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article imageOp-Ed: How to feel secure about computer security Special

By Jack Kapica     Jun 2, 2011 in Technology
If you want to protect your computer from viruses, it will be difficult to buy an antivirus or an online security program alone. You’re more likely to have to buy a whole package of system utilities too, to protect yourself from ... well, yourself
I was struggling with a misbehaving Microsoft Office Outlook, which forced me to use a couple of utilities (Microsoft’s inbox repair tool and a really powerful duplicate e-mail remover from Sperry Software), when I was reminded again how much we Windows users must rely on utilities to make sure we get the best results from our machines.
There are several excellent system utilities and security suites on the market these days. The most remarkable thing about them is that what once were two completely different products — system optimizers and Internet security packages — are now merging. Kaspersky PURE is an Internet security-cum-antivirus-cum utilities package, for instance, as is Norton 360, a do-it-all product that bundles antivirus and anti-malware software with utilities (this recalls its past in the 1980s, when Peter Norton created Norton Utilities, which did for DOS what Symantec, which bought Norton’s company in 1990, did for Windows).
There’s a simple reason for this. Over the years Microsoft has been slowly introducing individual utilities into its Windows operating systems, and makers of utility programs could see much of their business wash away if people realize that they can get what they want for free. Built into Windows 7, there’s a disk defragmenting utility that, by default, works once a week (you have to look deep into your scheduled tasks to find it), and four different ways to back up your computer. And Microsoft is expanding its line of free tools, including Microsoft Security Essentials, an excellent antivirus program.
Programs like these usually formed the backbone of software from many third-party software makers, so some utilities makers have adapted to the changing landscape by putting together collections of utilities that complement, rather than compete, with Microsoft’s tools. Among these are a couple that bundle both utilities and anti-virus suites (Kaspersky PURE and Norton 360), and a couple that are designed with certain kinds of user in mind (TuneUp Utilties, WinZip Utilities Suite and Iolo System Mechanic).
Woody Leonard, a columnist with Windows Secrets, had written a two-part column under the title of Don’t Pay for Software You Don’t Need, which goes into some depth about utilities that constitute the core of some of the packages reviewed below.
This beggars a valid question: If third-party defragment utilities, commercial-grade antivirus programs or registry cleaners are being pushed aside by free packages, why then pay attention to any of them? I like them because they tend to be a lot friendlier, and they are all gathered in one place, so I don’t have to dig deep into my system. They also have some utilities that are not included in Windows, ones that I use a lot — like TuneUp Utilities’ Turbo Mode, the incoming and outgoing firewalls that come with Kaspersky and Norton (the native Microsoft firewall protects you against incoming intrusions only) and the friendly management of startup programs. I have gone for stretches of time with Microsoft Security Essentials and been very happy with it; I ditched it only because I didn’t want Microsoft Security Essentials to fight it out with an AV program from a suite that has a bunch of utilities I want.
The trick to selecting a utilities suite, then, is to read everything you can about them (I know, that’s a tall order. Sorry), and then decide what combination of utilities you need the most.
TuneUp Utilities 2011
TuneUp Utilities 2011
TuneUp GmbH
TuneUp Utilities 2011 TuneUp Utilities 2011 ($49.95) features some 30 utilities to clean your hard disk and registry, and offers simple ways to correct PC problems. But the suite’s pride of place goes to two great ideas. First is the Turbo Mode, which speeds PCs by shutting down down more than 70 background processes, services, scheduled tasks and third‐party programs that slow down Windows 7, Windows XP and Windows Vista. All these functions can be re-enabled with a single click.
The second is a Program Deactivator, using something TUU calls Programs-on-Demand technology. This feature completely turns off programs to reduce their impact on performance, stopping their services, start‐up entries or background processes; They can be reactivated individually by restarting the programs.
TUU has apparently rewritten the Turbo Mode code for the 2011 version, claiming it’s 10 times faster than its previous version. It really is faster, I’ve noticed; the first version took a long time to kick in.
I love TUU 2011 because it tells you in straightforward language what steps are needed to optimize your system. There’s never a moment spent wondering if there will be any unintended consequences for any single action; if you are still unsure, TuneUp Utilities will fetch recommendations from other users online to help you decide. And if you don’t like what it sometimes does, TUU 2011 has a roll-back feature that provides a nice safety net.
