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Sony MVC-CD250Sony adds features, and brings the price down on a 2 megapixel CD Mavica!
Review First Posted: 02/20/2002
||CD-RW provides 156 megabytes of write-once or rewritable storage!|
||2-megapixel CCD delivers up to 1,600 x 1,200 pixel images.|
||Surprisingly compact for a disc-media camera.|
||Excellent image sharpness, color, and low light shooting capability.|
The year 2002 brings important new capabilities to Sony's revolutionary CD-Mavica digital camera line, which first began in late Spring 2000 with the introduction of the Mavica CD1000. Storing their images on CD-R (and now CD-RW) discs, the CD-Mavicas are a logical extension to Sony's original and enormously popular floppy-disk-based Mavica design. With each 80mm CD-R/RW disc storing 156 MB of data for well under a dollar at retail, the CD-Mavicas make nearly perfect traveling companions, since you can fit gigabytes of permanent storage into less space than that occupied by one paperback novel.
Sony seems to be making a habit of practically flooding the digicam market with new models each year at the Spring PMA show. (At least I certainly feel flooded with new models here, needing review! ;-) This year, in addition to three new P-series Cyber-shot units, Sony has also introduced a pair of new CD-Mavicas, the MVC-CD4000, and the MVC-CD250 that's the subject of this review.
As with last year's CD-Mavica introductions, Sony has again updated the technology to improve performance and enhance features. The biggest news of this year's Mavica announcements is the addition of large buffer memories to both cameras. The buffer memory not only reduces shot to shot cycle times, but also allows a "confirm before write" option, that lets you preview photos before deciding whether to keep them or not. This was perhaps the feature most mentioned by readers as topping their wish lists for future CD Mavicas.
With introductory list prices of $599 and $899 for the MVC-CD250 and CD400 respectively, the new models also bring CD-R(W) technology down market, competing with conventional digicams at fairly modest price premiums. Of course, all the whizzy CD technology would be meaningless if the cameras didn't perform up to par with other non-CD models on the market. Fortunately (for Sony and our readers alike), my preliminary tests indicate that the new cameras perform very well indeed, on a par with the top models in their respective resolution categories. (Emphasis on the word "preliminary" there: The images from the prototype models I looked at were a little noisy, something that will hopefully be addressed in the production models.) Given the low cost of the (very high capacity) media and their relatively compact sizes, these new cameras could be the ideal "vacation cameras," perfectly suited for extended trips without a computer to offload images. If you're planning a long trip this summer, you'd do well to seriously consider one of these new CD-Mavica cameras!
The Mavica MVC-CD250's body design conforms to the round, three-inch storage media, giving the camera a smooth, curved appearance similar to the CD300 model. Although it's still a handful, the CD250 is surprisingly compact given its large media size. At 5.31 x 3.74 x 3.98 inches (138 x 95 x 101mm), it definitely won't fit into most pockets, but it does come with a neck strap and is easily carried in a small accessory camera bag (highly recommended to protect the camera). At 22 ounces (608 grams), including the battery, the CD250 is reasonably lightweight, with a hard, plastic body that gives it a strong, solid feel.
The non-telescoping lens dominates the left side of the camera's front panel, sharing its space with a small self-timer lamp, the flash, and the AF light. A rubberized finger grip protrudes from the right front side, providing a comfortable hold for your right hand, which should fit comfortably around the curve of the bulky hand grip. A plastic, spring-lock lens cap protects the lens surface, and can tether to the camera body via a small strap. A set of 37mm filter threads just inside the lip of the barrel accommodates standard accessory lenses and filters.
The hand grip (right) side of the camera has a neckstrap attachment eyelet, and the Command dial nearby (barely visible at the upper left corner, facing the rear or the camera), for adjusting exposure settings on the camera's LCD monitor. Just adjacent to the eyelet is the DC In connector jack, covered by a soft, plastic flap that remains attached to the camera when opened.
The left side of the camera has the second neckstrap eyelet on top (which also secures the lens cap tether), and a CD-R compartment "Open" latch, external accessory connection jack , and connector compartment below. A small, hard plastic cover protects the connector compartment, which houses the USB and A/V Out connection jacks. The external flash connection jack, labeled "ACC," hosts Sony's HVL-F1000 flash unit, as well as a handful of Sony accessories.
