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External hard-drive buying advice and backing up data

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / July 23, 2008 7:10 PM PDT

I'd like to get an external hard drive to use for backup of files and maybe as a main access point for music and photos. I'm not sure what brands are best or what vendor I should purchase from. I want at least 300GB but probably more. The drive should be easily connected and detached, and synching between the drives for backing up data should be simple (I don't want to manually search all folders in a directory to figure out which ones have been updated since last backup).

I'm more concerned with reliability and durability than with getting the lowest price, as I will be counting on the drive for file backup. What are some members' recommendations? Is it a bad idea to use a backup drive for regular access to music and photos? I play music on my PC a lot and don't want to wear out my primary drive. Using a Dell Dimension 5150 with Windows XP. Thanks!!

--Submitted by Ben T.

Here are some answers from our members to get you started, but please read through all the submission within this discussion thread for more helpful advice and information.

External hard drives are important: choose carefully --Submitted by newscientist_Au

External hard drives are not the best backup! --submitted by MarkFlax

Have a backup plan --submitted kknudson

Simple "balance" of life regarding storage volume --submitted rlessmue

If you have any additional recommedation for Ben, please click the reply link and submit your answer. Please be as detailed as possible when providing a solution or recommendation. Thank you!
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External Hard drives
by splicerjj / July 25, 2008 12:40 PM PDT

Would not use nothing else but Western Digital.

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Would probably not use Western Digital hard drives.
by john3347 / August 1, 2008 12:26 PM PDT
In reply to: External Hard drives

Since the mid 80's, I have experienced two harddrive failures. Both of these have been WD Caviar models. While I have probably used a number of harddrives approaching 100 during this time, two failures is not a great number but it makes one one lose confidence in the brand and model that failed. This is especially true when there has been an eclectic mix of brand names among these harddrives.

I would consider a two pronged approach for the most secure method of back-up of critical data. First, I would install a second (or additional one to however many you now have)internal harddrive large enough to hold everything you need to back-up. Then use an additional external harddrive that is connected only for and while transferring data. Microsoft SyncToy makes it quite easy to duplicate files from your "main" drive to each of these back-up drives. While it is conceivable that some virus or failure could destroy both main and internal back-up hard drive, the external back-up would be physically separated from the computer and the data would be safe.

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Neither would I
by barry_grau / August 1, 2008 12:52 PM PDT

A friend and I each bought a 400GB WD Elements external drive at the same time around June, 2007, and both had problems with them almost right off the bat. And the WD returns web page was so frustrating that neither of us successfully requested a RMA. I opened them up last month. The drives inside are WD Caviar 400GB SATA drives. Last month when I plugged them into a Galaxy external enclosure with JBOD. They've been functioning ok as an external 800GB logical drive for about 10 days. At this point, I don't know what was bad--the drive, the driver or the SATA to USB adapter, but I won't buy WD drives again any time soon.

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by NoCindy / August 25, 2008 7:02 AM PDT
In reply to: Neither would I

I have or had a 500G WD My Book Essential USB 2.0 version. Mine died while doing a B/U when Vista SP1 auto-updated and installed prior to released knowledge of problems with certain drivers and 3rd-party software along with instructions to be sure all the correct updates were installed. Who would have guessed an SP would crash and burn not only my external HD but render my "New" PC useless?