TUU 2011’s most popular feature is 1-Click Maintenance, which automatically scans your system for invalid shortcuts, broken Windows registry entries, temporary file clutter and checks whether your registry or hard drive need optimizing. More important, it can speed up system boot-up by offering suggestions about which programs can be turned off safely. There is also an unobtrusive utility that sits in the background and tunes your system, such as managing your RAM memory, on the fly.
All this makes Tune-up Utilities 2011 ideal for two kinds of users: Non-technical users and power users who don’t want to fuss with keeping house.
It has been my default utility suite for a few years now, because I find it neither intrusive nor lazy. I have come to trust it implicitly.
WinZip s entry into the Windows system utilities field.
WinZip's entry into the Windows system utilities field.
Corel Corp.
Winzip System Utilities 1.0
If there’s one utility suite that threatens TuneUp Utilities for pride of place in my home, it’s WinZip System Utilities 1.0 ($39.95). Received wisdom says that anything with a version number of 1.0 isn’t ready for popular consumption. WinZip has challenged that successfully.
WinZip has been around for a couple of decades and has become the world’s most popular program for file archiving and encryption. Over the years, various different compression and archiving algorithms have been added to it and the user interface has been polished. But when Windows XP included a feature to open and create .zip files (called “compressed folders”), it seemed WinZip was doomed.
The program regained a lot of life after it was purchased by Ottawa-based Corel Corp. in 2006. Over the years, Corel added passive FTP support, FTP transfers, a full-size archived-image viewer, support for 64-bit Windows systems, support for LHA archives and Unicode file names, lossless image compression algorithms, installation disks, encryption policies, an integrated image thumbnail viewer, an automated backup feature, and last year it was updated to resemble the MS Office 2010 ribbon-style menu system. Also added were support for multi-touch gestures and a version for Macintosh computers.
A couple of years ago Corel introduced a plug-in for Microsoft Outlook, called WinZip Courier, a time-saving method of automatically compressing large files to make them small enough to get through the meanest email servers that gag on big attachments The system relieves bandwidth pressure on email servers and also offers 128-bit or 256-bit AES encryption to keep data secure.
I mention all this because you’d have to be paying close attention to Corel to follow what the company has been doing for WinZip, an effort that shows impressive commitment to the product.
And now WinZip has made another quantum leap forward. The new WinZip System Utilities Suite is a collection of more than 20 tools for improving the performance and health of Windows PCs. Among them are a registry cleaner and optimizer; a disk optimizer that checks for defragmentation problems and disk errors; a Windows optimizer that removes junk data and frees up disk space; security and privacy tools that clean hidden privacy-exposing traces or permanently delete confidential data; a password-protection feature for personal files, and backup and recovery tools. Also included are a system startup optimizer to speed the process, and a utility to uninstall software.
Some of these tools are similar to those found in most decent utilities suites, and differentiate themselves from the competition only in the way they approach the problems they’re meant to solve.
But there a number of other tools are less common, and welcome. One is a driver updater, a feature WinZip shares with Kaspersky’s PURE (below); this kind of thing is becoming increasingly necessary as computer users pack more software on their PCs. A game optimizer, similar to TuneUp Utilities’ Turbo Mode, organizes the system to reduce freezing, crashing or interruptions while playing games. A duplicate file eliminator cleans your system of unnecessary files, and a memory optimizer addresses how your system memory (RAM) organizes itself and eliminates unnecessary entries.
There’s also something called Smart PC Care, which performs a variety of tasks, much the way the “one-click maintenance” tool in TuneUp Utilities works. It includes the junk and temporary file cleaner, the disk defragmenter, the privacy-protection tools, the outdated or missing drivers scan and the registry cleaner.
And finally there’s something called Disk Explorer, which WinZip vaguely says “displays disk usage by files and folders” and allows you to “check and manage disk statistics.” In short, it doesn’t do much more than Windows Explorer does, but does it better and in a more visually attractive way. It will give you an idea of how much space is left on your drives, what percentage are videos, images, documents and music, and how big each file is, in order — which is everything Windows Explorer does, but Disk Explorer does it in a compelling way.
