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eeePC 901 - It's a toy!!!

So here it is on my lap. A toy. A small (8 inch-ish) colour display with a very compact keyboard and a little touchpad. Totally silent, you almost expect this thing to be some sort of Amstrad-like PDA that's just a little larger than it needs to be. With 1Mb on-board it has a word processor, diary...

Oh how wrong you'd be. This shiny plastic exterior hides quite a machine. As for its size? Well, already the computer has found use. Rather than programming, the change in work hours makes me feel tired all the time so I can lie in bed and watch movies on the eeePC. Or, right now, I am sitting in the garden writing this as the sun sets and the birds chirp.
Tell you what, there's a built-in webcam. Let me switch it on and take a picture so you can see what I mean...


A picture taken with the built-in webcam.

This machine is called Azumi, in keeping with the trend of female-names-beginning-A. This time it's another Japanese name, taken from the film of the same name...

The box
It's a pretty box... Inside is the computer. A shiny flat thing. There is also a handle-less carrying case, a DVD-ROM for restoring, the tiniest powerpack you ever did see, a power lead, and a pleasingly thick book. In an era when most computer 'guides' are little more than a double-sided glossy telling you how to hook up the colour coded connectors, it is nice to see Asus go into more detail, including how to set up networking and such.

Processor
At the heart of this machine is an Intel Atom CPU running at 1600MHz. According to a few benchmarks I have tried, it more or less keeps up with other computers in the same sort of class. In normal use, the processor rests between 50 and 60 degrees. There is a fan, but you'd have to listen carefully to hear it. Under load, the temperature rises, obviously, but this is okay so long as you rest the computer on a flat surface. For use in bed, I have a thin hardback home shopping catalogue which is about A4 size. Perfect.
Performing an AES encryption benchmark, the result places the machine around Durons and Semprons also running at 1600MHz, so there are no unwarranted bottlenecks in the memory system (unlike my Acer laptop...). That is running in "auto high performance" mode. There's a key for changing CPU performance and as I am now running off AC, I can crank the machine up to "super high performance". This is reflected in the Kb/sec jumping from 1840 to 1946, so the processor outperforms a rated 2GHz Celeron!

The CPU is hyperthreaded, and as such appears to contain 'two' processors, Atom N270s, though it would seem to be hyperthreaded as opposed to dual-core, so it may be that it can process two different things at once with restrictions arising from sharing the one core?
The L1 code cache is 32Kb, and the L2 data cache is 512Kb full-speed on-die.
The processor supports the Intel extensions MMX and SSE-SSE3, as well as DEP and thermal monitoring.

Performing a benchmark on photo image manipulation, the processor clocks between a Celeron D 326 (2533MHz) and a P4EE (3466MHz), and we are only a few KiB/sec behind an AthlonXP 3200+ (2200MHz). I think it's fair to say this baby is FAST. Super high mode clocks the CPU at 1680MHz, which is a 5% overclock. It also speeds up the FSB (from 400MHz to 420MHz) and the memory bus (from 800Mhz to 840MHz). But I'll switch back to auto-high as there is no need for the extra speed for most work (I am writing this in Notepad and listening to MP3s using WinAMP - even Aiko could manage that at 450MHz!!!). If nothing else, it'll use more battery power running unnecessarily fast.

For what it is worth, there is also a low power mode which clocks the processor at a sedate 1200MHz (FSB 300MHz, memory 600MHz). This might be useful to eke out some extra few minutes when your batteries are low, but...

The chipset is the Intel Mobile i945GME "Calistoga" (wasn't that a Ghibli animation? ☺).

Memory
There is a gigabyte onboard. It is necessary as the system is configured not to use any paging file - in order to greatly reduce unnecessary writes to the 'harddisc'.
The memory itself can be read at 3836Mb/sec, written at 2798Mb/sec, with a latency of 121ns.

The memory module identifies itself as an "A-Data DOPE1A08342". I like the "dope"! It's a 1Gb DDR-2 667 SO-DIMM with a single-access 64 bit width, timing at 4-4-4-12. A generic part from Taiwan, nothing unusual.
The NorthBridge is capable of addressing 4Gb, should a memory upgrade be desired.

