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August 13th 2014 2:48 pm

Can a Chromebook replace your everyday laptop?

When Google first unveiled their lineup of Chromebooks at Google I/O in 2011, they promised a ultraportable computer with robust battery life, instant-on access, and even things like 3G connectivity so you could get your Internet on the go. They were basically a netbook in disguise, but cheaper... and potentially less functional. (Ah, netbooks. Remember those?)

Three years later, Google is still pushing frequent updates to ChromeOS and its partners are still shipping new Chromebook models with improved battery life and more powerful processors. ChromeOS has gained a number of features that make it compete better with traditional desktop operating systems.

When we post news and reviews about Chromebooks and ChromeOS on Engadget, we see a lot of discussion featuring jokes and snark about whether Chromebooks are actually useful or not. I've made my own share of disparaging comments and have often wondered who would really buy one of these.

The thing is, 4 of the top 10 selling notebooks on Amazon right now are Chromebooks. They're pretty affordable and seem to do Just Enough™ for most people. Hey, I could potentially see my parents picking one up as a replacement one day (they mainly use their current laptop for email and browsing the news).

However, I never see these things in the wild. In coffee shops or libraries, it's usually Apple or Dell notebooks. So, who is buying all these Chromebooks and where are they being used?

If you're using one, share your impressions below! Alternatively, if you're like me and confused about their utility, post away and let us know.

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39 replies

I have been using a Chromebook, the Samsung Series 3 ARM model, for the better part of two years now. I have to say, it has completely changed the way I think of laptops in general. As a student I used it for class where the 8 hour battery life was incredibly useful. It's equally as good sitting next to the couch where it can pop open to a chrome window in about a second. I also have a real desktop with top of the line specs, so for any "serious" applications, like math/statistical software or music management I have a complete setup.

To be honest though, I have completely stopped using the native ChromeOS (not that it isn't useful for more basic needs) in favor of a Crouton setup. With linux you have many, MANY more options for software. A little bit of tinkering gets you rDesktop, which I use to remote into the previously mentioned desktop and do any "serious" computing on the go. This was great as a student, I would never worry about transferring files or notes or running CPU heavy computations. rDesktop introduces some lag but if you have a decent connection on both ends you can end up actually with a very usable environment. The visual lag was often made up for by the fact things rendered so much faster on the remote PC, sometimes resulting in an apparent increase in overall responsiveness for internet browsing and whatnot. The end result was I would have access to instant startup, incredible battery life, and a powerful Windows 8 desktop with minimal lag all on the go for $250.

The only fault I have found is the ARM cpu limits the software you can install in many cases...this isn't an issue any more though and I will probably upgrade to a Celeron based chromebook in the next year or two. At $250 or less it's hard to argue. And I can't go back to using a "regular" laptop now, anything larger than 13" feels unwieldy and anything less than a 5 hour battery life is unreliable.

TL:DR In the right usage scenarios Chromebooks can be even more effective than a regular laptop at a quarter of the price.
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My son has been using a Samsung Chromebook for over a year for school and home computer. I haven't had to touch the computer for any maintenance related activities. The computer simply works, loads fast, is very portable and you can do everything including creating documents (which my son does for school projects). Love the fact that I don't have to maintain it unlike windows machines.

As well, I bought my dad and mom a chromebook and they travel with it, use it almost daily. They have stopped using their desktops.
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Hi. I have a relatively recent macbook pro 15". I also have an HP Chromebook 14. I've pretty much stopped carrying the macbook.

For around 90% of what I need to do (I run a startup) the Chromebook is fine. My email's in gmail, my files are in drive, most other applications I use for work are browser based in some form, and to be honest most of the ones I use for leisure are browser based as well. If I want to play a game I can fire up a tablet or (at home) my xbox.

For some rich documents and for a fair bit of spreadsheet work, I revert to iWork or, if I really have to (legal docs) Office. But we now have a presentation template in Google Slides and most presentations there. I could fire up icloud to edit my rich docs in the browser anyhow (though I find it a bit slow).

Advantages: I put an all you can eat 4G card (well, "3G+") into the device (it came with a more limited "free use" SIM). So I'm pretty much always connected. It's not much lighter (if at all, I haven't checked) than the macbook but it's a little more robust and anyhow it was only £200 so if it gets dinked I'm not that worried (so I don't bother with a case for it, which saves some bulk). I'd also note that, unlike a lot of windows machines, the keyboard is spaced much like the macbook so, apart from the position of control/command (which you can change in software) and the trackpad scroll direction (ditto) it's not a painful move. The battery goes on for around 10 hours, depending on how bright you run the screen.