The CD250's top panel features a microphone, Shutter button, Mode dial, and Power switch. There's also a small, green LED lamp next to the power switch that glows steadily whenever the camera is powered on. The pop-up flash unit has been moved forward on the camera body, in comparison to the CD300 model, most likely in an effort to prevent the lens from blocking the flash on close-up subjects.
The remaining features and controls are on the CD250's back panel. These include the color LCD monitor, speaker, and control buttons. An orange LED lamp above the LCD monitor lights when the flash is charging or when the camera is powered off and the battery is charging via the AC adapter. In addition to serving as a navigational tool in the LCD menu system, the Four-Way Arrow pad controls several camera functions through its four arrow keys, including Flash mode, Macro, Self-timer, and Quick Review.
The CD-R compartment takes up the entire left side of the back panel, with the compartment door holding several camera control buttons and the LCD monitor. The compartment door flips open when the release lever is opened, but does not deactivate the LCD monitor. Instead a message on the LCD monitor reads "Cover Open." A tiny, red LED lamp beneath the LCD monitor lights whenever the camera is accessing the CD-R.
Finally, the CD250 features a fairly flat bottom panel with a battery compartment door and tripod mount. The angled battery compartment and the distance between the compartment door and tripod mount allow for quick battery changes while working with a tripod (something I always notice, given the amount of studio shooting I do with the cameras I test). A sliding, plastic door protects the battery compartment, and a small catch inside locks the battery into place and releases it when you're ready to recharge or replace the battery cell. The tripod mount itself is metal, a detail I always appreciate, especially on heavier units like the CD250. Also on the bottom panel (beneath the LCD monitor) is a tiny Reset button for use by service technicians, and a hidden compartment for a button battery to maintain the CD250's clock and calendar when the main battery is removed.
The LCD on the CD250 incorporates a "Solar Assist" (tm) feature, which I've seen on other manufacturers' cameras, and which was actually introduced by Sony a few years ago, on the MVC-FD81 camera. It consists of a small translucent window at the top of the LCD (visible in the photo above as the very bright bar on top of the LCD), which lets in ambient light behind the LCD screen to boost the effective brightness of the backlight. This feature works only in very bright surroundings, and the effectiveness will vary, depending on the orientation of the camera relative to the primary light source. (It works best when the sun is directly overhead.) Overall, I found the "assist" window to be quite helpful when using the LCD outdoors on a sunny day, making the CD250's LCD one of the most usable I've encountered for outdoor shooting. You can change the strength of the LCD backlight through the Setup menu, with options of Normal and Bright.
Back when I posted the original CD-300 review Sony emailed to inform me of
their clip-on eye-level viewfinder/magnifier for the CD Mavicas. Called the
DSAC-MVC, this gadget has a complete optical system in it, including a diopter
adjustment, and purportedly provides enough magnification of the high-quality
TFT LCD that it's quite usable for manual focusing. US selling price is $79.95
US. I haven't had the opportunity to test this gadget extensively, but have
played with it a bit at shows, and it seems to work pretty well. (It is a
tad bulky though.) This optical viewfinder adapter (shown above attached to
the CD300) also fits the LCD on the CD250 and 400 as well. - This could be
very handy if you need to do a lot of shooting in very bright outdoor ambient
lighting, or if you're in an environment where the large, bright LCD screen
would be a distraction for others. (Theatre photography?)
In Record mode, the LCD monitor's information display reports a bounty of information, including image resolution, JPEG compression level, number of remaining images (plus available CD-R space), exposure compensation, flash mode, and an excellent feature unique to Sony cameras: the number of minutes remaining on the battery. The LCD also reports the current shutter speed and aperture settings, when the Shutter button is halfway pressed.
In my testing, I noticed that the CD250's viewfinder was a little "loose,"
in that it showed a larger image area than what was actually in the captured
frame. So, you'll need to back off a little when framing subjects, ensuring
you have enough extra space around all four sides.
