Dana J. Parker


You can’t know your players without a program. And the motley cast that’s populated this odd, meandering drama called writable DVD is harder to keep track of than most, given how many entrance cues the players have missed so far. If you’re among the hardy few who are still paying attention to the writable DVD drama, you know you’d need a pretty good seat and a handy pair of opera glasses to make out the subtle differences that distinguish one cast member from another, especially given the fact that two rumored entrants haven’t even appeared yet.

But just because the story’s hard to follow doesn’t mean the unfolding drama isn’t worth watching. After all, we’re talking about writable DVD, the optical storage and distribution standard of the future, and its first crop of standard-bearers. So what follows is a good, old-fashioned dramatis personae, a guide to the cast of characters and a brief outline of their capabilities and capacity, plus the last year’s developments in each of the writable formats based on DVD, and expectations for their ongoing evolution.

Best of all, we’ll also tackle the questions you’d otherwise be whispering to your neighbor about details you might have missed.


DVD-Recordable (DVD-R) is the record-once writable DVD format, Book D of the DVD Forum’s specifications. DVD-R drives–available from Pioneer and a handful of resellers of Pioneer’s drive–are currently priced at $17,000. The drives can read pressed DVD, and can read and record once to organic dye-based DVD-Recordable media, which costs about $45, and is available from Pioneer and TDK. DVD-Recordable is analogous to CD-R, and is used primarily for authoring and testing of DVD titles, as well as some limited distribution DVD publishing. [See Hugh Bennett, “In DVD’s Own Image: DVD-Recordable Technology and Promise,” July 1998–Ed.]

In the past year, DVD-R hasn’t changed much in either price or configuration, but big changes are in store for the very near future. At the DVD Forum conference in South San Francisco last October, 4.7GB capacity DVD-R media from several manufacturers was shown, and media manufacturer TDK added emphasis to the inevitability of 4.7GB DVD-R with its own press release and technology seminars in New York and San Francisco the following week. Also planned for next-generation DVD-R–outlined in version 2.0 of the DVD-R specification, due to be finalized in early 1999–is incremental write capability.

The real advance in DVD-R, however, is DVD-RW (DVD-Rewritable). Recently accepted for consideration by the DVD Forum’s Working Group 6, and soon to be identified as DVD Forum Book F, DVD-RW is the rewritable version of DVD-R, the “other” rewritable format endorsed by the DVD Forum. When the next generation of 4.7GB DVD-R drives reaches the market, sometime in Q2 1999 at a price between $3,000 and $5,000, 4.7GB DVD-RW will come along for the ride. At the DVD Forum event in October, DVD-RW prototypes from Ricoh, Pioneer, and Yamaha (as well as an “experimental” 4.7GB DVD-R drive from Sony) made it clear that today’s “any DVD-R you like, as long as it’s Pioneer’s” scenario will soon be a thing of the past.

DVD-RW uses a phase-change recording layer, much like CD-RW. In fact, the relationship between DVD-R and DVD-RW finds its closest analogy in the relationship between CD-R and CD-RW–and this is a comforting truth to fall back on in the “everything you know is wrong” atmosphere that surrounds the writable DVD formats. In another triumph of what common sense would dictate, DVD-R media is reliably readable in most existing read-only DVD drives and DVD-Video players (although there have been a few isolated reports of playback inconsistencies in certain brands of DVD-Video players, this is largely attributable to firmware issues and easily correctable). DVD-RW also promises an easy backwards-compatibility path; while it was originally thought to be as nearly universally compatible as DVD-R, it turns out that this was a bit optimistic. It seems that some DVD-Video players, when fed a DVD-RW disc, “see” the lower reflectivity and “assume” that they should be trying to read a dual-layer disc. Even this is a minor logical hiccup that can be remedied by a simple, no-cost change in firmware. Also, neither DVD-R nor DVD-RW media require a caddy or cartridge, though some drives may take the additional precaution of requiring that the disc be in a caddy, just as most early CD-R drives did in their infancy.

DVD-RAM, specified in Book E of the DVD Forum, stands for DVD Random Access Memory. DVD-RAM drives, available from Toshiba, Hitachi, and Panasonic, are available in internal and external, SCSI and IDE models, and are priced between $500 and $700. Media, using a phase-change recording layer, can be either single-sided in a removable cartridge, or double-sided in a permanent cartridge, hold 2.6GB per side, and cost about $25. DVD-RAM is currently readable only on DVD-RAM drives and on one model of DVD-ROM drive from Panasonic.

