Dell Latitude D430 with U7700 User Review

by Greg Ross Reads (105,916)

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by Greg Ross

The Dell Latitude D430 is Dell’s current ultraportable offering that features Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) Intel processors and a host of other technologies in order to create one of the smallest 12.1" machines that still maintains a respectable amount of battery life and computing power.  In the past few months, Dell has further updated the Latitude D430 to include a newer, more powerful processor from Intel.  Read on to see how the new configuration for the D430 stacks up against the old one and its competitors!

(Note: As this is an updated article, I’ll only be changing the sections in which my opinions have changed or the specs have changed.  I reserve the right to plagiarize myself!)

Reasons for Buying

After several months with my original Latitude D430, it started developing an intermittent problem that Dell was unable to solve.  In hindsight, it was probably the same problem that landed that laptop in the Dell Outlet where I found it, but after Dell could not fix it they offered to trade my old D430 for a brand new D430 with updated specs.  At least I was smart enough to realize that it was a good deal for me.  New laptop, no problems, and another review article!

Price & Model Specifications

The D430 starts out at a not-so-cheap $1,149.  Since the original article was written, the base configuration by default comes with a dual core processor, which makes this an even better deal.

My specific unit was configured as follows:

  • Intel Core 2 Duo U7700 Processor (1.33GHz, 2MB L2 Cache, Ultra Low Voltage)
  • Microsoft Genuine Windows XP Professional
  • 12.1" WXGA Display (1280×800)
  • 1GB DDR2 533MHz RAM (upgraded to 2GB)
  • 80GB 4200RPM Toshiba 1.8" HDD
  • External D-Port CD-RW/DVD-ROM Optical Drive
  • Intel 3945 802.11a/b/g WiFi, Ethernet, and Modem
  • 6-Cell 42Whr Battery
  • 3-Year Next Business Day At-Home & Gold Technical Support Warranty
  • Dimensions: 11.6" W x 8.25" D x 1" H
  • Weight: 3.2lbs (with battery, without optical drive)

As configured, this notebook would cost $1,495 before taxes direct from Dell.  However, Dell Latitude D430′s can be found at the Dell Outlet for as little as $700 now and similar configurations can be found for $900-$1,100 no problem.

Build & Design

Business notebooks are supposed to be the top-of-the-line laptops, with the highest build quality and top notch support.  My last three notebooks (including the original D430) were all high quality notebooks, and I expect the best.

In the last few months, I’ve come to realize that the D430 is the most solid notebook I have ever owned, and it is the lightest as well.  The entire body of the laptop is built of tightly packed guts and a solid magnesium alloy frame with sold plastic "plating."  The best way to describe it is that the bones and muscles of the D430 are solid metal, while the skin is made of a strong plastic.

The screen construction is also impressive, but not as much as the chassis’ construction. As with most laptop screens, the display can be twisted a little bit … but not nearly as much as other laptops I have encountered. The bezel has one small weak spot at the inside vertical edges, and when pushing in on the LCD screen from up top I can produce some ripples on the screen. Would it possibly be enough to damage the screen? No, but as with any notebook do not act out any of your dreams of dropping bricks directly onto the notebook. When in my backpack or another tight spot, I have no need to worry about the screen protection. I have included a video illustrating the squeeze effect, but I am pressing VERY hard to produce the ripples.

 

 

Most users will never notice this.

Since getting my new notebook, there have been ZERO problems with it.  That is a welcome improvement from the first D430 which had a lot of problems near the beginning of the summer.

Other parts of the notebook are sturdy as well. The hard drive on the D430 features hardware-based shock protection (I never saw evidence of a hardware and software based solution like the Fujitsu E8410, HP 8710p, or HP nc8430), and the keyboard/mousepad area has absolutely no flex so all those computer parts directly underneath your working area are perfectly safe.

Coming in at a meager 12" in size, the D430 is definitely a small notebook. When placed in my backpack, I really do not notice the extra weight and it is easy to take with me every day. The only bad thing about such a light laptop is that if you leave it behind somewhere, you are not going to notice a huge weight lifted off your shoulders. From experience, I’ve had to learn to check a little more carefully to make sure the laptop is not left behind.  In fact, I’ve become addicted to how small the notebook is … I love its size and portability.