In Playback mode, the LCD monitor offers an Index display mode as well as a 1.1 - 5x Playback Zoom, which enlarges captured images for closer inspection. Once enlarged, the arrow buttons enable you to scroll around inside the image. A Trimming function lets you crop the enlarged image, which I found to be a useful tool. A very detailed information display includes all exposure settings, and is accessed through the "W" side of the Zoom control. The Playback image information includes the file type (movie or still), image size, where the image falls in the Playback index, remaining CD-R capacity, file name, date and time the image was taken, and the remaining battery power. The CD250 provides an LCD brightness adjustment through its Setup menu, which changes the display to Bright, Normal, or Dark, depending on the shooting situation.
The CD250's macro shooting mode produced great results, capturing a minimum area of 1.78 x 1.34 inches (45.28 x 33.96 millimeters) in my testing. Color and exposure looked good, but the corners of the images get fairly soft when you're shooting at the minimum range of 3 cm. (Do note that, like many cameras, the best macro performance is achieved when the zoom lens is set all the way to it's wide angle position.)
In other test shots, I saw a moderate amount of distortion from the CD250's lens, most noticeably some softness along the left side of the frame. The lens produced an approximate 0.85 percent barrel distortion at the wide-angle setting, and an approximate 0.35 percent pincushion distortion at telephoto, both numbers fairly typical of other cameras I've tested. That said, chromatic aberration was very low, as I only saw two very faint pixels of red coloration on the side of the target lines in the corners of the resolution target. (This distortion is most visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)
The lens also features filter threads to accommodate a variety of Sony lens
conversion kits. Unlike the CD400, since the CD250's lens does not telescope
out when the camera is turned on, normal 37mm-thread accessories can be used
directly with the camera. (No special barrel adapter is required.) When working
with a Sony lens conversion kit, you need to inform the camera (via the Setup
menu) that the lens is attached, so the camera's autofocus can allow for the
additional optical element.
The 2x Precision Digital Zoom function is enabled through the camera's Setup menu, effectively increasing the CD250's zoom capabilities to 6x. When engaged, digital zoom takes over once you've zoomed past the normal telephoto range. You can see the change from optical to digital zoom by observing the marker in the zoom range indicator on the LCD panel. As always though, I warn readers that digital telephoto is not the same as optical zoom and that it causes noticeable deterioration in image quality by adding excess noise and possibly softening the image. That said, I've always experienced great results with Sony's Precision Digital Zoom, as it does a nice job of holding on to image detail and sharpness. Also, as we get into larger and larger CCD imagers, digital zoom becomes useful at correspondingly larger file sizes. - With the CD250 though, its 4 megapixel CCD means you can only achieve lossless digital zooming with the 640x480 image size.
Clip Motion and Multi Burst
This is a slick little feature that I've really enjoyed on many Sony digicams. Clip motion first appeared on the Sony DSC-P1, and now seems to be a pretty standard option on all the latest Sony models. The Clip Motion capture mode turns the CD250 into an animation camera, recording up to 10 frames of still images, which are combined into a single GIF file for animated playback. Frames can be captured at any time interval, with successive presses of the Shutter button. When you've captured as many photos as you need, you just press the center of the Four Way Arrow pad to tell the camera to finish the sequence. Available image sizes are Normal (160 x 120 pixels) and Mobile (80 x 72 pixels), and the number of actual captured frames may vary with image size and available CD space. (You have a maximum of 10, but could be constrained to fewer if your memory is very full.) Files are saved in GIF format, and are played back with (approximate) 0.5-second intervals between frames. Unlike Movie mode, flash is available with Clip Motion.
Multi-Burst is a new recording option I first noticed on the DSC-P51 and DSC-P71 Cyber-Shot models. The mode appears to capture an extremely rapid burst of images, which are played back as a single movie (giving a slow-motion effect). You can select between Fine and Normal quality settings, and available frame intervals include 1/7.5-, 1/15-, or 1/30-second.
Special Record Modes
Like the earlier CD200 and many other Sony digicams, the CD250 gives you several file format options for still images. Through the Record menu, you can select TIFF for uncompressed images, Voice (mentioned above), E-mail, Burst 3, or Normal modes. E-mail mode records a smaller (320 x 240-pixel) image size that's small enough to be easily sent to friends and family by e-mail. The e-mail image is recorded in addition to the image size selected through the Record menu's Image Size option. (The TIFF option likewise records a maximum-resolution TIFF image in addition to a JPEG at whatever size and quality setting you've selected.) Burst 3 mode lets you capture a maximum of three frames in rapid succession, at 0.5 second intervals. Actual frame rates might vary with the image resolution and amount of information to be recorded, but in all my tests, it came in at a solid 0.5 seconds per frame.