Disadvantages: cheaper components. Specifically the screen (obviously), the trackpad (selecting text can get irritating) and I have my suspicions about the wifi quality. The keyboard is actually pretty decent but not backlit. Screens are getting better. I note the new Acer, not yet on sale, offers a 13.3" screen with full HD (1080p), and unlike the Samsung Chromebook 2, which offers a similar screen, can run an at a decent battery life due to using Intel's new chip.

I'd also note there are some capabilities that are vital to me, which you need to switch on in the flags - notably being able to run multiple google ids simultaneously - which a novice user wouldn't find.

Anyhow, this is about the same cost as the VAT (sales tax) on a macbook pro. I love it.

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Absolutely, I wouldn't hesitate to say a Chromebook could replace about 90% of most window and mac machines. Disconnect your computer from the Internet and see how often you use it. Most folks use a computer as a pathway to get online which is where a Chromebook really shines. No more starting your computer and walking away waiting for it to load. With a Chromebook your online within seconds. With built in applications I'm able to convert Microsoft files automatically then save them in the cloud offering yet another reason not to slow my machine down. I forsee a day when we no longer ask if somethings compatible with Microsoft and concern ourselves that an application works with Chrome.
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Need to agree with dave re: making a case to replace... Seems to me that, IF one uses Google docs as primary apps, it's a no brain-et. Compare the costs and the Chromebook wins hands down. (IMHO)
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Yes, I think they could replace my Windows laptop. At first, I didn't understand how they could be useful. The trust is that I didn't even give Chromebooks a chance. Now I see that they are really practical. As a student a Chromebook would fulfill most of my needs.

1. You don't have the full version of Office on the Chromebook, but you do have Office Online and Google Docs, both of which are very good substitutes.

2. I think most people are okay with Chrome as their browser.

3. You can download Linux and have a couple more options.

4. Very portable

The only thing that I would miss is Photoshop. To be honest though, I don't NEED it. I have Photoshop on my desktop and that should be good enough. There's also an issue if you need to download a specific program for school and it's not available on Chrome OS. For most students though, I think a Chromebook would be fine. I read an article a couple weeks ago on schools converting to or buying Chromebooks. My next laptop might be a Chromebook.
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A Chromebook can absolutely replace a secondary computer. I, for example, have a desktop computer I do most of my work on when I'm at home. I then have a really old MacBook that I could easily replace with a Chromebook and not think twice. That MacBook is mostly used for the web browser on it anyway.
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I was an original user of the Cr-48, and more recently, I've used the Acer C720 specifically for a college class.
I have a feeling many people who bash on Chromebooks either do not have one, have not used one for long, or are not in the target market. The reason why you haven't seen many out in the wild is because public schools are the main buyers, not your average tech-smart reader.

The Acer did a good job of supplanting my 4 year old laptop for almost everything, except when other college classes specifically required Microsoft Office products (specific formats in Word and Powerpoint for example), or I had to edit some media.

Other than that, most of my time is spent in a browser anyways. To everyone who defends windows laptops to their dying (online) breath, they're missing several key points:
-Updating a Chromebook is painless and happens behind the scenes. No more updating individual pieces of software and having to wait several minutes restarting multiple times
-Quick cold start and sleep/wake times; I have yet to use and experience windows 8, but I've heard that certain laptop configurations come close to chromebooks, so this is a diminishing point
-Good battery life to weight ratio. For their size, Chromebooks last a very long time, any price-comparable windows laptop is going to struggle to match it

I recognize Chromebooks are not for everyone, but they do fill a useful niche, and constantly bashing them isn't helping anyone. There are multiple commentators out there who have bought one for older relatives as well; what would you rather buy for someone, a laptop that can get them online for their email and video conferencing (yes, there are plenty of options for video conferencing that are compatible with chromebooks that are just as easy to set up, so "not being able to skype" is a moot point in my book. take two seconds to explore other options people....geeze), or a windows/(expensive) mac that requires much more maintenance that will have them calling you constantly for tech-support?
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I run a 65 person software company from Chrome OS. It is incredible.
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I used a Chromebook all throughout undergrad (physics), and had no issues. Like many of the other responders, I had a very powerful tower at home that I would remote into when I needed Matlab or Mathematica and it was a dream to operate.

