-case system (specs are in the Methodology section) sans GPU along with the attained results for each individual card in idle and load scenarios. The meter we use has been calibrated and is placed at seated ear-level exactly 12” away from the GPU’s fan. For the load scenarios, a loop of Unigine Valley is used in order to generate a constant load on the GPU(s) over the course of 15 minutes.

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While the Lightning is slightly louder than the WindForce, there’s really no way to tell the difference between these two GTX 770 cards.


System Power Consumption


For this test we hooked up our power supply to a UPM power meter that will log the power consumption of the whole system twice every second. In order to stress the GPU as much as possible we used 15 minutes of Unigine Valley running on a loop while letting the card sit at a stable Windows desktop for 15 minutes to determine the peak idle power consumption.

Please note that after extensive testing, we have found that simply plugging in a power meter to a wall outlet or UPS will NOT give you accurate power consumption numbers due to slight changes in the input voltage. Thus we use a Tripp-Lite 1800W line conditioner between the 120V outlet and the power meter.

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Considering the Lightning is using a heavily overclocked core, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that it consumes more power than the reference card. With that being said, it maintains a good amount of efficiency, particularly against AMD’s competitors.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Overclocking Results Hit a Wall

Overclocking Results


Overclocking is one area in which Lightning cards typically excel. The HD 7970, GTX 680 and GTX 580 versions of this card (not to mention the epic Lightning XE) were at the top of their respective categories with every one of them setting new clock speed benchmarks. Unfortunately, we just can’t say the same about the GTX 770 iteration.

The problem here lies with the limits NVIDIA has given their board partners. While the GTX 680 with its GeForce Boost technology had relatively lax policies, NVIDIA has taken the GTX 770’s voltage, power and clock speed tolerances in a virtual vice grip. As a result, board partners aren’t allowed to really differentiate their cards on an overclocking front.

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MSI’s GTX 770 Lightning falls into this trap as well. Even with the second “LN2” BIOS enabled, the publically available AfterBurner software still features the same pathetic 12mV core overvoltage parameter as the reference design and a minor 9% Power Limit buffer.

So how does one take advantage of that second BIOS which supposedly does away with NVIDIA’s limits? According to MSI, you’ll need a special version of AfterBurner which is only available to extreme overclockers who sign an NDA preventing its distribution. While it might sound paranoid, these limitations are put in place by NVIDIA so we can’t really fault MSI here.

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Unfortunately, the limits being put on the Lightning don’t benefit it in any way. What was once a card that could overclock to incredible levels in the hands of relative novices has now morphed into run-of-the-mill MSI offered us the modified AfterBurner software but we refused for two reasons: it wouldn’t reflect what the end user would experience and there’s no way we’re jumping through hoops to get access to performance that shouldn’t be locked away to begin with.

With that being said, after using the publically available software and maxing out the core voltage at +12mV, we were able to hit a core speed of 1355MHz while the memory plateaued at7536MHz. That core frequency is actually lower than what we achieved with Gigabyte’s GTX 770 WindForce OC while the memory on this card proved to be among the best we’ve encountered on a GTX 770 so far.

Performance with these clock speeds was impressive but once again, at a level that’s lower than what this card should be accomplishing given its pedigree.

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Conclusion

Conclusion


MSI knows how to build a great graphics card. There’s certainly no doubt about that. Their GTX 770 Lightning represents the pinnacle of modern GPU design, one-upping competing solutions by offering a robust power distribution network and plenty of secondary features. However, it also presents us with a bit of a conundrum since many of its highlight additions just can’t be fully utilized by most gamers or enthusiasts for that matter.

Fresh out of the box, the Lightning is one of the fastest GTX 770s we’ve come across. It achieved impressive framerates in every single game and racked up some noticeable improvements over the reference design in terms of acoustics and temperatures. At times, performance comes within spitting distance of NVIDIA’s powerful GTX 780. Meanwhile, the expanded PWM and high end component choices should ensure the Lightning will last well past its 3 year warranty timeline.

Before we go on about some of this card’s failures, it’s important to explain what NVIDIA’s Green Light is. At its most basic, this is a program through which NVIDIA validates board partner designs and approves them for sale. In order to comply with the validation process, the cards have to meet certain criteria which set out stringent operating limits on everything from overclocking software, to frequencies, to acoustics. Go outside these bounds and the card won’t be approved for sale. If a company wants to circumvent the Green Light process, we’ve heard the penalties are significant. This has led to capped voltage, power and clock speed controls on all Kepler-based graphics cards since board partners like MSI don’t want to run afoul of NVIDIA and risk losing a valuable support structure.

So how does Green Light and NVIDIA’s stranglehold affect the GTX 770 Lightning? Where do we start? The “Unlocked BIOS” which is supposed to pull an Old Yeller on the GTX 770’s power / voltage limits can only be utilized by a custom version of AfterBurner which is exclusively available to approved individuals. To ensure Green Light’s boundaries are met, that software is locked under an extensive NDA agreement and is distributed by MSI directly to their sponsored overclockers. Even if you wanted to throw the Lightning’s warranty into the wind in an effort to achieve a higher overclock, you can’t since the normal AfterBurner caps voltage at the same pathetic +12mV as the reference card. If your visceral reaction to this is “what the hell!?”, join the club.

Not only does this iron grip put a damper on potential overclocks but it effecgively hinders the overall appeal of cards like the GTX 770 Lightning. Many will justifiably question this card’s price premium when the addition of components like the GPU Reactor, voltage read points, heavily upgraded PWM and so many other features will never be used to a fraction of their potential. Indeed, in our testing the GTX 770 Lightning performed no better than a Gigabyte WindForce OC, nor did it overclock to a higher level. And don’t forget: that Gigabyte card costs on average $60 less. It’s like having a heavily modified Lamborghini with a speed limiter set to 60 MPH, unable to pass a stock version on the highway; you just know it can do better but the potential remains untapped, in a locked down state.

MSI’s GTX 770 Lightning is everything we could possibly want in a GPU. It is fast, quiet, cool running and, if given the chance, it should overclock to some extreme levels too. Unfortunately, MSI has kept the very overclocking abilities they pimp so hard under lock and key, tucked safely away where only a select few can access them. We’re not sure if this is being done to protect inexperienced users but it will infuriate most overclockers who are willing to pay almost anything to get the most out of their hardware. If this trend continues, NVIDIA’s Green Light could bring the market for enthusiast-friendly cards to a screeching halt. That’s really too bad since if it had followed in the overclocking footsteps of its predecessors, MSI’s GTX 770 Lightning would have received our highest recommendation.
 

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