DVD-RAM media is available from two manufacturers, Hitachi (Maxell) and Panasonic. Because of the unique wobbled land-and-groove recording techniques, and 24 recording zones divided into sectors by pre-embossed physical pits, DVD-RAM media is similar in appearance to MO media. Although there are differences, it’s convenient to think of DVD-RAM as a large-capacity version of Matsushita/Panasonic’s PD (phase change dual) format–and this similarity is re-inforced by the fact that Panasonic included PD recording and rewrite capability in their version of DVD-RAM.

DVD-RAM hasn’t undergone any major changes since its debut in May 1998, when Creative Labs offered the first DVD-RAM “kit” for around $500. The DVD Forum Working Group 5 has been tackling the chore of producing the DVD-RAM version 2.0 specification, expected to be final in December 1998, that will define the 4.7GB DVD-RAM format. There have been no projections as yet of when 4.7GB DVD-RAM media and the drives capable of recording it will appear in the market, but best guesses place them no sooner than late 1999.

DVD+RW (DVD-ReWritable), is a proposed rewritable format backed by Sony, Philips, Hewlett-Packard, Ricoh, and Yamaha. The 3.0GB phase-change media us phase-change, groove-only recording like CD-RW, a CAV wobble for addressing, and CAV or CLV rotational control for a choice between raw data transfer and faster data access. DVD+RW can be a sequential medium like CD+RW and CD-ROM, or a random-access storage device.

Although not much has been heard about DVD+RW in the past six months, the proponents of this format have been pushing ahead nonetheless. In March 1998, the format’s proposers formed the DVD+RW Compatibility Alliance (DCA), an ad hoc group “created for the purpose of exchanging and disseminating ideas and information about ReWritable DVD, its technical capabilities, improvements and innovations.” Membership in the DCA is free to anyone with an interest in the DVD+RW format–hardware makers, software developers, and potential users. Another pet project of the DCA is the extension of the OSTA Multiread specification, MultiRead 2, which would promote the inclusion of writable DVD formats in DVD-ROM drives as well as DVD-Video players.

While none of the original six DVD+RW companies have made official product announcements, Philips, Sony, and Hewlett-Packard have all revealed plans to deliver drives by mid-1999–one year later than their original ETA. Unofficial word is that the drives and media will be price-competitive with DVD-RAM. Not to be left out of the race for 4.7GB capacity, the champions of DVD+ReWritable have also reached an agreement on a 4.7GB format which is an extension of the 3.0GB specification.


But introducing the cast only partly defines their roles in the writable DVD story as it’s unfolded to date, and as we can expect them to develop as the drama plays out. And as anybody tagged as a “DVD authority” can tell you, questions still abound. Here are the questions most frequently fired in this direction.

Standards and Standards-Bearers

Q: How many rewritable DVD formats are there?

A: There are three rewritable high-density optical formats that use the DVD name. They are DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW. There is one recordable DVD format, DVD-R(ecordable).

For the sake of brevity (and also in accordance with precedent set by OSTA), the recordable/rewritable formats can be lumped under one descriptor–writable DVD.

Q: Isn’t DVD-RAM the only official, standard format?

A: DVD-RAM is one of two rewritable DVD formats endorsed by the DVD Forum. The other is DVD-RW. DVD-R is the record-once format endorsed by the DVD Forum. However, although the DVD Forum creates the specifications for DVD and licenses the logo, and they are not an official standards-setting body.

DVD+RW is the rewritable format backed by two original Forum members–Philips and Sony–as well as Hewlett-Packard, Mitsubishi Chemical, Yamaha, and Ricoh, collectively known as the DVD+RW Compatibility Alliance (DCA).

None of the writable formats using the DVD name and logo is any more “standard” than any other. All four of the writable DVD specifications have been submitted to and accepted by the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) and are being considered by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Q: Why can’t these companies agree to make just one format?