HOWEVER, in grad school (computer science) I've had to switch to a fully featured laptop because programming on the Chromebook is painful. I tried remoting into my tower to code, but the connection would get laggy or even drop if my internet connection became weak, so programming at a coffee shop was often an exercise in anger management.

If you're a programmer, get yourself a fully-featured laptop, but otherwise I would recommend a Chromebook any day.
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Hi Dave,

If both the chromebook and desktop were both on good ethernet connections was the remote matlab/programming experience still bad?

Also what kind of jobs would cause trouble, my friend said ram heavy stuff is shaky over remote desktop?

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Hey Barney, one thing to keep in mind is that most Chromebooks do not have an ethernet port, but if the WiFi is good enough, thats not much of an issue. There was always a bit of a noticeable lag from the remote connection which is just unavoidable (essentially you're doubling the amount of physical things that stand between the data you want to see and your monitor), but it was rarely an issue.

However, the issue would come up when I would work from somewhere that doesn't have good WiFi. For example, the one time I was stuck at a Starbucks for about an hour right before an assignment was due, and had to remote into another machine to use Matlab. It was extraordinarily frustrating, but I still managed to get everything done.

And the amount of RAM an application uses has nothing to do with how slow the application is over remote desktop unless you're close to the limits of your machine. Anything involving a lot of typing can get really frustrating because that little bit of lag confuses my brain and causes me to make a lot more typos. I assume that happens with other people too, but I actually have minimal evidence to support that statement. I've found that stuff like Word is worse than programming, but I program a lot more than I write Word documents, so that was where I felt the frustration.

Does that answer your question?
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Thanks for getting back to me so fast that's super helpful, I'm trying to weigh up whether I can set up my desktop at home and just use a chromebook or similar from office.

Just one clarification, you mean it will slow down when close to the RAM limits of the desktop (I'm hoping - it's the desktop for normal windows remote desktop) rather than the limits of the chromebook?
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Worked for me for a few years. I would recommend one of the bigger-screened chromebooks if you're going to be working with Matlab or similar environments though.

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I have a Chromebook CR48, which I use in school for note taking, as well as reading epubs and pdfs of my school books. When I need to do a bit more work, I remote into my desktop through the chromebook and run programs there. A lot of people still think it's an online only device due to poor ads and anti chromebook ads from microsoft, but it has quite a few offline versions of the apps you would normally use, as well as a selection of chromebooks with internal storage that would replace a laptops. Here is another article that may help people see potential uses:
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Just out of curiosity, how's the hinge holding up on yours? I also had one, but the hinge just didn't hold up well (I eventually sold it someone).
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It's holding up though I see what you mean as it is a bit flimsy. Granted I had the same issue with my alienware mx11 so i figured it was how I may have mishandled them once or twice.
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I've been using an Acer C720P for the better part of 6 months now and I have to say that it is my goto machine for everyday mundane (and not so mundane), non-development tasks. This surpises me since my initial impression of Chrome OS was that "this is a toy". However, if you are willing to buy into the Google eacosystem you can be quite productive using a Chromebook. If the majority of your time is spent surfing the web and spending time on social media this is all the machine you should need. Some of its nice features include: zero maintenance, nearly instant on, good support for widely used video and audio formats (at least better than my Linux laptops), a fairly wide array of free apps and extensions. One the harware side, Chromebooks tends to be inexpensive, light weight and have long battery lives. I have read a lot of Chromebook reviewe with comments like "cheaply built" or "poor build quality", etc. Considering the cost of these machine these are, in my opinion, ridiculous comments. I have no problems with the general quality of my Chromebook -- it is not the same quality as my Lenovo Yoga laptop but my Lenovo laptop cost 5x as much! The question is ... am I 5x more productive on my Yoga as compared to my Chromebook? Most of the time ... No! Some issues with the software include: you pretty much need to be connected 100% of the time to do anything, I would love to have a native, full featured+ email client (the existing clients incuding gmail are ... meh), better terminal emulators would be nice too.
I closing I think that Chromebooks are a good compromise of features and price point. I can well imagine that a Chromebook is all a non-professional (e.g. house person, students, parents, etc.) should need. All-in-all I like it and use it quite often ... especially in coffee shops or libraries! :) Well, that my 0.25CDN (0.23USD) worth.

