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  • My first OEM Linux PC (laptop)!

    Home Forums AskWoody support Non-Windows operating systems Linux – all distros My first OEM Linux PC (laptop)!

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      • #2356006

        I was not sure where to put this one. It could go in hardware too, but there are some interesting Linux tidbits here that to me are the most interesting part of the story, even if it is only a few lines out of a ton of them. They’re about two thirds of the way down. And no,, this message does not seem to be spam. It may be excessively long, but spam it is not.

        So without further ado:

        I paid off my credit card debt a little bit ago. I am not a big fan of buying on credit, but when my feline family members need help, I will make sure they get it. Now I have insurance that should take care of that for future emergencies.

        I’ve avoided spending any money on anything other than the necessities until the debt was paid off, though in fairness, that’s not much of a stretch for me. I have no (non-furry) dependents, my mortgage is very low, and my car’s been paid off for closer to two decades than one. On top of that, I am fairly reclusive, so things that would normally go under “entertainment” are really no less a thing under COVID than they would have been otherwise.

        And then there is that stimulus payment that is supposed to be coming…

        I’ve written here a bunch of times about how my Acer Swift 1 was my grab-n-go laptop, often accompanying me when I am out of the house. I’ve also commented nearly as many times that despite its name, it’s actually not very swift at all. It does the job, but slowly, and it does get on my nerves at times. My desktop (Sandy Bridge i5, overclocked) and my Dell G3 laptop (too big and heavy to carry around much) are so much faster!

        So I started looking at notebooks the size of the Swift (13 inch screen), but with more oomph. I started with the Swift 3, as I had been thinking about the neat 3:2 aspect ratio screen it has as an option. As with many other bits in computing (like with the GUI in general), widescreens were not something I accepted willingly. Beyond a certain point when it comes to laptops, you can either go widescreen or get really chummy with your old, increasingly outdated gear.

        While I have come around on GUIs, I never have on 16:9. Sure, it seems normalish now, but I do often miss that extra bit at the top. So when Acer announced they were going to have 3:2s (as Microsoft had with their Surface laptop, but I am not interested in running Windows, so that’s an unlikely one off the bat), I was pretty enthusiastic. I like the Swift line already, so one with a faster CPU/GPU and a better aspect ratio seemed great.

        I investigated all of their models, and one stood out. It has the Tiger Lake 11th generation CPU, as part of Intel’s “Evo” series. Evo also features Intel’s best integrated GPU yet, the Iris Xe.

        The Iris series from Intel is not new, but until recently, it seemed to exist mainly on Macbooks, with the slower (and cheaper) Intel HD series on the Windows machines that were the most likely Linux candidates. Now there are lots of Windows machines with Iris, either in the form of Xe (Tiger Lake, gen 11) or Plus (Ice Lake).

        I soon saw that the Ice Lake and Tiger Lake variants of the same machines cost the same, so naturally I had to have Tiger. And since these machines are all likely to have soldered RAM (which I confirmed is the case for the Swift 3 that has the 3:2 screen as an option), I would want 16 GB. One model had all the boxes ticked… and when I pressed the “buy now” button, it gave me a choice of two sellers: B&H Camera (who won’t accept returns) and Micro Center (who will accept returns, but they won’t ship it, and the nearest store is a 6-7 hour drive from here).

        Well, drat.

        So I began to look at others. I found a nice Lenovo with Evo and a 16:10 display… not quite as nice as 3:2, but close. And of course, the 16GB model was not available, presumably as the model is new and the initial production run was the 8GB model.

        Well, drat, x2.

        I didn’t find anything compelling from HP or Asus. Next up was Dell, which I generally have a positive impression of despite several stumbles with my G3… screws missing internally, a factory battery with a shockingly short service life, a lackluster screen (can’t really blame that one on Dell; I bought a budget gaming laptop and that was what I got), and a power supply brick that was not enough to meet the power demands of the unit with which it was packaged.

        Dell came up with some fancy name for that last bit, but it’s not a “neat” technology that lets them get away with a smaller PSU than needed with the internal battery filling in the gaps. It’s a corner that was cut to save cost by including a smaller PSU. It’s not an unusual thing, as it is unfortunately not an uncommon practice in the computing world, but it was a point docked nonetheless. Yeah, I know, budget laptop.