Add-on DVD drive. (view large image)

Another feature that needs mentioning is the DVD drive, or lack thereof. The D430 managed to achieve its incredible thinness by ditching an internal DVD drive and going with an external Dell-specific-version-of-USB external USB DVD drive that can run off of the notebook’s power mains to minimize the cable requirements. For users that do not need an optical drive very often, this will be perfectly fine. Users who need it more frequently may find themselves wondering if they’d want to carry around a second piece of equipment. I myself do not find it annoying to be missing a drive whatsoever, as I rarely need to use an optical drive. I love having the option to shed some backpack weight and leave the DVD drive at home, but some may not.


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As far as appearances go, this is a business notebook. Appropriately so, the D430 features a mostly black and gun-metal gray visual design. When compared to the design of the HP Compaq business notebooks, I would say that (1) the exterior of the Latitudes does not look as sharp but (2) the interior sections of the D430 look more professional and sharper.


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The exterior of the D430 (the back of the LCD screen and the bottom of the notebook) appears to be almost 100 percent gun-metal gray, which is a design feature that we’ve seen in Latitudes for a long time. It’s getting kind of old, but it still looks nice. The updated model coming out in a few months will be a welcome redesign and refresh of the Latitude look, but this notebook still looks great. The interior of the D430 is really what looks nice and professional. The lines are sharper and the overall appearance is more visually appealing than my previous notebooks.


Practically indestructible! (view large image)

When closed, the D430 reminds you of a thin workbook or textbook. In fact, the dimensions of the D430 are fairly close to standard 8.5"x11" paper and I regularly carry my D430 inside of a stack of notes and books. For a college student, this is really nice as you can move around with all of that in your hands and not have a problem with any of it. Try moving a 17" notebook with a few paper notebooks on top and see how awkward it is, and then you’ll understand why one can appreciate the size of the 12" D430.


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Screen

The D430 features a standard 12" WXGA screen with a total resolution of 1280×800 pixels. Widescreen has pretty much become the standard for all notebooks, and I do have to say that it is nice to have this much horizontal real-estate.

The screen resolution itself is just right for a 12" notebook display, as for me all text and graphics easily readable. If you want to see a 12" screen for yourself, head to a local store that carries notebooks and try to find any 12" notebook there.

Many readers will wonder how a 12.1" screen could possibly be productive. Having a small, portable machine allows you to work virtually anywhere, which is better than having a larger screen in my eyes.

However, I do acknowledge that a smaller screen does require some multitasking sacrifices. Most programs do need to be maximized in order to really have an effective layout of the GUI, and exceptions are few and far between. Word, Outlook, Firefox, etc. … all of them need to be maximized for best performance while you are doing your individual tasks. Multitasking is going to require tabbing through all the windows or using your mouse to navigate. Personally, I find this mode of working acceptable given the tasks that are typically going to run on the D430.

Head on, the screen itself is very high quality. Text and graphics are very sharp, and the backlighting seems to be very even for all levels of brightness.


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The brightest of settings is perfect for any indoor environment and more outdoor conditions.  The dimmest screen setting possible can easily be used indoors with good lighting, but outdoors it is nearly impossible to use.

Finally, the screen does have a built-in ambient light sensor that can automatically adjust the brightness of the screen. When using that feature, I have found that the sensor does accurately determine how bright the screen should be for me to work effectively. This is a welcome improvement on the HP ambient light sensor, which has consistently set the screen to too dim of a setting for me to work effectively for the past year and a half. However, after six months of usage I’ve become annoyed with the feature and have permanently turned that off.  I prefer to adjust it myself.

Viewing angles are a bit of a mixed story. Vertical viewing angles are below average, but with such a small screen I have a hard time imagining that users would be looking in from those directions. Horizontal viewing angles are average, though the graphics on the screen tend to white out just a little bit when viewing from the side. If and when you are sharing a screen view with a co-worker or buddy, both of you should enjoy a relatively decent view. Pictures are worth much more than words, so see the graphic below for an illustration.