A: The DVD Forum’s members spent over a year trying to agree on a single rewritable format. Unfortunately, while technological superiority and backwards compatibility were small factors in their design, political and economic considerations were far more important. Each of several companies wanted their own patented technology to be included in the specification for rewritable DVD, and each one wanted the others’ technology to be excluded or minimized. Ultimately, the design for DVD-RAM included many technology patents owned by Toshiba, Hitachi, and Matsushita, some of which are currently used in PD (phase-change dual) and MO; and excluded much of the technology patents from Philips and Sony, some of which are currently used in CD-R and CD-RW. Sony, Philips and Hewlett-Packard, along with Yamaha and Ricoh, decided to use these patented technologies, and others to make a rewritable DVD technology. Meanwhile, Pioneer developed a rewritable version of their DVD-R technology called DVD-R/W, which was eventually accepted by the DVD Forum under the name DVD-RW.

While it may appear as if the best course would be to settle on one rewritable DVD technology for all markets and applications, there is considerable support for the view that a single universal standard for high-density removable optical storage is neither necessary or desirable. There are distinct differences between the proposed formats, and, in the end, these differences may make one of them more suitable to a given application than another.

Q. Who manufactures/supports these different formats?

A: DVD-RAM is endorsed by the DVD Forum, and is manufactured by Hitachi, Toshiba, and Matsushita (Panasonic). DVD-R is endorsed by the DVD Forum, and is manufactured by Pioneer. Sony has shown an “experimental” DVD-R drive. DVD-RW is endorsed by the DVD Forum and prototypes have been manufactured by Pioneer, Yamaha, and Ricoh. DVD+RW is endorsed by the members of the Yokohama Group, also called DCA; Sony, Ricoh, Philips, Yamaha, Hewlett-Packard, and Mitsubishi Chemical; drives can be reasonably expected from Hewlett-Packard, Philips, Sony, and other electronics manufacturers, although no official product announcements have been made to date.

Q: But I saw a DVD-RAM drive offered by Creative Labs. Aren’t they the manufacturer?

A: No. Creative Labs uses OEM drives from Panasonic.

Price and Availability

Q: How much does DVD-RAM cost? Are there DVD-RAM drives available now?

A: DVD-RAM drives cost between $500 and $700. They are available now. DVD-RW drives are announced for Q1 1999, at a price between $3,000 and $5,000. DVD+RW drives should appear by Q2 1999, at a price that is “competitive” with DVD-RAM.

Q: How much does DVD-R cost? Are DVD-R available now?

A: DVD-Recordable drives have been available since spring of 1998, for $17,000.

Q: Why is DVD-R so much more expensive than DVD-RAM, DVD+RW, and DVD-RW?

A: The price of a product is not necessarily reflective of the cost of development or the cost of goods. It also reflects the estimated size of the potential market, and the price point necessary to penetrate it. Aside from that, there are several technical reasons for the perceived high price of DVD-R.

DVD-R can be used for title prototyping, so $17,000 is a bargain to those DVD title developers who would otherwise have to pay for a short replication run or a glass one-off. It’s priced at a point the market will bear, just as CD-R was ten years ago. The price of DVD-R, and its extension, DVD-RW, is expected to go down rapidly.

DVD-R uses a 635nm recording laser, while the read-only and rewritable DVD formats use a 650nm laser. There are many more 650nm lasers being made than 635nm lasers, and they are easier and cheaper to make.

There are several companies offering rewritable DVD, while only one–Pioneer–has a currently available DVD-R drive (Sony has shown an “experimental” DVD-R). There is simply more competition for DVD rewritables.

DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW media use a non-wavelength-sensitive phase-change recording layer; DVD-R uses wavelength-sensitive dye. R&D in wavelength-sensitive organic dyes is very expensive.

DVD-RAM media isn’t backward-compatible with DVD read-only drives, while DVD-R (and to a large extent, DVD-RW) media is. This puts the burden –and the cost–of compatibility with read-only drives on the makers and buyers of read-only drives, instead of on the media or recorder itself.

DVD-R was basically done from scratch, and it was designed to be backward compatible with read-only DVD-Video and DVD-ROM. It had to comply with established drive and media parameters in order to ensure backwards compatibility, and having to design a medium that fit within these parameters was more expensive than designing a medium that did not.

So, DVD-RAM is actually just as expensive, or more expensive, than DVD-R–it’s just the price is being spread out over many manufacturers and passed on to the buyers of read-only drives.