        Still, the unit has been rock stable, the innards are well arranged, and they publish service manuals for us regular people. HP is almost as good in that regard, but they have to ruin it a little by saying “this manual is intended for professionals only!” while Dell is quite up front about it being for regular people. Dell does not deny warranty claims just because we may have been messing around in there. If we broke something, certainly, but not just because we dared open up our own property.

        So I found an Inspiron with Iris AND upgradeable RAM (one soldered, one slot, which seems to be the best one can hope for these days outside of gaming or other specialized laptops), but the reviews were not good. It has the thing (a fairly trendy thing now) where when you open the laptop lid, a bit of it rotates under the keyboard and props it up, improving the angle and airflow… IF the hinge can hold the screen and keyboard in place well enough. According to at least one review, it couldn’t. Even though the idea of the keyboard elevation thing seems good, I think I would rather go the traditional route where the rubber feet on the bottom define the angle of the dangle.

        So I came upon the XPS series, and one by one the boxes got ticked… IPS display with wide gamut (>95% sRGB), preferably in matte, full HD (1920 horizontal) or more, 16:10 or better, upgradeable RAM or 16GB on board, and no floppy hinge designs.

        As an added plus, the XPS 13 was considerably smaller than the 13 inch Swift I had been carrying around. The latest Swift 1 has a 14 inch display in the same size case, so it is not surprising. But there was a paucity of 16GB models, and they generally had stuff I anti-want… not just stuff I don’t want to pay for, but stuff I actively do not want, like a touchscreen (adds weight, precludes the matte finish display, adds power consumption), higher resolution screens (1920 pixels across is already “retina” level at the viewing distance I will use, so the additional power consumption is a bigger negative).

        Why can’t I find one that has 16 GB, the full HD screen, no touch, the i5 CPU (i7 is nice, but these things are going to be thermally limited to the hilt anyway, so the cheaper i5 is plenty)? Even the “customize” options only let me downgrade Windows Pro to Home for a $50 savings, with the rest of the options being software addons and the like.

        But then I thought… why limit myself to “home” machines?

        I looked through the Precision and Vostro lines and found nothing of note, but when I got back to XPS, I saw an option that had not existed when I was being a “home” user: The XPS 13 “Developer Edition.”

        This one came with Ubuntu 20.04, so no soup for you, Microsoft! But even better, it let me up the RAM to 16GB without that extra stuff I didn’t want. I could have a 16GB, full HD, i5, non-touch, non-Windows laptop, and it was on sale for 17% off (some kind of anniversary sale).

        The final price for the flagship XPS was only a touch higher than for the Swift 3 (though that had the i7), but it was returnable, and shippable, and I know it works with Linux because that’s the way it comes. The XPS was also smaller by most of an inch in one dimension, and with about the same weight.

        On the bad side, the XPS has few ports, with only a pair of USB C/Thunderbolt ports, a headphone jack, and a micro SD card slot. The Swift 3 has a much better complement of ports, with a full size SD card slot, several USB type A jacks, a HDMI port, a power port (the XPS uses USB-C type charging), but there just isn’t room for all that on the miniscule XPS. But I could get a dongle that has all of that plus an ethernet (gigabit) port for $25, and the XPS would have the advantage of being able to have its charging gear work with my phone too (I do not think the reverse is true though; the phone’s charger probably will not work with the XPS).

        So I thought about it a while and decided to go for it.

        I thought Dell wanted 2 weeks to build my special order at first, until I noticed it said the expected delivery date would be around April 28. I had thought it said March… but they wanted a month and a half!

        Soon I got a note that they had finished manufacturing my XPS and that it would take up to 5 days to get to the packager… and that the expected delivery date was still at the end of April.

        I called Dell to ask “What’s up with this,” and the guy said he would expedite it for me, no charge. And then I got a note in a couple of days saying it was shipping.

        So now it is here. It was packaged really elaborately, in what can best be described as a presentation box. What gorgeous workmanship and fit and finish! Very nice.

        So I fired it up, and Ubuntu came right up, as it should.