Like the CD300 and many other Sony digicams, the CD250 gives you several
recording format options for still images. Through the Record menu, you can
select TIFF for uncompressed images, Voice (mentioned above), E-mail, Burst
3, or Normal modes. E-mail mode records a smaller (320 x 240-pixel) image
size that's small enough to be easily sent to friends and family by e-mail.
The e-mail image is recorded in addition to the image size selected through
the Record menu's Image Size option. (The TIFF option likewise records a maximum-resolution
TIFF image in addition to a JPEG at whatever size and quality setting you've
selected.) Burst 3 mode allows you to take a maximum of three frames in rapid
succession, at 0.5 second intervals. Actual frame rates will vary with the
image resolution and amount of information to be recorded.
|Power On -> First shot||
When the camera is already familiar with the disc, startup times are much faster; inserting an unknown disc requires the camera to scan through it to read its directory structure, thus taking much longer to start up.
||Shutdown time is effectively zero, since
there's no lens to retract. If you're still recording an image though, it could take several seconds before the CD is ready to be removed. (If you've just shot a TIFF image, it will take 28 seconds before the disc stops spinning.)
|Play to Record, first shot||
|Record to play (max/min res)||
0.88/4.75 small/basic file size
|First time in each set is for switch to playback mode after camera has finished saving the image. The second (and longer) time is for immediate switch to playback right after shutter is tripped.|
|Shutter lag, full autofocus||
||Wide angle time is somewhat slow, tele time is average or better than average. (Very surprising, usually shutter lag is longer in tele than wide.)|
|Shutter lag, manual focus||
||A bit slower than average. (Average is about 0.5 seconds.)|
|Shutter lag, prefocus||
||A good bit faster than average. (Average is around 0.3 seconds.)|
|Cycle Time, max/min resolution||
||Excellent cycle times, thanks to big buffer. (Buffer holds 10-12 frames, depending on scene content.)|
|Cycle time, post buffer fill, max/min resolution||
(28.2 seconds for TIFF)
|Even after buffer fill, cycle times remain excellent. TIFF is the obvious exception, requiring fully 28 seconds to write the huge file to the CD.|
|Cycle time, continuous mode||
||Bursts limited to 3 frames, but quite fast, at 2 frames/second.|
|Frame rate, multi-burst||
||Small (320-240) sub-pictures stored in single 1280x960 image as a mosaic. Frame rates are very high, my measurements match Sony's claims of 7.5, 15, 30 fps.|
Thanks to a huge buffer memory, the CD250 is quite fast from shot to shot. Startup can be *very* long though, particularly if the CD is nearly full, with multiple sessions (finalize/initialize) on it. Unfortunately, there's no option for adjusting the power-saving automatic shutdown interval. (The camera shuts itself off automatically after 3 minutes of inactivity.) If you tend to shoot on & off over a long period of time, you may need to train yourself to periodically switch the camera into play and back again, or half-press the shutter button, to keep it from going to sleep on you. The other speed issue is autofocus: Shutter lag isn't horrible (well, not too bad anyway) at wide angle, although still longer than I'd like to see. At telephoto it's quite long though. One possible saving grace though, is that the prefocus shutter lag is very short. Overall, the huge buffer memory made the camera feel very responsive when I was shooting with it, but the shutter lag could be an issue if you'll need to deal with fast-paced action on a regular basis.
Operation and User Interface
Power Switch: Just beneath the Mode dial, this switch turns the camera on or off.
Camera Modes and Menus
Zoom Buttons: In the upper right corner of the back panel, the Zoom buttons control the optical and digital zoom (when enabled) in any capture mode. In Playback mode, the wide angle button activates the Index Display mode, while the telephoto button controls the Playback Zoom up to 5x (the wide angle button also zooms back out). Once in Index Display mode, pressing the wide-angle side again displays the image information for the highlighted thumbnail, including exposure information.