The first time I ran WinZip Utilities, its initial scan reported 261 junk files, 9 outdated drivers, 130 registry errors and a stunning 18,732 privacy “traces.” It also demanded I optimize the registry. I took a look at some of the files WinZip didn’t like, and was satisfied that most of them appeared to be scraps of old file installations left behind by lazy programmers; I looked at the privacy “traces” and discovered them to be largely bits of history in my browsers. The outdated drivers were largely for motherboard and BIOS features.
And I had a good laugh at the 130 registry errors, because this was about the fourth or fifth pass at cleaning the registry I had done that day while testing different packages. I wonder what would happen if I keep up such a pace in scanning the registry. Would I end up with no registry at all?
I was curious to see whether the defragmenting process would look like, given that Windows 7 has a built-in defrag tool that works once every week. I had WinZip check it out, and it reported fragmentation at 1.25 per cent. Not surprising, after all; no wonder none of the other packages wanted me to defrag it. But WinZip still insisted on defragmenting that little bit.
WinZip Utilities behaved in a manner that made me feel comfortable, promising backups of all the changes it makes in case something goes awry. I like the undelete tool, its Smart PC Care, and its driver updater.
This is a good, solid and responsible package, surprisingly mature for such a new product, and a worthy competitor to TuneUp Utilities. Its initial version is so good in fact that I look forward to WinZip Utilities 2, and wonder what Corel will put into it.
JV16 Power Tools
Macecraft s JV16 Power Tools
Macecraft's JV16 Power Tools
Macecraft.com
I discovered JV16 Power Tools (produced by Macecraft, $29.95) some years ago, and was impressed with it, but I for reasons I can’t remember I just didn’t migrate the suite when I changed computers a while ago. Now in version 2011, JV16 has grown in complexity and power since I first encountered it, and the suite’s 29 tools (plus a system backup utility) can get pretty esoteric. So I would hesitate to recommend the suite to people who are not inclined to tinker under the hood of their computers.
This was emphasized with a setting that allows you to run JV16 in either a simple or advanced interface. I felt uncomfortable using some of JV16’s more challenging features, so I went to change to the simple interface to see what I could learn. That’s when I found out it I was already using the simple interface. (I think Macecraft understands the issue; on its home page, it advertises the 2011 version as “easier and more fun to use,” though Macecraft still has a way to go in the “easier” part.)
I ran my registry through JV16’s Registry Cleaner, and it cleaned 765 registry keys referring to obsolete software entries, useless file extensions and non-existent file directories. This is after the registry had been cleaned by both TuneUp Utilities 2011 and Iolo System Mechanic 10. I haven’t found any disastrous side effects of JV16’s registry-cleaning action yet, but I’m reassured by the prospect that JV16 backed up my registry before cleaning it out.
The System Cleaner makes massive changes, including tools that erase directories, a history cleaner, and an automation tool that makes no backups (which is like walking a tightrope without a net). Also, there’s a tool that wipes out all data on a disk, a software uninstaller, a startup manager and a start-menu tool. Not surprisingly, JV16 adds a helpful note to the user in the system cleaner section: “Warning! Use extreme caution with this tool!”
I was a little disappointed by JV16’s software uninstaller. If I do not recognize a program, JV16 offers a right-click option to “Find more information online.” But that isn’t very helpful at all. For instance, I wondered what precisely the HPDiagnosticsAlert did, and when I right-clicked on “Find more information online,” JV16 sent me to Google with the search term “Microsoft Inc.” in it. Similarly, JV16’s entry for Apple Mobile Device Support sent me to Google’s response for “Apple Inc.”
I will continue to use JV16, but only when I’m feeling brave and I really need something I’m not getting satisfactorily from other utility suites.
Iolo System Mechanic 10
Iolo System Mechanic 10
Iolo
Iolo System Mechanic 10
Iolo has been producing its System Mechanic ($49.95) for a number of years, and its latest version, SM10, is a set of utilities that repair the registry, defragment the hard drive and eliminate files that slow performance.
Although Iolo emphasizes the suite’s ease of use, SM10 should instead be aimed more at power users who understand it when it warns that there are Active-X controls that could be used to deliver “high-security information” about you (and, worse, deliver it to assorted Web-based villains). It sounds scary, but it doesn’t tell you what to do about it. Especially when it if you a question such as: Do you want or need programs made by “Trusted Publishers” that include the Active-X controls?