The L2 cache, conversely, can read and write around 24500Mb/s with a 1.9ns latency. This will fly nicely with data that can fit into the cache, but one must ask how much potential cache operation might be lost due to context switches as a result of enforced multitasking? This is not a problem of the eeePC, but rather a multitasking operating system. That said, I grew up with DOS so I think I'd rather my cache be rendered mostly useless while I reap the benefits of multitasking!

Graphics
Graphics support is provided by an integrated Intel GMA 950 with an 8Mb frame buffer. It would seem as if the graphics may claim some of the system memory, as there is 1024Mb onboard and Windows reports 1015Mb, which could easily be 1Gb minus the 8Mb frame buffer rounded up...
There may be an additional 128Mb for the GPU, I'm still trying to work out conflicting information from my system examiner.

I have not tested the graphics much, it worked in overlay with a USB video convertor, it worked with MPlayer watching MPEG4 video recordings, and it works in Windows...

Display
The display is a 1024×600 (widescreen) panel. The system supports four modes - 800×600 (zoomed to fill the display), 1024×600 (native size), 1024×768 (mouse pointer up and down to see the top or bottom), 1024×768 compressed to fit in the display.
The 1024×768 options may be necessary in order to 'see' programs and web pages designed on the expectation that everybody uses this resolution. For sure web browsing can look a bit cramped on the eeePC so it's best to turn off toolbars you don't really need.
You might wonder about the zoom up/down option. Well, I often use this for television recordings. You see, 1024×600 is perfect for anamorphic recordings, it is 16:9 so it all fits nicely. Now if you consider Zone Horror which broadcasts widescreen films in a 4:3 matte (i.e. letterboxed), watching this on a 1024×600 display will result in a square in the centre of the screen. So I can switch to the 1024×768 mode, go fullscreen (it fits), then use the mouse pointer to flick the screen around so I can see the middle part - and therefore the image will fill my viewport nicely, looking like a widescreen film on a widescreen display. The letterboxing and channel ident are 'lost' off the edges (there, but not currently visible). It is a bit fiddly, but the results make it worthwhile.
The display is bright, responsive, great for movies! Add to this I am not even running my display on "bright". I have about four 'notches' below full brightness. I am saving these for, say, it is a bright day and I am in the car and I wonder "can I make this any brighter?" Actually, yes! ☺


Lying in bed watching low-budget horror flicks from "Zone Horror"!

There is a VGA port on the side. I think you need to be in 1024×768 for sharing the display?

Audio
The sound is a special high-definition audio system created by Realtek. It offers Dolby, ProLogic, room expansion, and dozens of pointless audio tweaks - you can alter the sound to sound like (among others) you are in a "sewer pipe" or a "padded cell" - who came up with those suggestions?!? Slightly more useful is an equaliser to tweak the sound to your headphones or whatever.

Sound output is by two speakers mounted on the under-front of the machine. Actually they are surprisingly loud given their small size.

Input is either a microphone jack, or by a dual-microphone setup just under the monitor. It's not for stereo, it is for echo/noise cancelling. I hope the mic jack can cope with stereo line input. I will need to try this some time.

Storage
There is 12Gb (decimal) onboard. This is split into a 4Gb boot partition holding Windows XP. This is a Flash SSD soldered on to the motherboard, which could potentially present a problem depending on how many read/write cycles the SSD is capable of. On the 4Gb, the final 32Mb is an undocumented "EFI" partition. Don't know what that is for.

The remaining 8Gb (decimal) is a plug-in SSD. There are adverts of upcoming larger SSDs which could be inserted instead, but no prices given (you'll need Google's language tools if you can't read Japanese). Having 32Gb onboard would be nice, as 8Gb will fill up pretty quickly.
Asus patch Windows to set "Program Files" be on D, but you'll want to install TweakUI to move "My Documents" there as well - use the replacable device by preference. I have no idea how reliable SSDs will be, will it work for a year or a decade or what?

In defence of the SSD, it is odd that turning the computer on and nothing happens except a blue LED lights up... then Windows appears. It is totally silent. Those geeks who use harddisc noises as an indicator of system activity will find this quite disconcerting. If the machine appears to have frozen, you'll need to look at the drive indicator to see that it is faffing with the harddisc and not frozen up. On a regular computer, you'd hear this activity. The SSD is always ready with no requirement to spin up, seek... and as it isn't whizzing 85 turns a second, you will be saving on the power required to keep the disk going. Furthermore I can place this computer on my lap in the car and I don't need to lose continence when there's a pothole in the road, there's no head to crash. This is like the electronic version of a SMART car, plasticky looking but actually pretty rugged!