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Speaker and Audio

Notice the title of this section is "Speaker and Audio." That is because the D430 only has one speaker, and not a very good one at that. While it does function well enough to emit the occasional "You have mail" sound clip or make the "Windows prompt" beep, that is all it is good for. Listening to any type of movie or music on the D430′s internal speaker is a painful experience, and my fiancée actually asked me to stop playing music on the D430 at least once.

The speaker volume levels are fine for the laptop, but the speaker has an extraordinarily tinny aura to it. And there is no bass whatsoever. I would expect even an average speaker to be able to sound out a little bit of the baser notes in music, but this one fails utterly. Every time I listen to a music track or movie the sound has no depth and it feels and sounds like something is missing.

To try and get around this, I tried using the headphone jack on the D430 with a pair of Creative earphones that are known to work well enough to my satisfaction on other machines. Even then, the D430′s sound system disappointed so I know it is not just the lack of decent speakers. It is the lack of a better-than-low-quality integrated sound card. Granted, a business person probably will not have much use for the integrated speaker when making presentations, but I’m sure anyone would appreciate being able to listen to music. Furthermore, if a user hooked this laptop up to an external speaker set for a presentation, that user better not plan on using complex sounds and music clips. I just do not think this audio system would cut it, and six and more months later down the road there has been no improvement here.

One nice update to the review is that on the new laptop, and during the last month or two of the old laptop’s life, the sound card driver issues seemed to have been solved.  I no longer have self-destructing sound card drivers, which is nice.

Processor and Performance

The U7700 is the whole reason for this review.  My old D430 and new D430 had the same exact specifications, except that the U7700 is now available in the D430.  The U7700 is Intel’s latest dual core Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) processor, running at a chipper 1.33GHz speed.

As of this writing, only one single-core version of this processor is available on the D430 – the U2100 which is a single core 1.06GHz processor.  It is unfortunate that Dell continues to offer a 1.06GHz single core, because at one point a 1.2GHz single core was available (see my old review) that performed a little better at the same price.

While single core processors are largely an obsolete technology, ultraportable notebooks can still enjoy the benefits of less heat in the laptop.  I used to think that the single core version of the D430 laptop had better battery, but after testing the battery life on the D430 I am astounded to report the battery life of the dual-core is actually BETTER than that of the single core version.

At this point, it is safe to say that the single core version of the D430 is no longer a good investment as the dual core ULV processors are not THAT hot.

Before any benchmarks were done, I installed a fresh copy of Windows XP, upgraded to SP3, and installed some AV protection.

So how did the U7700 perform?

PCMark05 is a synthetic benchmark that gives users a general idea of how powerful any processor is, and the D430 came in with a final score of 2184.  The accepted margin of error is about 100 points, but regardless this score is massive improvement from what my old single-core U1400 scored (1454).


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SuperPI and wPrime are programs that are useful in testing the computational abilities of processors.  wPrime is a better benchmark program for multi-core processors, so this time around the results given by wPrime on my D430 will actually have some meaning.

SuperPI, which forces the processor to calculate the first 2M digits of PI, clocks in with a final time of 1m 41s. wPrime, which finds a ton of prime numbers, comes in with a total time of 123.541s. Neither score is particularly impressive, but notice that the D430 dual-core’s wPrime score is vastly improved from the 148.344s the single-core version clocked in at.


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In my original review, I concluded that a single-core U1400 processor was equivalent to about a 1.8GHz Pentium M or a 2.5-3.0GHz Pentium 4.  The dual-core U7700 is noticeably faster than my old laptop, perhaps as powerful as the slowest original Core Duo processors.  That is MORE than enough processing power for anything you would want to run on the dual-core D430.

To give you an idea of what this processor can do…I always use my D430 with Windows XP and Norton Internet Security 2008.  On top of that, I regularly write articles and check emails without a problem.  I frequently fire up my internal web server, MySQL databases, and PHP modules to do website development.  Finally, I do some programming on the laptop and regularly work on projects for Purdue without slowdowns.