SM10’s registry repair wizard appears to be very aggressive; it found some 750 “errors” in my machine even after TuneUp Utilities had weeded the registry of what it considered errors. Many makers of registry tools disagree on what precisely is a registry error — it could also include a useless entry, which is not an error, just an unused entry.
If SM10’s approach to Active-X controls strikes you as perplexing, then consider what it does when it optimizes Windows Startup programs. It merely asks whether you want to fix them, but doesn’t always tell you what the problem is or what “fixing” it might do to your computer. It found one problem on my machine and fixed it, and I hope it wasn’t one that I will need sometime in the future.
In my case, SM10 identified Windows Live Messenger as “an unnecessary startup item,” but I use it often, so I want to keep it in my startup list. Yet I could find no option to tell SM10 I need Messenger; the program offers me only the option of not running the startup optimization process at all. And the prospect of constantly restarting Messenger kills the notion of me running SM10’s startup optimizer automatically.
SM10 has a series of automated tasks, including the cleaning up of excessive system clutter, fixing registry problems, the aforementioned optimizing startup programs, repairing hard disk errors, closing security vulnerabilities, cleaning up live memory, eliminating broken shortcuts, backing up the registry every 14 days or defragging the registry.
SM10 also monitors your machine for malware (as opposed to viruses) and the presence of a firewall, and graciously allows itself to be turned off so a more favoured anti-malware or firewall program can run (say, Windows’ own firewall). The suite also lets you install itself on any number of computers as long as they’re not for business purposes, which is nice for households that have multiple PCs.
A big sales pitch for SM10 touts the suite’s power. And it feels very powerful when you first fire it up and it finds lots of problems. But what is a problem for one utility isn’t necessarily a problem for another. Why? Because there’s no clear line between what is good or not good for your computer.
Take, for instance, file defragmentation. Strictly speaking it’s not a problem, but it can be a nuisance when there’s so much of it that it slows your system. With that logic in mind, Iolo has introduced a new feature to SM10 called a Program Accelerator, something it calls “the world's first Program Realignment Tool.” The company says it improves performance by realigning programs with their dependent files for maximum speed. How it does this isn’t entirely clear, but the logic sounds appealing.
In my case, SM10 found 239,835 “misaligned” files, and when it had finished repairing everything, it reported having optimized 219,246 files (but it doesn’t say what happened to the remaining 19,411 files). It also reported having defragmented 3,249 files, fixed 674 registry problems and eliminated 15 security vulnerabilities.
Because it’s impossible for users of a powerful piece of software like SM10 to check (or understand) what the process actually did, it’s difficult to say what happened. But on my system, SM10 had some serious consequences.
The least of which was that it removed the security clearance for my BlackBerry desktop software; to fix it I had to click the button telling the computer this was a recognized and trusted program. Easy enough, but would I have to do that every time I run SM10?
Worse, it deleted every instance of Windows System Restore created before SM10 was installed. I could have used it when, a day or so after loading SM10, I wanted to do a System Restore and couldn’t. My all-time favourite desktop-search software, Copernic Corporate http://www.copernic.com, suffered a corrupted database and had to be reloaded and the entire system re-indexed, which was very annoying.
I know that Iolo had no intention of saddling me with these problems, but I’m now afraid to run SM10 again because I worry it will continue to wreak havoc due to its, well, power.
Because of that aggression, I wouldn’t recommend SM10 to people who are not comfortable getting their hands dirty under the hood. You do have to have some computer smarts to use SM10 properly.
Kaspersky PURE Total Security 2011
Kaspersky PURE Total Security 2011
Kaspersky PURE Total Security 2011
Kaspersky
I used to rely exclusively on Norton’s antivirus software until a few years ago, when Symantec, which makes Norton AV and Internet Security, bloated the suite with so many utilities and features it became more of a problem than a solution to the problem. That was when I discovered Kaspersky, which at the time was making a major push into the North American market (it’s made in Russia); it concentrated on simplicity and ease of use and, unlike Norton (at the time), it didn’t constantly jump into my face to remind me it was working.