Four-Way Arrow Rocker Pad (also: Flash, Quick Review, Macro, and Self-Timer Buttons): Situated just below the zoom buttons, this button serves a variety of functions. On its surface, the pad features four arrows, one pointing in each direction. When any settings menu is engaged, these arrows navigate through the menu options. Once an option is selected, you confirm the selection by pressing on the center of the button. (You will hear a dual tone when you press the center, as opposed to the single tone you hear when you press an arrow.) In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images, while the up and down arrows control the playback volume. If a movie file is displayed, pressing the center of the button triggers the movie playback. When Playback zoom is enabled, pressing the center of the button returns the LCD to the normal 1x image display.
In addition to menu scroll functions, the Arrow Pad also controls certain exposure and camera settings. The Up Arrow button is marked with a flash symbol, and cycles between the Auto, Forced, and Suppressed Flash modes (in all capture modes except Movie). The Right Arrow button, marked with the macro flower symbol, enables and disables the camera's Macro mode. The Down Arrow controls the Self-timer mode, cycling between Normal and Self-timer capture modes. Finally, the Left Arrow activates and deactivates the Quick Review function, which displays the most recently captured image on the LCD screen.
Menu Button: Located directly below the Four Way Arrow Pad, on the left side, this button activates and deactivates the settings menus in any camera mode except Setup (which automatically displays the menu upon entering the mode).
Display Button: Just beneath the LCD monitor, on the far left side, the Display button controls the LCD display in all camera modes except Setup. In Record mode, this button turns both the information and image display on and off. Pressing the Display button in Playback mode sequentially cycles through three modes: No display; image and information display; and image display only.
Open CD-R Compartment Latch: Tucked in the side of the CD-R compartment, just above the external flash connection jack, this sliding button opens the CD-R compartment door.
Marked on the Mode dial with a green camera symbol, Program mode places the
camera in control of both the aperture and shutter speed settings, letting you
set the remaining exposure variables (White Balance, ISO, Exposure Compensation,
Image Size, Picture Quality, Flash, and Normal or Spot Metering).
Scene: Scene mode provides access to four preset shooting modes: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, and Landscape. The actual scene choices are made through the shooting menu, via the Scene setting menu. Twilight mode uses a slow shutter speed to accommodate darker shooting situations. Twilight Portrait uses the flash, in a slow sync mode, capturing the subjects in the foreground with the flash, and using the longer shutter speed to record ambient light from the background. Landscape mode uses a small aperture opening to keep both the foreground and background settings in focus. The Portrait mode uses a large aperture opening to decrease the depth of field, thereby keeping the subject in sharp focus and slightly blurring the background. Most exposure variables, except for aperture and shutter speed settings, are available in the Scene modes.
Setup: Setup mode lets you change basic camera settings.
Movie: Movie mode, marked on the Mode dial with a film strip symbol, captures MPEG movies with sound by default. Most exposure options are available, except for flash and ISO. If the Clip Motion option is selected from the Setup menu, Movie mode will capture up to 10 sequential still images, and combine them into a single animated GIF file. When Multi Burst is selected in the Setup menu, the camera records a rapid burst of frames, saved in a single image frame but played back on the camera as a slow motion animation.
Playback: Captured images and movies can be reviewed and played back in this mode. Images can also be erased, write-protected, copied, resized, set up for printing on a DPOF device, or played back in a slide show.
Record Mode: The Record menu is accessible in all capture modes by pressing the Menu button, however, not all menu options are available in all capture modes. (The menu is normally overlaid on the live viewfinder display. I've blocked the lens to produce a black background here, to help keep down the size of the screenshot GIF.)