Conclusion?  The D430′s processors are plenty powerful for everyday tasks.

Additionally, hard drive speed is another factor that affects how fast a notebook is perceived to be.  Ultraportable notebooks have been using 1.8" 4200RPM or 5400RPM hard drives, which require less power and generate less heat.  But they are the slowest type of hard drive out there.


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As shown above, the 4200RPM drive in my D430 is no star.  However, Windows loads fast enough (a little less than a minute for me) and I do not notice slowdowns during any of my usual activities.  Video’s and music are smooth with no glitches, and it does not take that long to perform a full backup of my system.

Another thing to mention is that the HDD is a PATA/IDE drive, which means you’ll need to pay attention to make sure you get a compatible drive if you ever upgrade anything.

There are SSD drives available for the D430, but a quick read over at Dell Community Forums or DailyTech shows that the SanDisk SSD that the D430 uses (SanDisk makes just about the only 1.8" IDE SSD) has quite a few problems under XP or Vista.  Avoid.

Last and least is the Intel GMA 950 IGP graphics card.  Obviously, Dell is using that IGP because it draws very little power and outputs very little heat.  But at the same time it is not very powerful, and a newer IGP is available (X3100).  I am not sure why that is not an option on this notebook, but either way this is not a gaming notebook and the GMA950 does work fine for office tasks.

Previously, the single-core D430 scored 348 on its 3DMark test.  Happily, the dual-core D430 scores 392.  Unfortunately, that still means that only older games will work on the D430…Halo still pushes the D430 a little too hard.  Fortunately, there are plenty of older games that will work just fine on this laptop.  Including Window’s Solitaire.


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Heat and Noise

Dell obviously has quite a challenge keeping the D430 cool and quiet, and that challenge is even more difficult with a dual-core processor that has a TDP of 9W (up from about 5.5W with a single-core processor).  That means there is even more heat that the D430 has to dissipate, so how is this notebook?

The frame of the D430 is small and cannot dissipate much heat, and there is only one small fan inside of the notebook directly next to or on top of the processor. The single air vent is not very wide either.  But they do work, and work well, while the U7700 is stressing the system.

When at idle, the processor and laptop are actually quite cool.  At a balmy 47C, this is actually a little bit cooler than my original D430 which came in at about a 53C idle temperature.  I suspect the reason for this is because the U7700 does not have to work as long to perform the various tasks a notebook always does when at idle, which causes overall power usage to fall.

As usual, I do try to take processor and hard drive temperature readings throughout my reviews, so let’s take a look at the full picture, shall we?


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Overall, the hard drive temperatures remained the same while the processor temperatures were a little more extreme.  Under the lowest power conditions, the dual-core D430′s temperatures were lower than the single-core version.  But as soon as one goes to "Always ON" or starts doing intensive work, the laptop gets hotter than its single-core variant.  90C is pushing one’s luck, but it is still within a laptop’s safe operating range.

While I am not happy with the overall increased temperatures, it was not unexpected.  However, the dual-core D430 most of the time will be performing office tasks and as such will be as cool or cooler than the single-core variant.  When on battery and doing non-intensive work, the dual-core D430 is actually cool enough to place directly on one’s skin and it not be too hot. I can finally wear shorts (and not pants) while working with the D430!

The fan itself is quite annoying once it revs up, but during normal usage the fan will either be off or at its lowest speed setting.  You will not notice it.  But as soon as you start to do intensive work, one will be annoyed with the loud higher pitched sounds that both the single-core and dual-core D430′s put out.

Keyboard and Touchpad

There really is not much new to report, except that in the last few months of usage I have come to love the keyboard on the D430.  It is, hands down, the best laptop keyboard I have ever used.  For the record, I have never used a Thinkpad but I have a difficult time believing Lenovo’s keyboards are as good as this D430 keyboard.

Overall, there is a little more feedback in the key-presses than all the other keyboards I have used, and Dell even managed to fit in a full-size keyboard in the 12" frame. The keyboard feels extremely firm, and there is no flex anywhere on the keyboard when using it.