I sometimes rummage about in some dark corners of the Internet (purely out of professional necessity, I assure you), and was relieved on several occasions when Kaspersky did pop up to tell me it had identified a malicious bit of code I had missed, and shot it down before it entered my computer. I find it more reassuring when a program pops up only when it finds something evil than one that pops up with what amounts to little more than a neurotic desire for approval.
Norton has improved immensely since then (see below), and Kaspersky has improved its antivirus program and its Internet security suite. But I have stayed with Kaspersky over the past couple of years and have never had a virus settle into my machine; whichever ones tried to settle in were immediately caught and neutralized.
I did, however, fall victim to some malware, which cannot be detected by antivirus products. Kaspersky has now addressed that problem, and its new all-in-one suite adds anti-malware software to a package that includes system utilities, antivirus and security features. Called Kaspersky PURE Total Security ($89.95 U.S.), its arsenal includes defence against viruses, spyware and malicious software, including the protection, management and monitoring of computers. This includes immediate hourly updates, scanning from the “cloud,” meaning via the Internet, and malware detection.
PURE has been built with privacy as its primary concern. It has a password manager with pretty strong encryption capabilities, a virtual keyboard to frustrate keyloggers, a file shredder and a new 128-bit AES encryption client.
How good is Kaspersky as an antivirus package? I’m not equipped with the hardware necessary to make the judgment, but in February, Anti-Virus Comparatives (av-comparatives.org), which tests these things, gave it a detection rate of 97 per cent. It’s a decent average for home computing, good enough to put it in 9th place, but still ahead of heavyweights McAfee, Microsoft, Symantec and Trend Micro (GData, Trustport, Avast and Panda took the top four spots, in that order).
But Kaspersky goes an extra mile when it says it’s tuning up your system. Instead of concentrating on rummaging about for useless bits in the registry, it concentrates on immediate problems with security and privacy, and makes recommendations such as wiping system logs, setting Windows Explorer to show file extensions (to more easily identify file-type spoofing), and automatically flushing your browser’s cache when your browsing sessions ends.
It also has another great new feature: You can manage the security of your entire home network from one machine. This is good for home networks as well as for parents who would like to protect their children’s safety without spying on their online activities. It also automates file backup and restore for all computers in the home from a single computer.
Just install the suite on one computer, which will become your control centre, and then you can set security policies for each machine on your network, run security scans on any PC in your household, perform file and machine backups for all PCs, fix security issues such as a disabled firewall, administer and monitor parental controls so your kids are surfing safely, and renew and update all security licenses for PURE for every machine from one PC.
There’s also a “Safe Run” feature, a kind of digital sandbox that is isolated from the rest of the system environment in which you can safely try out applications that might be harboring evil thoughts. With Safe Run the operating system does not change.
With Parental Controls, watchful parents can control when and for how long the children can be online or to block playing video games; they can limit access to the Internet, web content, applications, games or social networks and decide when the kids are ready for advanced computer usage; they can also designate private information to be blocked from being shared on the Internet, such as keeping your home address and phone number from appearing on Facebook, or stop a child from sharing credit-card or social insurance numbers.
More watchful parents can review full transcripts of their children's instant-messaging and social-network chats; parents can have keywords flagged automatically to monitor for things like profanity or harassment; they can block certain contacts, or allow only pre-approved contacts.
PURE’s Password Manager stores and encrypts log-in passwords and automatically logs you into websites and applications. The log-in data is also available to all the other PCs in your home. The feature can also create a super-strong, unique password if you want extra security.
There are a couple of other imaginative features in Password Manager, including the creation of a portable version of Password Manager on any USB key, which will work on any other machine and disappear when you remove the USB key. It will also store offline information, such as PIN numbers, in a Secure Notes option, also protected by password.
Other security features include file encryption, and a file-shredding utility to completely erase some or all data, which is especially useful if you’re discarding your machine.
Kaspersky has also incorporated a system-vulnerability tool called Secunia Personal Software Inspector, which keep checking on your installed programs and warns you when it’s time to update software, much like Windows Update does, but for many other programs. Kaspersky calls this part of its PURE suit the application vulnerability scanner, which cross-references against Secunia data to find programs that aren’t up to date or might even need security patching.