Be careful if you see one claiming 32Gb storage. This is both true and false. It is the 4+8Gb SSD onboard, plus 20Gb "EEE storage" via YoStore (I think), which needs a decent internet connection and a lot of trust...

Memory cards
There is a built-in SD/MMC slot. It currently holds a 2Gb card with my emails and website copy. It has worked with a 1Gb SD, two 2Gb SDs, a 4Gb SDHC card (class 2), and a 16Gb SDHC (class 6).

USB
On the left, one port. On the right, two. USB 2.0, full speed ahead! I used to copy recordings off a 4Gb USB key from Aiko, to Ayleigh via ethernet. Both machines offer USB 1.1 (despite Ayleigh having a USB 2.0 card, it only works as 1.1!). Transfer times of an hour and a half were not unheard of.
Azumi did it in six minutes.

I've also had full-screen video pushed down a USB port from the AverTV capture device. Of limited use (it can't detect the soundcard so it says there isn't one, and thus screws up on trying to record), I can watch my TV using a long CVBS lead and jacking an audio extension cable into the HiFi... might do that for DVDs?

Actually, USB seems to be used extensively internally.

Connectivity - wired
10/100mbit ethernet right there onboard. I am now sitting in bed with a three metre patch lead to the router. Shared folders and VNC servers make accessing Aiko or Ayleigh a doddle. I no longer need to bother with such trivialities as actually sitting at the computer I am using!

Connectivity - wireless I
A mini PCI-E card provides WiFi to the 802.11n protocol, with a potential maximum transfer rate of 144Mbit. The fastest I've ever connected to was 56Mbps, though the actual fastest Internet rate I have used thus far is a more sedate 2Mbit! You can read of my first ventures in WiFi in the following b.log entry.
The WiFi card can be disabled if not required.

Something of an oddity is the WiFi card is plugged into the mini PCI-E socket in the computer, but there is a piece of tape over some of the connections on the card edge - I wonder what this is in aid of?

Connectivity - wireless II
A Broadcom BT-253 device provides Bluetooth support, I have used this for receiving pictures from my mobile, and also sending/reading SMS using the Nokia software. Like WiFi, this can be turned off.

Left side

Above is a photo of the left side of the computer - notice how thin it is. On the left of the picture (the back of the machine) is a slot for a Kensington lock. Then the RJ45 for 10/100mbit ethernet (which is plugged in). A USB port. A fan, which you won't hear that often in normal use. The pink jack is for a microphone, the green jack for headphones (shown plugged in).

Right side

Above is a photo of the right side of the computer. At the back of the machine (right of the picture) is the DC input, 12V (shown connected). Then a connection for an external monitor or LCD projector. Two further USB slots give this tiny machine loads of connectivity potential, and finally a slot for an SD(HC)/MMC card.

Front side
There is nothing special on the front side. Under your right palm are four status indicators. There is a green LED for when the machine is on, which seems a bit pointless as a blue indicator in the power button says the same thing. Then there is a green/red LED for power. Red when on mains, green when on battery, and if it blinks and how quickly gives you an indication of how much battery time remains. Then a green LED for harddisc access. This won't flicker much when you aren't doing anything. Finally, a blue LED for Bluetooth and/or WiFi active.

Webcam
There is a 1.3 megapixel webcam built in to the top of the display. This can be turned off if not required. The effective resolution is 1280×1024. The full resolution pictures appear to come out darker than the preview, though to be honest I think this device is not intended for use as a photo camera, but rather for internet chats - in which case it will most likely work well. It is a shame Asus did not include some basic software to make use of the camera. It can be done directly through Windows, but finding where isn't exactly intuitive!

Keyboard
The keyboard is compact without being yucky. A 'FN' button switches to an overlay mode for numeric keypad, plus other keys s(such as '\' and PageUp...). There are additional functions under the F keys - Sleep (superfluous), WiFi/Bluetooth toggle, Brightness up/down, LCD/monitor switch, Sound/Mute, Volume up/down.
There are four special function keys above the keyboard - sleep, display resolution, and two user definable keys. The first of these toggles through the processor speeds, the second currently loads Skype but as I don't have broadband yet I think I may change this...