        I have always preferred Ubuntu derivatives, but this was Ubuntu itself, not one of the alternate types with another desktop environment (I would have preferred Kubuntu). GNOME is the default desktop of Ubuntu, and it’s also my least favorite.

        So I fumbled around and learned some things about how a modern OEM Linux installation looks.

        First, the kernel version was 5.6-OEM. I have often seen the OEM kernels in the Ubuntu repo and wondered what they were for. Apparently, it’s a unified OEM kernel for use in all of the Ubuntu OEM installations that has “stuff” added to it for each of those OEM models. Tiger Lake is too new for the standard 5.4 kernel from Ubuntu, and even 5.8 has one issue that I have discovered. The 5.6 kernel is still being maintained by Ubuntu in the OEM form, and it has been the best one so far for the XPS (there is also an OEM 5.10 that I will try, but I haven’t yet).

        TLP, a power-saving package that I have been using with Neon for years on my laptops, was preinstalled, with the default settings. Intel’s thermald (short for thermal daemon) was also installed with its default settings, with no customization at all. Input for the touchpad was handled, unsurprisingly, by libinput, the “wave of the future” unified input driver that stinks with touchpads and is only somewhat better on actual mice. The old synaptics driver, deprecated though it may be, is so much of a quantum leap better… but the libinput driver works with Wayland, while presumably synaptics never will, so that awful thing is just a matter of time away. I wrote a post about why I dislike libinput, and my opinion has not changed.

        Libinput is hamstrung by the idea that there is such a thing as a single “correct” configuration of a touchpad, so the theory goes that if the driver is bug-free and their database contains the correct DPI info for the touchpad, the “correct” setup will be what the user gets. Well, I’ve tried to get libinput working in a way that I find “correct,” but I just can’t do it, no matter how much I fudge the DPI info in one direction or another. The assumptions built into the driver itself about what is “correct” are just way, way off the mark of what I consider “correct,” and it’s deliberately made not configurable (because why would I need to do that unless I am trying to compensate for bugs that should be fixed, not worked around?).

        The base installation of Ubuntu used the single-partition setup, with three partitions by default (if I recall correctly). These are the EFI System Partition (ESP), the Dell recovery partition (which was strangely marked as a Microsoft Reserved partition, even though there was no Windows here), and the remaining one is for all of Ubuntu, with no swap or separate home partitions.

        There were two Dell programs preinstalled, and the repo for the two was already set up, as you’d expect. One of these was a rescue disc/USB drive creator (using what was in the recovery partition) and one was some other kind of Dell troubleshooty thing.

        I took a Veeam image of the setup before I changed anything (other than installing Veeam), and then I wiped that and installed Neon, using my multiple partition setup (ESP, root, home, encrypted, and swap) that is the same as my other Neon machines.

        This laptop has an NVMe drive, as does my Dell G3, and the G3’s (the Samsung 970 Evo) is faster than the XPS’s WD OEM drive by a decent margin. Still, the XPS is much faster in a lot of disk-related activities. Deleting files (where they are copied to the trash rather than actually deleted) is amazingly fast on the XPS, and the boot time is under 8 seconds from end of POST to ready to go (interrupted in the middle of that by the encrypted volume password dialog).

        It has only a smallish 250GB SSD at the moment, as the 1TB option from Dell cost $200, and for a bit over half that I can get a 1TB and install it myself, and I can keep the 250GB too. The new one should be here tomorrow (I went with 1TB, as the model of SSD I chose has nothing larger. The SK Hynix P31 is, from what I can tell, the most power efficient NVMe SSD you can buy, and I chose the longer battery run time over having more storage (that will invariably fill with junk).

        The unit has already had its first warranty service too. The LCD had bright lines down the margin on both sides, and it was driving me nuts. The Dell agent agreed it looked to be beyond the acceptable threshold, and dispatched a repair agent to come and fix it. Yes, this is a business model, so they come to me!

        He swapped the entire screen/lid assembly, and the new one is a bit better than the old one, but the problem exists in this one too, and I am considering what to do. It could be a peculiarity of the LCD panel they use for this model, so they will all have it… but it is better than before, so perhaps it can be better even more. The agent on the phone mentioned a parts-only dispatch (where I would fix it myself), and I think I would prefer that… I like working on these things, and I do have the service manual. I also watched the guy do it, and it is as simple as it gets, really.