I had some initial problems installing PURE, when I foolishly tried to install the suite while the machine was already running an earlier version of Kaspersky. I quickly corrected this by removing both versions, and then re-installing PURE. Everything worked perfectly then. Although, I must add, some websites have, in their zeal to make their sites super secure, crated Flash or Java log-in systems that can fool Kaspersky’s Password manager. There is a mechanism for reporting such websites to Kaspersky for future fixing. Besides, Kaspersky assured me the company is working furiously on its password manager.
To my mind, Kaspersky knows how home computer users think, and talks to them directly in language that is both informational and polite. This suite is both a comfort and excellent at what it does.
Norton 360 v. 5.0
Norton 360 v. 5.0
Symentec Corp.
Norton 360 v. 5.0
Symantec went through a bit of a bad patch a few years ago, when it seemed that its marketing department decided its customers needed frequent reassurance that Norton programs were working, meaning that the best remedy was to pop up a message with annoying regularity to reassure users that it was doing its job. But after a while this process developed into a annoying feature that seemed to be constantly demanding approval for having done something you’d much rather have happened in the background.
I know that several other programs used the same strategy of constant interruptions, almost all of which have stopped that practice. What made Norton’s security and AV tools even worse than annoying was that they used up a lot of system resources, and made the whole system run slowly.
I’m happy to say that in this respect, Symantec has improved its products massively — which bundle both its antivirus and Internet security packages with a bunch of utilities into Norton 360 (now in volume 5) — to the extent they no longer turn Windows into molasses, and no longer assume I need to be reassured.
Norton 360 version 5 ($69.99) is still the best-selling product of its class and the most recognizable brand in AV software, and so its price tag reflects its status as the Cadillac in the garage. Still, I was a little surprised to find it scored 95.5 per cent on the AV Comparatives list, below Kaspersky’s 97 per cent — although the 1.5 per cent difference in real-world use is negligible except statistically, and most residential users will rarely be able to tell the difference.
Norton 360 has changed its presentation, which makes its impressive arsenal easier to navigate. The new dashboard displays the current security state of the computer, and an interactive map that shows the state of network security around the world. The map is a sexy bit of eye candy that has moving lights representing viruses that a Norton installation stopped. Click on the map and a TV-like “crawl” offers details about the latest threats; this can be done on a continental or municipal level. And for those who have shelled out for a Norton Backup account, the panel will monitor available online backup space and also track the most recent backup. The interactive map strikes me as a bit of floss to impress you with Norton’s global reach, but I see no harm in it either.
The suite also has an “Insight Engine” that checks how long a file has existed on your computer to determine how safe it is. It also checks to see whether any of your programs are slowing down system performance, and automatically sends out an alert when it thinks a program is feeding too long at the resource trough.
It’s also reassuring that Norton relies on data from its 58 million crowd-sourced users around the world and compares that data against your system to see if any of your programs should be dealt with.
A similar feature called Download Insight uses the same reputation-based logic to new downloads, and a new iteration of Norton’s Symantec Online Network for Automatic Response (SONAR) brings up remedial action when it senses suspicious behaviour on your machine, a tool that allows you to adjust its aggressiveness.
In addition to doing a quick or extensive system scan for both viruses and malware, Norton 360 can scan your Facebook account for malicious links, all of which are followed with summary report. There is also a bootable recovery tool (not a new feature) that will create a CD, DVD or USB-based bootable device. The USB component is welcome for all those netbooks that have tossed their DVD drives.
The Norton Online Family parental controls — a stripped-down version of Norton Safe Web — and the new Norton Power Eraser, which will scrub your computer of fake antivirus programs and malware that prevent legitimate security tools from being installed.
The suite also includes automatic backup and restore functions, and 2GB of free online storage with the $69.99 version, or 25GB with the $89.99 version (both versions offer protection for three home PCs). Tune-up options include the usual tools, such as hard-drive cleaning, registry cleaning, Windows start-up tweaks, and even a tool to manage RAM memory automatically.
It’s an impressive package, though I find it hard to believe it is so nimble a product that it can support things like the Interactive Threat Map as well as use information from 58 million users about your system being infected.
Yes, I use Kaspersky PURE, but I don’t think I’d be unhappy with Norton 360. They’re both respectable and mature security, antivirus and utility suites.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
More about Computer security, Microsoft Security Essentials, Kaspersky PURE, Norton 360, TuenUp Utilities
 
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