I make mistakes with the keyboard, but this is something I am going to have to get used to. It'll take time, but soon I'll be able to bash away without hitting Enter when I wanted Shift, and so on.

In addition to the keyboard, pressing the power button will shut down, and closing the lid will 'sleep'.

Mouse
Pointer services are provided by a touchpad. It is an interesting creature that seems quite light to the touch for dragging and such, but needs a firm tap for clicking. Touchpads are, to me, a lot more flexible than mice. There are loads of gestures, I know I don't know them all, for I have only just discovered a two-finger drag will scroll up and down; though I certainly feel a touchpad has more going for it than the old mouse.
For old fashioned people who like to click buttons, there are two buttons below the touchpad...

Battery life
It is a small Lithium-Ion battery pack. Windows reckons, from a full charge, it will power the machine for about six hours with hardware (Bluetooth, WiFi, webcam...) switched on, or up to eight hours or so with that stuff switched off and the machine not running heavy load and automatic power-saving performance. Obviously battery longevity depends a lot on what you are doing. I certainly used it a lot today without running into "battery low" warnings!

As I write this addendum paragraph (on the 14th), the machine has been on for about two hours and the battery estimation says I have about seven and a half hours more use if I continue using the machine as I have been. It's a shame there is no easy-to-see battery rating on the desktop, perhaps the pop-up tooltip instead of saying "eeePC Tray Utility 5.1.1.3018" it should say "Battery 87%; 7 hours 48 minutes; CPU 52°C".
Later yet: I got my first battery warning at 20% charge, with 1h40 to go, and having used the machine maybe six or so hours. Impressive!

OS
The machine comes with Windows XP Home (SP3), along with a licence key and a re-install DVD-ROM. You can 'upgrade' stuff in your Windows from the DVD by using it as a shared drive on another computer. I installed East Asian (Japanese...) language support in this way. You'll just have to look around as the folder structure is different, try looking for compressed files in the \i386XP folder.
There are lots of tweaks to apply, such as moving "My Documents", tidying up the Start menu, telling the machine not to reboot upon a critical error (why oh why is this an XP default!?!). Then little things, like not using huge backdrop icons, switching on ClearType (and then tuning it with the downloadable tool as the default is icky)...

Also supplied is Skype, a non-installed version of Windows Media Player 9, MSIE 6, Works 9, Powerpoint 2007 viewer, StarOffice 8, and for some reason Intervideo WinDVD.
There is Microsoft Live, Messenger, plus a bunch of Asus utilities such as a BIOS updater.

Thoughts
Firstly, AWESOME! I like this thing. It's cute, it's practical, and I am not up for comparing penis sizes so a 17" laptop interests me little. Sure, a 250Gb harddisc would rock, but it's a lot less practical lugging such a large thing around - did that once with an Amstrad 8086-class machine that had two DD floppy drives, a flip-out monochrome LCD, and could run on something like a dozen D-cells... it's the 21st century, I want my portable computer to be just that - portable, not luggable.
Mom found a cool-sack with shoulder strap which is the perfect size for the eeePC (plus bits and bobs), the cooling material being an insulator to protect it. The size certainly belies its capabilities. And for Maplin to offer this for under £250 - I'm impressed with the specification and the price. So as I said at the start, it looks like some sort of latter-day Amstrad-like 'toy'. Fine, let people think that. Those of use with our eeePCs will know better.

This machine is obviously targetted at the roving cyberjunkie. The connectivity provided, the small size, the inclusion of software such as Skype... it seems odd to me that no antivirus/antiphishing was provided - but on the other hand it is probably easier to download and install one of the free products (Avast, AVG, Avira...) than trying to de-install a bundled version of Norton. Norton is good, but it is expensive.

 

Timing and statistics

The 'nutshell' version of the above...