        The other thing that I find somewhat bothersome is that the unit gets toasty when it is under a load. Of course, in a unit this small, I do expect heat soak to be a fairly big factor. It has two fans, but they are tiny compared to the two inside my G3. Ironically, the XPS’s premium aluminum case (lower) increases the sensation and the reality of how hot the case is, as aluminum is far more thermally conductive than the G3’s plastic. More heat will be carried to the outer skin of the unit, and it will feel hotter than it would with the G3 at the same temperature. It’s not painful, though, and the battery life is quite nice (going about an hour of regular web browsing before the battery hits 90% charge, and that was outside, so I had the screen turned up brighter than I would inside), so it doesn’t seem to be wasting any energy to heat beyond what is unavoidable.

        The difference in appearance between the XPS and the Swift 1 is profound, even though both are aluminum cased (except for the palmrest on the XPS, which has been called carbon fiber in reviews). The XPS appears to be machined aluminum and the way it fits together is just so pleasingly precise… while the Swift, which I always thought looked pretty good with its aluminum case, looks cheap by comparison.

        Performance wise, the XPS is just a beast as far as the kinds of activities for which it was designed. It is not a gaming laptop, nor was it meant for sustained heavy workloads like a mobile workstation. It’s meant for the bursty kind of load that comes from things like web browsing and office applications, and that’s what I intended it to be used for. I have a gaming laptop for heavier-duty stuff… this was meant to be like the Swift, only swift, and it fits that role quite well so far.





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      • #2356031
        AskWoody Plus

        How come you never checked with proper OEM Linux builders ?

        • This reply was modified 4 days ago by Alex5723.
        • #2356040

          Good question. There are a couple of reasons.

          First, cost. While I didn’t price them out this time, I have checked the Linux first manufacturers against the big guys before, and based on that, I didn’t think the Linux first vendors would be competitive.

          The System76 equivalent (the closest to it, which is a 14 inch) of what I ended up buying is priced at $1,299. From Dell, it came in at closer to $900 than $1000, and the System76 wasn’t really what I was looking for (I wanted a slightly smaller 13 inch), though it is certainly within the ballpark. It’s about the same size as my Acer Swift. The System76 also does not have a 16:10 or 3:2 aspect ratio as the Acer, Lenovo, and Dell all do.

          The cost issue is why I didn’t particularly begin looking for a Linux OEM model… because even with the Microsoft tax, mainstream Windows-first models usually cost less. Some of it is that the junkware offsets the cost of the MS license, but there’s also the economy of scale.

          The bit about the XPS being Linux OEM was a happy accident. I was just looking for one that had 16 GB and didn’t have extras that I didn’t want. Funny that I am a home user who is not a developer, yet to get what I was looking for, I had to go to the business section and get the developer’s edition. I don’t know that I am representative of home users, but if so, Dell did a poor job of guessing what they would want!

          Second, it’s good to buy popular models when it comes to getting parts for them years down the road. I’ve never had trouble getting parts from Ebay, since the models I’ve had thus far have been produced and sold in large numbers. I’ve bought a lot of laptop parts over the years.

          With models from smaller manufacturers, the parts supply in the secondary (used) market is probably quite limited. I am guessing the System76 models are probably Clevo units, as they are the OEM who makes a lot of the boutique laptops, which would broaden the parts supply somewhat if I knew which models interchanged with which other ones.



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      • #2356102
        AskWoody Plus

        Ascaris: Could you have replaced the Ubuntu GNOME desktop with another one that you like better?

        In which ways (if it is not too much to ask, of course) is Ubuntu’s libinput touch pad driver inconvenient? Can one, for example, adjust the sensitivity to touch, so the cursor does not keep jumping around all over the place while one is trying to type something, but one still can click on anything clickable effectively, without straining one’s finger?

        Also: Is the following article relevant?

        Looking at System76, I find the top-of-the-line Pangolin model interesting, because I prefer laptops with larger screens. It also comes with 64 GB of 8-core memory, which is probably way more than I’ll  need, even if I live to be 120 and still using computers, if there are still computers resembling today’s at all, at such a distant future time.