P.S. Here in the True North I see these machine quite often out in the wild.
P.P.S. I tend to connect my Chromebook to the internet using the cell phone's wifi hot spot which works exceedingly well since I have a good LTE plan.
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Since buying my chromebook (C720) last christmas in New York ($199 = £120!!), my ubuntu laptop has been collecting dust under my bed. The chromebook has also replaced my tablet to a certain extent as I find it much more comfortable to browse the web on a laptop with a full keyboard.

I wouldn't go back to not having a chromebook, in fact we now own two in our household. I find it so useful, its light enough to take in my bag when travelling I can simply connect it to wifi or my phone via usb for data, luckily my network (Three UK) provides unlimited data in a number of places I visit US, France, Italy etc, the battery life is incredible.

Connectivity wise it is excellent, with bluetooth, an SD card reader and USB 3.0 it can connect to just about everything, again its great for previewing photos taken when travelling on a big screen or uploading them to an online backup service,

As far as replacing a laptop, I find that I can do anything that I needed to do on a laptop on a chromebook... yes I do have to go back to my desktop for certain things (mainly gaming), but most of these things are not something I would have done on a laptop anyway as they probably need a bit more hardware grunt.

The initial problems I had were due to a reliance on certain desktop apps, mainly keepass, but finding web based services to replace them was easy (LastPass, and more recently Mitro), as well as finding a decent Remote Desktop app that didn't involve installing an additional server (Chrome RDP).

Many of the things that I want to do can easily be done with webservices, listen to music (Google music), watching media (Plex/Netflix), basic text editing (Caret), basic photo editing (google photos/pxlr), Office documents (Office online/Google Docs), signing PDFs (Hellosign), there are even some online IDE's (Cloud9/codenvy).

I wouldn't hesitate to buy a chromebook again, for the price everyone should own one!
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Dave - I've been using my HP 14" chromebook for 9 months. I love it and once I put everything I had into the cloud it was excellent. It HAS replaced my old MBP and I'm not looking back.
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After using the Samsung ARM Chromebook extensively, I think so. It really just works, which I cannot say for my OS X or Windows laptops for a number of reasons. Despite what critics claim, it is usable offline, and even if it wasn't -- you wouldn't catch me in a place that doesn't WiFi, it just doesn't happen.
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I have been using a Chromebook for the past three months and will never go back to a PC laptop. Everything works on my Chromebook! It is fast and the apps are very easy to use. In fact, my next desktop computer will be a Chromebox and I will reuse my keyboard and monitor from my old PC. It is a myth that you have to be connected to the internet with a Chromebook and the offline app extensions work just fine.
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So, despite my general negativity toward Chromebooks, I feel like I could make the case that I could potentially replace my current laptop (15" Macbook Pro) with one. The overwhelming majority of my work each day is done through a web browser. Google Drive and other assorted tools have made the need to fire up traditional desktop apps less likely. Outside of robust photo editing tools, I don't really need all the power that's built into my current computer.

Yet there's still a part of me that doesn't feel comfortable switching to a Chromebook. I'm wondering what the disconnect is. I have one of the original Samsung Chromebooks (which is a bit slow and underpowered these days), and it's definitely come a long way. But I feel like I'm missing a lot of stuff that I may potentially want.

e.g., How am I going to play Civ V on this thing? I can't edit photos in Lightroom. What if I want to edit together an epic Vine video of me devouring a burrito?
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I don't think chromebooks are quite there for gaming (although recent annoucements indicate that this is changing). Video editing and photo editing, however, are quite good -- you just have to be willing to learn to use the tools available for Chrome OS. I use WeVideo and Pixlr for those tasks and they seem to suit my needs -- which are not to onerous -- quite well.
Hope this is helpful.
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Are we counting the ability to slap linux on them?
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Eh, I suppose. I guess the internals allow them to be perfectly functional Linux machines. For me, I'd still have the same issues though: no Lightroom, no Civ V (to be fair, Steam's in-home streaming is making this less of an issue), and I would probably still use Google Drive over StarOffice or OpenOffice.
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I was asking because I know people may buy these machines just to use with linux

Side note: If you need an open-source alternative to Lightroom check out DarkTable.
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The Crouton support for most machines is very good. Installing Xubuntu on my Series 3 was as simple as following step by step instructions and running a single script. It provided me with a working linux desktop running SIDE BY SIDE with ChromeOS in under an hour.
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No, for me it cannot.