System configuration/tests

Processor Intel Atom
When on batteries...
Power saving 1200MHz (FSB 300MHz / RAM 600MHz)
Auto power saving 1200MHz (FSB 300MHz / RAM 600MHz)
High performance 1600MHz (FSB 400MHz / RAM 800MHz)
Super high performance 1600MHz (FSB 400MHz / RAM 800MHz)
When plugged in...
Power saving 1200MHz (FSB 300MHz / RAM 600MHz)
Auto high performance 1464MHz (FSB 366MHz / RAM 732MHz) [or 1600MHz]
High performance 1600MHz (FSB 400MHz / RAM 800MHz)
Super performance 1680MHz (FSB 420MHz / RAM 840MHz)
Memory 1Gb DDR2 SDRAM.
Storage 4Gb (3844Mb binary) Flash SSD soldered to motherboard - C: drive
Random read test from 30Mb/s to 60Mb/s, average 41Mb/sec.
8Gb (7695Mb binary) Flash SSD on plug-in card - D: drive
Random read test from 34Mb/s to 50Mb/s, average 40Mb/sec.
(for read tests, block sizes 64K-1Mb behaved alike)
SD(HC)/MMC slot
Tested with various SD(HC) cards from 1Gb to 16Gb.
USB 3× USB 2.0 ports.
Random read test to SD card achieves approx. 18Mb/sec.
(the USB2.0 controller actually has six available ports, plus there are a further seven USB ports on four USB 1.1 controllers!?!)
Communications 10/100mbit ethernet (twisted pairs - RJ45) via Atheron 81xx controller
934Mb of video was copied from an AMD1.1GHz machine in 1m52s, this implies 'perceptual transfer rate' is about 70mbit/sec, however this does not take into account TCP/IP packets, headers, etc...
802.11n WiFi via mini-PCIE card (may be 'turned off')
Worked with various services, but only tried with 802.11b/g providers...
Bluetooth via Broadcom BT-253 USB device (at USB1.1) (may be 'turned off').
Display 1024×600 LCD panel
Also a VGA connector, display may be switched to either, or shared with certain caveats.
LCD panel resolutions...
800×600 Display is stretched to fill the screen.
1024×600 Native size.
1024×768 You only see 600px height, mouse pointer shifts top/bottom.
1024×768 Display is compressed to fit the screen.
CRT resolutions...
1024×768 (generic XVGA)
1280×720 (HD-alike 16:9)
1280×1024 (higher resolution 4:3)
1440×900 (higher resolution 16:9)
Using both display devices together, you can clone the LCD (no higher than 1024×600 on the CRT), or you can extend the display to the monitor.
Keyboard 80 key compact keyboard with FN key for overlay (an additional 31 keys/functions), plus Windows logo key and menu key.
Four additional keys, two are fixed function (display blank/backlight off, and resolution change), two are user definable (as supplied one changes CPU speed, and the other runs Skype)
Mouse Touchpad, supporting a variety of 'gestures'.
Multimedia 2× speakers with numerous audio 'tweaks' possible thanks to the ReadTek high definition audio.
Headphone jack.
Microphone jack.
2× microphones under LCD panel, for beam forming and echo cancellation.
1.3mpix webcam (USB, may be 'turned off'). Image resolution is 1280×1024.
Power Mains adaptor, autoranging.
Clip-in battery pack.
In normal use with computer in automatic power saving mode, an SD card in use, and bluetooth/WiFi/webcam disabled, battery life is pleasingly long - Mick watched two films and part charged his mobile phone (USB 'charger') on the train journey home (TGV then Eurostar), and after all that he still had over 50% remaining. I used my computer for many hours yesterday, and my computer warned me at 20% (which estimated over an hour and a half to go). I was sceptical, but I now feel I can believe that seven or so hours is possible...
Heat Outside in the evening breeze, the processor's temperature is 44°C. Inside on my bed, the temperature is usually 50-55°C. I imagine it has gone as high as 65°C as the fan has run fast; however I practically never use super-high mode, the standard auto-high/auto-power saving (depending on powerpack/battery) is quite sufficient for playing MPEG4 video fullscreen.
I have not yet, in real use, experienced any temperatures that I would worry about from the computer - contrary to what may be said in other reviews of the eeePC 901. I think the bottom line is if you switch to super high performance (which overclocks the processor) and give it a heavy workload, it will heat up. If you plan to do that sort of thing, you might have been better buying a desktop machine with a faster yet processor and a really big heatsink!
Now? I am writing this in Metapad, sitting outside in the evening sun (just don't mention the unfortunately chilly breeze!) and my CPU is 44°C - the fan isn't even on, or if it is I can't hear it resting my ear on the bottom of the computer!