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The biggest difference this keyboard has with others is that the PageUp and PageDown buttons are located above the arrow keys in the lower right corner of the keyboard.  This is a good thing though, as it makes them much more accessible for document and web browsing.  The F1-F12 keys up top are still a little too thin for my tastes though, as are the Esc, Home, End, Insert, and Delete keys that are found in the function button row.  Dell could probably have made those 17 keys full size had their design department thought a little more creatively.

The pointer stick, which I previously praised, is no longer my preferred method of mousing around.  The stick is still a very nice thing to have, and I am sure many users will appreciate it.

The dual mouse buttons on the D430 are as silent as ever, and unlike my last review I have found the mousepad to be quite nice.  Unfortunately, that means that the touchpad will eventually degrade to the one I did not quite like in my previous review but palm rest replacements are quite cheap, so if you come to no longer like your touchpad you can get it replaced.

I never did get used to the lack of a middle mouse button.  I miss it, and I hope that Dell’s upcoming Latitudes have that feature!

Input and Output Ports, Wireless, and Battery

With such a small frame, one would not expect many ports to be found on the D430, but the laptop does manage to squeeze in the essentials.


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From left to right: Kensington lock slot, audio-in/microphone, audio-out/headphones, PCMCIA slot, SmartCard reader beneath the PCMCIA slot, and an SD card slot.


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From left to right: WiFi toggle switch, power button.


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From left to right: Ethernet, modem, 2x USB, VGA-out, 1x USB (also used for DVD drive connection), IEEE 1394 Firewire 400 port, and the AC power jack.

The Intel 3945 802.11a/b/g WiFi card works perfectly fine. I have no issues connecting to the networks I frequent, no disconnections, and few problems at all. Driver quality seems to have improved too, as I no longer have issues connecting to networks immediately after resuming from standby or hibernate.

Another interesting feature about the WiFi card is a hardware switch that can toggle the card on and off, and a quick flick of the switch can make a popup list appear with all local networks shown. When turned off, the switch’s light supposedly tells you if there is an unprotected network nearby, but since I only use encrypted networks I cannot yet test that feature.

In my first review, I reported that the switch does require a little bit too much of a nudge to toggle the on/off position of the switch.  In fact, a Dell technician accidentally slipped and broke the switch!  It was an easy enough repair for another Dell technician (you only had to replace the entire motherboard!), so now I keep that in mind and only turn off the WiFi if absolutely necessary.  The new D430 of mine seems to have a slightly better feel to the WiFi switch, but I still am not going to use it much.

Just as before, I still feel the WiFi switch is a worthless feature … especially since it cost Dell a pretty penny to replace my old D430′s motherboard.

As I previously alluded to, the battery life on the D430 has improved in the dual-core version.  ULV processors are great for their lower power consumption, and for some reason a slightly more powerful ULV processor results in a much better battery life.

With the screen at the maximum brightness, wireless ON, in the presentation power mode (which keeps the processor down to 800MHz), and while performing moderately difficult tasks on the D430, the laptop managed to clock in at a battery life of about 2 hours and 45 minutes.  This is an improvement of about 30 minutes over the single-core D430′s life.

During an endurance run with minimal brightness, wireless ON, and presentation power mode the D430 lasted a total of 4 hours and 20 minutes.  Granted, I was only browsing the web while doing this test, but I was unable to ever pass the 3 hour and 30 minute mark on my old D430.  Either this new dual-core processor is that much better with respect to battery life, or my old D430 had a problem I was unaware of.  During this endurance run, I found that the laptop used between 8-10W of power most of the time.  That is not much of a battery drain!

Despite the fact it takes between 2.5 and 4.5 hours to drain the battery out, the D430′s 6-Cell battery can recharge to 80% in about 1 hour and 5 minutes.  It takes about 40-50 minutes to get the other 20% of the battery charge restored, and that is about average for quick-charge batteries.