There are just too many applications on Windows, Chromebook is a glorified browser.

Simply having Foobar is worth more to me than the whole Chromebook.
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Yeah... I'm going to have to say NO... I use my laptop (asus G75VX) for a lot of gaming, and half of the time Im not where there is any internet where steam has to be run offline. Until chromebooks can find away around that one, they wont have my business.
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NO. Chrome isn't my primary browser, and there are quite a few desktop app I use pretty often.
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I am slightly surprised no one has mentioned the fact that by using a Chromebook, you are giving Google even more data about you. As a concept, I like the idea of Chromebooks (I know several people who use them for a variety of things and all love them), and they seem to be a much improved netbook in many ways, which is a "good thing" as far as I am concerned. But, I am put off by the cost of giving more and more information to Google.

I don't normally worry about such things, but I have recently started seeing some things in the way that Google works that worry me - Eric Schmidt said in an interview that "Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it." - I don't know about anyone else, but I try to stay well away from creepy in my daily life, and don't trust someone who is trying to get as close to the line as possible.

I haven't investigated Linux on Chromebooks, and how that affects the data that Google can collect, but that may be something that eventually tempts me towards a Chromebook.

To summarise my view:
For: cheap, functional, a useful workhorse.
Against: All your data are belong to Google.
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I've been moving away from Google services (pretty much there outside of Hangouts and Maps) so for me getting a Chromebook would be a no to just use ChromeOS. I have however thought about getting the Samsung one to use with Linux for on the go type stuff.
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my chromebook absolutely is my everyday laptop. i only ever touch my windows laptop (samsung series 5 unltrabook) when some idiot creates a pivot table which i cant get excel online to work with. i bought a samsung chromebook2 and haven't had an ounce of buyers remorse. same screen size but higher resolution, less than half the cost, weighs less, double the battery life, doesn't get hot like the ultrabook, better speakers, much better trackpad.

i see chromebooks at starbucks every now and then.
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I've been using a Chromebook for about 2 years. I snapped up one of the end of line HP Pavilion 14" versions as I wanted a larger screen. It was cheap as chips compared to my previous HP Pavilion DV 17" and twice as pokey.

The only slight issue I find is with the lack of SMB support, lack of supported codecs and other providers not recognising the growing need to support Chrome eg. Amazon Prime Video.

I have 2 servers running 24/7 at home, Windows Home Server and an ESX testing platform. With the addition of Chrome Remote Desktop I can get to these devices but cannot stream any of the media from the Home-Server. I can however browse to the internal site hosted on my Home Server and download files for off-line use.

I also have 3x work laptops all running Windows 7, vista & XP, 1 very old personal laptop running XP and an AMD 6 core midi tower for more power thirsty applications such as SimCity 2013 or video editing. I also use Chrome Remote Desktop with this for the very occasional use of Microsoft Word. I say very occasional as my main work laptop has Microsoft Office installed and I have Google Cloud Print linked to my HP WiFi Printer.

The fact that everything synchronises between all of my devices (including my Nexus 5, 7 & 10) is utterly brilliant. I can't wait for the announced updated of continuous working to come in to play so I can simply put down one device, pick up another and carry on where I left off.

Despite the lack of video streaming capabilities and Google knowing every aspect of my life, I have nothing to hide and doubt I'll ever buy another Windows Laptop ever again.
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A Chromebook will never fully replace a laptop until it brings native Common Access Card (CAC) support.
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It all depends on what you do. I absolutely love my chromebook, but as an IT Pro, sometimes you just gotta bring out the big iron. The chromebook can take care of most of my family's web browsing needs very quickly. But that's where it stops. For more powerful things like photo/video editing, VM management, gaming, etc., my i7 laptop is the way to go.
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I'm a power user, so a Chromebook wouldn't do much for me. I have more functionality in my Windows tablet.
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I completely agree. But it does not only depend on what you use a laptop for, it also depends on where you use it. Chromebooks tend to be rather small but still okay capacity, which means that they are ideal for travel (see www.laptoprunner.com­/best­-travel­-laptop/ ), for people who mostly need to check their mail, write, surf and do lighter work (which would be most people if you ask me). But sure, you might not be the absolute best choice to use a Chromebook for heavy Photoshop work for example.
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