 

Activity timings

Standard eeePC with Avast antivirus and wired ethernet...
   Computer turned on                           0 sec
   XP's start-up message                        8 sec
   Desktop first appears                       27 sec
   Desktop is usable (loaded TightVNC client)  34 sec
   Windows plays its welcome jingle            46 sec


   Shutdown button pressed (no apps running)    0 sec
   Desktop goes, Windows gives status msgs now  3 sec
   Computer powers off                         23 sec


   Time taken to load Explorer (not MSIE)       2 sec

   Time taken to load Firefox & show this page  7 sec
     ditto, but with Avast disabled             3 sec
     ditto with Avast on, but reloading it      3 sec
The anti-virus creates some measure of lag, but it is smart enough not to waste time scanning what it has already scanned.
The boot is quite fast, the slow part isn't getting the computer running, it is getting all those Windows services and such started! Likewise shutdown, housekeeping takes the most time here too...

 

Recommendations

Purely personal...
  • Right-click on the backdrop. Select Properties, then click the Appearance tab, and finally the Effects button.
    Switch to ClearType, the text is a lot more readable, especially for long durations, at greater distances and/or smaller sizes.
    You should now download the ClearType tuner powertoy from Microsoft to configure ClearType to look its best on your machine, the default options are not as good as they could be...
    Make sure the "Use large icons" is not ticked. This will make the backdrop icons normal sized, and hence you'll be able to fit a lot more shortcuts (etc) on-screen. And, with ClearType, the captions will be readable even when small!
     
  • Press Windows-Break, click Advanced, in the section Startup and recovery, click Settings and make sure that System failure - automatically restart is not ticked. If the machine crashes, you want to know, you don't want it to auto-reboot. Why oh why oh why is this a default setting for XP?
    Take a moment to giggle at the following (what's "less than 0Mb"?):
    It will ask if you want to restart Windows. Answer No, we're not finished.
     
  • In that same system properties window, click the Error Reporting button, and select the top two entries. This will stop Windows habitually asking "such and such has screwed up, would you like to tell Microsoft about it?"...
    OK, OK, and then restart your computer...
     
  • If you put Explorer (not MSIE) into your Quick Launch and you'd like to open at "My Computer" (like under Windows 98 etc) instead of the default "My Documents", this is possible - Right-click the shortcut, select Properties, and set the Target as:
      %SystemRoot%\Explorer.exe /e,::{20D04FE0-3AEA-1069-A2D8-08002B30309D}

 

Pros & Cons

What rocks
  • Small size
  • Bright clear display
  • Runs silently (the fan, when on, is extremely quiet)
  • Long battery life
  • Good spec for the price
  • Recovery DVD
  • XP-not-Vista-yay!
  • The Maplin offer was for basic black, though the eeePC 901 is available in a variety of colours.
In short, for ithose who care more about portability than having their entire desktop in a bag, this may well be one of the ultimate portable computers. There are later, possibly better, eeePC machines, however with an internal harddisc I wonder if it would achieve the same combination of quiet, coolness, and long battery life. Remember, this is an era when laptop autonomy is more in the order of three hours...

But, here also, are a few of the things that could be improved:

  • The keyboard feels a little cramped. It takes a bit of getting used to, I am now more and more able to hold down the right Shift without pressing Cursor Up or Enter by mistake... Oh, and where is the vertical bar in DOS? If I press '|' (Fn-Shift-Z), I get ''. Codepage hiccup?
  • A backlit option on the keyboard would have been so cool.
  • Time will tell as to the level of reliability of the Flash SSDs. Can you buy replacements from Asus? And what happens if/when the hardwired (C:) drive fails?
  • For a machine that seems to be intended for the roving 'net scout, it is strange that the bundled software included WinDVD when there is no optical drive, yet did not include some sort of antivirus/anti-spyware.
  • The Windows installation could have been tailored a little better - see some of my suggestions above.
  • The touchpad could so with some sensitivity controls. It seems quite sensitive when using gestures, but conversely it needs a good firm tap to (double-)click something. On the plus side, the variety of gestures are quite configurable - if you can remember them all... ☺
With the exception of the little worry of the SSD, most of the complaints are finickety little things; though for coding in bed in the middle of the night, you'd really wish for a sexy backlit keyboard!

 

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