Q: But I heard that it won’t cost much to make DVD-ROM drives that read DVD-RAM?

A: Again, it depends on volume. Right now, estimates of the cost of retrofitting DVD-ROM drives to make them DVD-RAM compatible range from about $15 to over $35 per drive. If DVD-RAM capable read-only drives were selling in quantity, this price would rapidly go down; meanwhile, no OEMs are planning to include DVD-RAM capable DVD-ROM drives in PCs. Until they do, large quantities of DVD-RAM-capable DVD-ROM drives will not be manufactured.

Q: How much will it cost to make DVD-ROM drives that can read DVD+RW?

A: Estimates from Philips and Hewlett-Packard place the cost of making DVD+RW-compatible DVD-ROM drives at “under a dollar.”

Q: I heard that the real cost involved in making DVD-ROM drives that read DVD+RW and DVD-RAM is in licensing this capability, or in making drives that can read both sides of the media.

A: According to Hewlett-Packard and Philips, there is no licensing cost to manufacturers wishing to include DVD+RW read capability in their DVD-ROM drives. The specification for DVD+RW is available at http:// www.ecma.ch/stand/Ecma-274.htm. More information about implementing DVD+RW read capability is available at http://www.dvdrw.org.

Although an answer was not received from the DVD Forum in time for inclusion in this article, the DVD-RAM format’s specifications are also available at no charge from ECMA (http:// www.ecma.ch/stand/Ecma-272.htm), and implementation of those specs incurs no royalties as long as no patented technologies are used.

None of the manufacturers has announced, or even speculated on the possibility of making DVD-ROM drives that can read both sides of rewritable media without manually flipping the disc.

Compatibility and Interchange

Q: Can all DVD-Video players play DVD-R?

A: Most can, but certain older models seem to be less “forgiving” of the recordonce media.

Q: Will DVD-RAM discs be readable on DVD-ROM drives or DVD-Video players?

A: DVD-RAM discs are only readable on DVD-RAM drives at this time, with one exception–the Panasonic (Matsushita) DVD-ROM drive released in September 1998. Hitachi will offer a DVD-ROM drive by Q1 1999 that is fully DVD-RAM-compatible.

Q: I am a little confused about the difference between DVD-RW and DVD+RW. First, is there a difference between them?

A: Yes, there is a difference, aside from the punctuation mark (- Vs. +). DVD-RW is essentially a rewritable extension of DVD-R, using phase-change media instead of record-once, organic dye-based media. DVD-RW is to CD-RW as DVD-R is to CD-R, and when DVD-RW drives reach the market, they will also be capable of recording write-once 4.7GB DVD-R media. Capacity of DVD-RW media will be 4.7GB from the start. The media is expected to allow better than 1,000 rewrites, and is CLV. Compatibility with DVD-RW will require only very minor firmware modifications to particular existing DVD players and drives.

DVD+RW, also based loosely on CD-RW, also uses some new techniques to improve performance, timing, and fine positioning. Its capacity is 3.0GB per side, and it will allow over 100,000 rewrites. It can be recorded and read back using either CLV or CAV. Existing drives require minor modifications to existing drives; the new Sony 5X DVD-ROM drive is DVD+RW-compatible.

Q: Can DVD-RAM or DVD-R drives write on blank CD-R or CD-RW discs?

A: No, not in the current generation of products, and most likely not in the next one. However, Pioneer reportedly plans to include CD-R/RW write capability in future DVD-R/RW drives, and Hitachi is considering adding this capability in future DVD-RAMs. While the current DVD-RAM from Panasonic will write and rewrite PD cartridges as well as DVD-RAM media, company representatives declined to say whether they will add CD-R/RW functionality in future DVD-RAM products.


Q: If I had a DVD-R or DVD-RAM or DVD+RW drive, could I use it to copy DVD read-only discs?

A: If the read-only disc is not copy protected, if its capacity is less than one side of the media you are recording to, and if you have the necessary software, yes.

Q: How can I make a complete backup from a Original DVD into a DVD-R drive (of a DVD-Video movie)?

A: You can’t, if the movie is copy protected, and most are. Also, DVD-R media is currently only 3.9GB per side–pressed DVD single layer is 4.7GB per side.