        The Pangolin’s price is not stated, probably because “if you have to ask …” But I am not too concerned about price, so I might go for one of those, if I decided to buy an OEM Linux machine that looked more like a solution than a problem and found no better alternative.

        Windows 7 Professional, SP1, x64 Group W (ex B) & macOS Mojave + Linux (Mint)

        • #2356170

          Ascaris: Could you have replaced the Ubuntu GNOME desktop with another one that you like better?

          Yes, and I did try that initially, just to see how it would work. The problem is that each desktop has its own set of utilities, and installing the new desktop doesn’t necessarily convert everything. The result is a half and half kind of setup, where if there is a problem, the solutions one finds on the web that are geared toward regular Ubuntu or the KDE-based Kubuntu don’t necessarily apply, or at least not in a simple, straightforward way.

          Knowing which bits of the GNOME setup that can be removed is also a point of difficulty, as simply removing every bit with “GNOME” in the name somewhere doesn’t work. Even Kubuntu and Neon come with some GNOME bits, and some the additional GNOME stuff can’t be avoided, like with Firefox… it uses the GNOME Toolkit (GTK) to draw the UI in Linux. Even if one uses KDE, he has to have enough of the GNOME stuff to be able to function with programs like Firefox, just as users of desktops that use GTK (including all three varieties of Mint) need Qt libraries to be able to run things like the GUI for Virtualbox. GNOME and Qt interoperate pretty well, though the theming could be different, and GNOME famously reverses the order of the OK and Cancel buttons from the way MS has always had them.

          Even though I do not like the GNOME desktop, there is some GNOME software I do use regularly, like their disk manager (just called ‘Disks’ in Mint). I also (unfortunately!) find GPartEd to be superior to KDE Partition Manager, even though KDE Partition Manager is meant to be the KDE version of GpartEd. I also find Synaptic Package Manager (which uses GTK) to be better than Muon (which is a product of KDE, meant to be their version of Synaptic).

          Both of those KDE versions have some annoyances that are not in the GNOME counterparts. Just a short while ago, I was setting up the new SSD in the XPS (Dell wanted $200 to upgrade from a 250GB NVMe SSD to a 1TB, so I ordered it with the 250GB, bought a 1TB of my choosing for $130, and kept the $70 and the 250 GB drive), and I was having some trouble with that, as the Veeam rescue software did not boot on the XPS (probably a function of the new Tiger Lake platform being too new for it).

          I booted to a live session of Kubuntu 20.10 “Groovy Gorilla” from a USB drive, which I knew would have a new enough kernel to work with the XPS, then installed Veeam into that. Since Kubuntu STILL has not fixed the bug in KDE Connect I reported the better part of a year ago (and I handed them the fix also… update libSSL and OpenSSL! Neon (where  I also reported the bug with KDE Connect, eventually fixed what was wrong with those two packages, but not Ubuntu), KDE Connect would not work, so to get some files from the older PCs to the live session, I tried to create a new partition in the free space in another USB drive, so I could “sneakernet” the files over.

          KDE Partition Manager would not create the new partition in the empty space, nor would it wipe the existing partitions and start anew. I made sure everything was unmounted, but to no avail. It was just fail, fail, fail, whatever I tried.

          I’ve had this kind of thing happen before, so I already have GpartEd installed on the PC in question (my desktop). It did what I wanted with no problem at all. I got the new SSD set up and working, no more problems.

          In addition to all of that, I just wanted newer KDE stuff than what is available on Kubuntu 20.04. I like the stable 20.04 LTS base for the Ubuntu stuff and the latest and greatest KDE stuff. So, after I got done messing around with switching the desktop stuff, I just installed Neon. It’s easy to install a new Linux version… the harder part is setting everything up and doing all of the customizations, which I would have to do even if I kept the swapped version.

          In which ways (if it is not too much to ask, of course) is Ubuntu’s libinput touch pad driver inconvenient? Can one, for example, adjust the sensitivity to touch, so the cursor does not keep jumping around all over the place while one is trying to type something, but one still can click on anything clickable effectively, without straining one’s finger?