Playback Menu: This mode allows you to review captured images on the memory card, erase them, protect them, set them up for printing, etc. When playing back movie files, you can opt for "cue/review" playback, which skips through the movie file quickly, several frames at a time. Pressing the Menu button displays the following options:
Set-Up Menu: The following three-page Set-Up menu automatically displays when entering this mode:
Image Storage and Interface
156 MB CD-R disc
A note about media: Whenever you put a non-Sony CD-R or -RW into the CD250, it flashes the message "Mavica DISC RECOMMENDED" on the LCD as it starts up. For the record, non-Sony CD-Rs seemed to work just fine in my test unit, but prior conversations with Sony technical staff revealed that inexpensive third-party media sometimes has problems with concentricity between the center hole and the data tracks, which can cause read/write problems. I never encountered this while working with third-party media in various Sony CD Mavicas, but just now did have a problem with expanded-capacity media in the CD400 test unit I have. Expanded-capacity CD-R media has been commonplace with full-sized CDs for some years now: The standard spec for full-sized CDs is a capacity of roughly 650 megabytes, but 700 megabyte discs are now quite common. In the same fashion, while the "official" spec for 80mm media is a capacity of 156 MB, you can find third-party discs on the market with capacities of 185 MB. This is an appreciable increase in capacity, to the extent that you might be tempted to give it a try. If you do, I'd advise checking it out carefully before you entrusted your precious photos to it. I was using a 185 MB disc in the CD400 during some of my test shooting, and ended up needing to reshoot a series of test photos. The problem was that, while the camera appeared to recognize and utilize the expanded capacity, after finalizing the disc, I was unable to retrieve the last dozen or so shots I'd recorded on the disc. It's possible that I might be able to access those photos via the USB port, but I haven't had time yet to wrestle with the software on my balky main Windows PC. Even if it does work in that scenario, I'd still advise against using expanded-capacity media as an inherently risky proposition.
Notes for Mac owners: In order to avoid a 1MB limit on writeable file
size, Sony had to go with the Level 3 ISO CD standard, which supports larger
data sizes in packet-writing mode. This means that Macs need a UDF format extension
to be able to read the resulting discs. NOTE that the "UDF Volume Access"
extension that ships with OS9 is apparently not adequate to the task. Although
Apple's UDF Volume Access claims support for Version 1.5 of the UDF ("Universal
Disk Format (tm)") specification, the Adaptec
UDF Volume Access Version 1.04 extension is apparently required to read
the version of the UDF format used by the Mavica MVC-CD400. I can, however attest
to the fact that the iMac supports both the 80mm disc size, as well as the Adaptec
Volume Access extension, as I was able to successfully read "finalized"
CDs from the MVC-CD400 on our slot-loading iMac. (A 400MHz DV model, running
Mac OS 9.0.4.)
Both United States and Japanese models of the CD250 come equipped with an NTSC video cable for connection to a television set. (I assume that European models come with a PAL cable, since there is a PAL setting on the camera.) Once connected to the TV, you can review images and movies or record them to video tape.
The CD250 is powered by an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series) and comes with an AC adapter which doubles as an in-camera battery charger. The InfoLITHIUM battery packs exchange information with the camera, reporting approximately how many minutes of battery life are left. This information is displayed on the LCD monitor with a small battery graphic. The AC adapter plugs into a small socket on the camera's hand grip (just beside the neck strap eyelet). It can run the camera without a battery inserted, or charge the battery when the camera isn't in use.
The Li-Ion battery packs used in Sony cameras prevented me from making my usual power measurements, but the good news is that the InfoLITHIUM system reports projected camera runtime while the battery is being used in the camera. The following runtimes were reported by the CD250 with a freshly charged battery, in Capture and Playback modes. (Note that the runtime with the LCD backlight turned off will doubtless be longer than what is indicated on the LCD monitor, but since the time-remaining readout is only shown on the LCD screen, that information is unavailable.) While these are some of the best runtime numbers I've seen among digicams I've tested, I still always recommend users purchase and pack along a second battery. (Another advantage of the Li-Ion technology used in the InfoLITHIUM batteries is that they don't "self-discharge" like conventional NiMH rechargeable cells do, and so can hold their charge for months on the shelf or in your camera bag.)
|Capture Mode, w/LCD||
The Sony Mavica-CD250 comes with a software CD loaded with a package called ImageMixer, and PTP manager (Picture Transfer Protocol, a protocol used by Windows XP). As of this writing, I haven't had a chance to evaluate this software package, so will defer comment on it until I've tested a full production version of the CD250
In the Box
Included in the box are the following items:
Combining the ease of a full automatic, point-and-shoot digicam with the convenience of CD-R image storage, Sony's Mavica MVC-CD250 provides an inexpensive option for CD-R image capture. The camera features the same options and user interface that has made Sony so popular in the digicam arena, making the CD250 yet another welcome addition to the line. Good image quality and the availability of creative shooting modes recommend the CD250 to even the most inexperienced novices. Given the past performance of Sony Mavica digicams, I think the CD250 will do very well for itself.
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