Q: Can I do any backup in a DVD-RAM unit?

A: Sure, you could back up your hard drive or copy a CD. You can’t copy a movie that is copy-protected.

Q: Can I use DVD-RAM to create my own DVD discs?

A: Yes–you can create a disc in the DVD logical and application level format (DVD-Video, DVD-ROM).

Q: Advocates of DVD+RW (or maybe it was DVD-R/W) are talking about caddyless disks. What does that mean exactly?

A: People prefer bare discs. The question of whether to use caddyless media was a point of some contention in deciding on the DVD read-only specs, and the decision was to make the format like CD–bare disc (incidentally, most early CD-ROM drives required caddies). The recommendation of the rewritable DVD technical working group was also for a bare disc. DVD-RAM uses an “optional” cartridge (not a caddy), and it’s the only DVD format that does, because the media is more susceptible to being damaged by handling than the others.

Q: Are there yet other formats that have been announced? And do they all promise to be backwards-compatible with all the same formats other than the competing rewritable DVD ones?

A: Yes, there are MMVF and ASMO, whose specifications have been announced, but whose supporters have not released any updates on their development in over a year.

None of the media defined by the rewritable high-density removable optical formats (called DVD or not) are completely compatible with existing hardware. All of the specified drives, however, will be able to play pressed DVD discs. Whether they can play DVD-Video or not depends on whether there is a decoder in the system. Whether they can play CD, CD-R, or CD-RW depends on the manufacturer.

Q: DVD-RAM media can be two-sided, and using both sides you have a total capacity of 5.2GB–more than enough for storing the content of your new 4.7GB DVD-ROM masterpiece on its way to the replicator. What am I missing here?

A: For starters, the fact that DVD mastering machines aren’t set up to accept DVD-RAM as input. One reason is the capacity–you’d have to make two images, one for each side, and then have the mastering facility splice them together into a single image on DLT. For logical reasons, this is not advantageous–an application requiring over 2.6GB of capacity could not be tested as a whole, and it could not be tested in an actual DVD-Video player. DVD-RAM is not targeted at beta testing and authoring applications.

Q: Which is better, DVD-RAM or DVD-RW?

A: It all depends on what you want to use it for. Think of it as making a choice between a big CD-RW and a big PD.

If inexpensive backwards compatibility with existing hardware, higher capacity, and a high level of inter-changability are important, DVD-RW is better. It is also more expensive, it allows limited (1,000) rewrites, and it probably won’t be very fast because it uses sequential access. DVD-RW is meant to be an authoring tool for DVD titles, and offers the added capability of write-once DVD-R.

If low-cost, high-capacity, reasonably fast, local removable storage is what you want, then DVD-RAM is better. DVD-RAM claims 100,000 rewrites and random access.

Q: What about DVD-RAM and DVD+RW? Which is better?

A: Again, it depends on the application. Both DVD-RAM and DVD+RW are best suited for vertical applications and local storage, in their present 2.6GB and 3.0GB capacities.

Q: Which one will win the format war? Isn’t it true that the first one to market has an unbeatable advantage?

A: It could come down to which one can offer the cheapest drive, and which one allows the easiest and cheapest way to make read-only drives read the media. There’s little advantage in being first to market if the technology doesn’t meet certain end-user needs and OEM requirements, such as full single-layer DVD capacity, an existing installed base of inexpensive compatible read-only drives, and multiple sources for media and drives.

Q: Why is the DVD Forum supporting DVD-RW in its next generation of DVD-ROM players?

A: Because it will be simple and inexpensive to do so. All it requires is a firmware modification to correct a logical error: some drives “see” the lower reflectivity of DVD-RW media and “assume” that they should be trying to read a dual layer disc. This will cost almost nothing to correct.


This year is shaping up to be the Year of the Writable DVD Wars–or at least the year in which the already-drawn battle lines are toed–as higher-capacity DVD-RW and DVD+RW drives reach the market alongside DVD-RAM. Meanwhile, tried-and-true CD-R/RW technology continues to proliferate, and read-only DVD drives continue to replace CD-ROM in personal computers, making the question of cheap and easy compatibility with previous formats at least as important as enabling new, higher-capacity removable storage applications.