          I wrote a bunch of stuff on the topic in a post a while ago. The thing that would make the cursor not jump around when typing is palm detection, which is one thing that libinput is better at. Synaptics has it, but it doesn’t work on my XPS. I just assigned F9 to turn the touchpad on and off, and when it starts jumping around, I just press that and it stops.



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      • #2356175
        AskWoody Lounger

        Rhetorical snipe from a Win7 user, to Ascaris and Oscar:
        Which is worse for those of us PC users who grew up on DOS and Windows < 8:
        – KUWW10 – Keeping Up With Windows 10; or
        – Wrestling with the vagaries of all the different generations and distributions of Linux?

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        • #2356181
          AskWoody Plus

          I am neither @Ascaris nor @OscarCP,  🙂  but I do have experience with both Windows 10 and Linux systems (mostly Kubuntu).

          Personally, I find using Kubuntu on a day-in, day-out basis to be a much more pleasant, relaxed experience than dealing with Windows 10’s demands and restrictions.

          The main objections I’ve always had to Windows 10 revolve around three areas: limited UI customization, forced updates, and telemetry that cannot be turned off completely. Linux far surpasses Windows 10 in all three respects: in Linux, you have plenty of choices for making the UI look the way you want it, whereas in Win10 there is no longer a way to achieve Aero Glass-type translucence on window elements; in Linux, the OS tells you that updates are available and then–in sharp contrast to Windows 10–simply waits patiently for you to install them whenever you get around to it; and, finally, in Linux AFAIK you can turn telemetry off completely and go on your merry way.

          The main drawbacks to making Linux one’s daily driver come into play when you are trying to work on projects with other people who are not using Linux, in which case there is the potential for file incompatibilities; but thanks to ongoing improvements in WINE it’s becoming increasingly easy to use Windows software in Linux, such that that potential is diminished and may soon disappear for all intents and purposes.

          Regarding the different generations and distributions of Linux, once you settle on a particular flavor, there isn’t much further wrestling to do. Just make sure to select an LTS (long-term support) version, otherwise you will indeed have to deal with short support periods and frequent installations of whole new versions. I’m using Kubuntu 18.04 LTS, which I installed more than two years ago, and I won’t have to deal with an upgrade until late in 2023.


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        • #2356194
          AskWoody Plus

          Well, Paul K, Non-rhetorically, I am a Windows 7 user and have been using Windows for nearly a quarter of a century. I’m also a Mac and a Linux user (although these days I am mostly using a Mac — getting the use of all the money paid for it, one might say). Maybe you could ask that question to someone else who might be able to give a more informative answer?

          Windows 7 Professional, SP1, x64 Group W (ex B) & macOS Mojave + Linux (Mint)

        • #2356307

          Well, I will just say that I was a Windows user from 1990 (with 3.0, though back then the ‘real’ work was done in MS-DOS) until 2015, when 10 came out and I saw the first feature update, with none of the things people had been hollering about fixed. I had naïvely thought MS would do as they had in the past, as with Windows 8 to 8.1… that is, they would listen to customer feedback and fix it.

          With that first update, Threshold 2, I could see where MS was headed, and that was when I stepped up the Linux plans. I had Linux on my “test” PC alongside Windows 10, but I would need it on my actual machines to really get used to it. I put Linux on both of my main PCs at the time (one old laptop and the desktop), alongside Windows, and used both operating systems in a dual boot setup… until one day I realized that I had not booted Windows in a long time. I had even migrated from 7 to 8.1 (with modifications) to buy myself more time, but it turned out that I didn’t need it at all. I was full Linux before 7 ran out of time.

          I don’t regret leaving Windows, though it could also be said that I did not leave Windows… it left me (as the saying goes). I like Linux, and I do have a Windows virtual machine and WINE for Windows programs I don’t want to live without, like MS Streets & Trips. The XPS is my first PC that never had Windows on it bare-metal, and I do not plan to add it. I only kept the other Win 10 installations (on the Swift and G3) because it was already paid for and present, and it is better to have it and not need it than the other way round… though so far WINE and Virtualbox have provided all of the Windows compatibility I have needed.

          My distro is Neon, quite similar to Kubuntu, just with more up to date stuff from KDE. Plasma, KDE’s desktop environment, is IMO the best of the bunch.


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