One concern I am sure users will have is the power button on the side of the notebook. It could potentially be easy to hit when the laptop is in a backpack or luggage or briefcase. Everyone knows that an active laptop is such a small space could cause heat related failures, and Dell was aware of this as well. Fortunately, Dell programmed the BIOS of the laptop to NOT turn on if the laptop is closed. If you hit the power button and the D430 boots while shut, the POST sequence will recognize that the computer needs to shut down, which protects the laptop and the battery life.

Operating System and Software

Thankfully, the D430 comes with a minimum of extra software and bloatware to clog the system.

There is no recovery partition on the D430 though (since the HDDs configuration options can be as small as 30GB), but this is offset by the fact that all recovery CDs will come with the notebook. There are only three: XP CD, Drivers CD, and the PowerDVD software CD. Unless you purchase a notebook with the fingerprint reader or require the business security suites that should be all you get with the D430. Less really can be more!

At some point in the future, I will probably test out and see how Vista performs on this dual-core D430.  While Vista’s performance with a single-core 1.2GHz processor was abysmal, I do wonder how it would perform (and how the battery life would be affected) under a Vista installation.

Perhaps we’ll host a XP v. Vista Ultraportable article in the future!

Customer Support

In the first few weeks of my owning the original D430, I had numerous contacts with Dell’s Customer Support teams for various non-technical issues. Dell more than impressed me during that phase of purchase and ownership.

Unfortunately, my first single-core D430 did have numerous issues and as such I have had quite a lot of contact with Dell’s Technical Support teams.  Between the two motherboard replacements my old system needed, Dell was very quick to get parts out and their on-site technicians were very professional and knowledgeable.

When the old notebook starting failing again, Dell’s tech service finally concluded that a non-motherboard-related problem was affecting the D430…and they could not fix it.  Clearly, Dell and I agreed it was a lemon.  So they decided to permanently resolve the issue by building me a new laptop.

Overall, my future experiences with Dell look to be very promising, which is a welcome turnaround considering how far in disrepair I felt Dell’s services were a few years ago. Times have changed and Dell definitely has turned their act around for the better, and their treatment of my various D430 problems that resulted in a new notebook is a very good example of how far Dell’s business support is willing to go to support their products.

Conclusion

The Dell D430 has made some significant improvements with the dual-core refresh of the notebook.  Driver quality, one of my biggest complaints that could ever be improved upon, has noticeably improved!  While the dual-core version does sometimes get a little hotter, there is a noticeable improvement in battery life and speed that I am glad to see in this model.

The D430 does have a few drawbacks though, so the D430 is not for everyone.  Power users that need faster processors will not want this notebook…nor will anyone who despises the add-on DVD drive.

In the end though, the D430 is suitable for any and all office tasks and many people would be perfectly happy with the computing power available in ultraportable notebooks today.  Notebooks in this category are largely evaluated on portability, longevity, and build quality. The Dell Latitude D430 definitely managed to excel in all three categories. The laptop has the highest quality build I’ve ever owned, and the battery life has improved since my last review too.  On top of that, I cannot stress enough how much easier a 12.1" system is on a student’s backpack (or a business professional’s briefcase), and how easy it is to just take the notebook around and be prepared for any situation.

Even though the next series of Latitude notebooks will be here in a few months, the Latitude series (and especially the D430) are still great notebooks with a fair price and value.  College students, business professionals, and home users alike all need to give the D430 at least a fair consideration!

Pros

  • Basic configuration of D430 is plenty powerful and fairly priced.
  • Chassis is very well built, LCD bezel is fairly strong.
  • Excellent keyboard and mousepad.
  • Portability/small size, but still being powerful enough for moderately intensive tasks.
  • Sharp screen.
  • Better battery life and improved performance with dual-core processors.
  • Intelligent power management options, and BIOS check keeps laptop off when closed.

Cons

  • Ambient light sensor is not very useful for me.
  • WiFi switch is worthless, get rid of it!
  • Viewing angles are not the best.
  • External DVD drive.
  • HDD transfer speeds are okay for general use, but slow for most other things.
  • Speaker needs to be improved


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