Will one clear winner emerge from this conflict, or will we be blessed–or cursed–with an embarrassment of writable DVD choices? Whatever the eventual outcome, it’s bound to be an interesting, or at least entertaining, 12 months.

The Writable DVD Matrix


Availability Now Q2 1999

Recording Layer Dye Phase change

Capacity/side (Current) 3.9GB 4.7GB

4.7GB Expected Q1 1999 Q2 1999

# of Rewrites None 1,000

Read/write Sequential Sequential

Readable in DVD-ROM/V? Yes Most

Cost of compatibility? None None

DVD Formats Not Read RAM and +RW RAM and +RW

Non-DVD Formats Read CD-ROM/R CD-ROM/R

Formats Re/written DVD-R DVD-R, DVD-RW

Write Method Wobbled groove Wobbled groove

Cartridge Not required Not required

Drive Price $17,000 $3,000-$5,000

Media Price $45 $45


Availability Now Q2 1999

Recording Layer Phase change Phase change

Capacity/side (Current) 2.6GB 3GB

4.7GB Expected Q4 1999 2000

# of Rewrites 100,000 100,000

Read/write Random Either

Readable in DVD-ROM/V? Panasonic only Sony only

Cost of compatibility? $10-$35 Under $1

DVD Formats Not Read DVD+RW DVD-RAM

Non-DVD Formats Read CD-ROM/R, PD CD-ROM/R

Formats Re/written DVD-RAM, PD DVD+RW

Write Method Wobbled land/groove Wobbled groove

Cartridge Optional (single-side) Not required

Drive Price $500-$700 $500-$700

Media Price $25 $25

RELATED ARTICLE: companies mentioned in this article

Creative Labs, Inc. 1901 McCarthy Boulevard, Milpitas, CA 95035; 408/428-600; Fax 408/428-6601; http://www.soundblaster.com; INFOLINK #401

Hewlett-Packard Company 800 South Taft Avenue, Loveland, CO 80537; 800/826-4111; Fax 970/679-5933; http://www.hp.com; INFOLINK #406

Hitachi America, Ltd. 2000 Sierra Point Parkway, Brisbane, CA 94005-1835; 650/589-8300; Fax 650/244-7647; http://www.hitachi.com; INFOLINK #407

LaCie 22985 NW Evergreen Parkway, Hillsboro, OR 97124; 503/844-4500; Fax 503/844-4593; http://www.lacie.com; INFOLINK #410

Maxell Corporation of America 22438 Route 208, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410; 201/703-2168; Fax 201/796-8790; http://www.maxell.com; INFOLINK #411

Mitsubishi Electronics America, Inc. 1050 East Arques Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94086; 408/730-5900; Fax 408/732-9382; http://www.mitsubishichips.com; INFOLINK #414

Panasonic Industrial Company 1600 McCandless Drive, Milpitas, CA 99035; 408/942-2926; Fax 408/262-4214; http://www.panasonic.com; INFOLINK #415

Philips Electronics 3200 North First Street, San Jose, CA 95134; 408/570-5644; Fax 408/570-5757; http://www.philips.com; INFOLINK #416

Pioneer New Media Technologies, Inc. 2265 East 220th Street, Long Beach, CA 90810; 310/952-2111 or 800/444-6784; http://www.pioneerusa.com; INFOLINK #417

Sony Electronics, Inc. 3300 Zanker Road, San Jose, CA 95134-1901; 408/955-5036; Fax 408/955-6560; http:// www.sony.com/storagebysony; INFOLINK #421

Toshiba America Information Systems, Inc. 9740 Irvine Boulevard, Irvine, CA 92718; 714/457-0777; Fax 714/587-6485; http://www.tais.com/taisdpd; INFOLINK #423

Yamaha Corporation of America 6600 Orangethorpe Avenue, Buena Park, CA 90620; 714/522-9011; http://www.yamaha.com; INFOLINK #424

Dana J. Parker (danapark@ix.netcom.com) is a Denver, Colorado-based independent consultant and writer and regular columnist for STANDARD DEVIATIONS. She is also a contributing editor for EMedia Professional, co-author of CD-ROM Professional’s CD-Recordable Handbook (Pemberton Press, 1996), and chair of Online Inc.’s DVD Pro Conference & Exhibition.

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