After dealing with techs from both the MS Vista team (which I have to say at least tried his best and contacted me to let me know he was keeping my case open and would be the one handling it should I require his assistance *Shock and Awe*) and the rude and crude Dell "Supervisor" for the tech I was working with on a 3-way conference call between me, the MS tech (who made the call), and Dell, with his contribution of "you will have to do a full recovery." to which I replied, I would have done that earlier however I will lose my data as it killed my WD. His response, "Why do you people think we advise you all the time to do a B/U?" Me: "That is why I purchased the WD through Dell when I bought the system." Him: "Then you have no problem." Me: "apparently you have difficulty hearing or listening, It Died when the system crashed!" Him: "Then that's not our problem, get in touch with the vendor who sold it to you." Me: "Once again, I purchased it from you w/the system, so I believe I am talking to the vendor." He: "Sorry, we supply 3rd party hardware and software as a courtesy, you will need to contact the 3rd-party vendor." Me: "then can you please give me the name and address phone or website for them?" Him: "Sure, Western Digital. The other information is easily found on the product manual, but I'll give you the #." Me: "Thanks!" Oh, forgot, he mentioned I should take it to a technician to have the HD removed and replaced to recover my data, something I could well do on my own, but wasn't about to spend another cent on ****!

I called WD's service number, explained the situation, he attempted to help me revive it to no avail, then issued me an RMA and sent the information and link to print it right away.

That was the easiest part of this whole ordeal. So maybe calling them is the answer. I received an email saying they had received it and a replacement was on its way.


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Agreed - NOT Western Digital Caviar
by quickrick / August 1, 2008 11:05 PM PDT

My experience has been very similar to yours. I run a number of different hard drives in various computers. My only hard drive failures were both Western Digital Caviar hard drives.

I've actually had some drives last for over 8 years using them continuously.

One other thought for reliability of back up. My last two computers I've bought with duplicate hard drives where my disc capacity is limited to the size of one because they are configured to mirror one another. (RAID) That way you not only have data back up but you have EVERYTHING backed up, including your operating system and all install software etc. THEN, I use an external hard drive to back up my data and it is only plugged in when I am backing up data.

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Stay away from western digital
by rvchuck / August 1, 2008 11:53 PM PDT

I purchased 2 320gb my book premium external hard drives and both failed. 100% failure rate with western digital. Their recommended recovery company wanted $1,500 to retrieve the data on each.
Customer support was nothing more than we will replace the drive.
Had I used one to back up the other I still would have lost everything.

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Internal Hard Drives - External Hard Drives
by Doug104 / August 4, 2008 11:33 AM PDT

Speaking for me personally as well as for a 30 Year old Non-Profit 501(c)(3)Corporation that I am Chairman of the Board and CEO of, I agree about not using Western Digital Hard Drives. Since the mid 1970s we have been very involved with computers and hard drives. At first we used mostly Western Digital Hard drives. I thought they were excellent at first but from 1980 on of the Twenty different Hard drives we have used all of the failures have been Western Digitals. Some of them in thir first month only to be replaced by another equally as bad as Western Digital. I have several Maxtor One-Touch external hard drives and I have never had ant problems with them. They range from 300 GB to 1 Terabyte drives. The oldest 300 GB has been in use for 4 years now, and still going strong. We boycott anything Western Digital now because of having so many bad expieriences with them. Doug

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Mid-1970's ?
by M11MadMan / August 4, 2008 1:34 PM PDT

I've been working with computers since 1972. The first hard drive for a PC was introduced in 1979 by Seagate.

I've been using Western Digital since there was A Western Digital, and I've never had a catastrophic hardware failure. I'm currently trying to recover an IDE Maxtor, and I was glad for my Western Digital backups, because that Maxtor ate my system.

I think if you poll enough people, during the polling process, every brand drive with take the "lead" in failures.

One thing I have learned is that a vast majority of hardware failures occur during system power up and power down, due to heat factors. I you expand and contract solder connections often enough, eventually they'll fail. I leave my systems on 24/7 and I've never lost a board.

I don't think they're is any foolproof answer. Go with what you like and hope for the best. The main advantage to external hard drives is you can replace them easier. I've got a group of WD "My Books" and rotate them for daily backups just like I did back in the old days with the 8" floppies (anyone remember those ?)

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LMAO - Raising hand
by NoCindy / August 25, 2008 7:19 AM PDT
In reply to: Mid-1970's ?

My first PC was an IBM (don't think they had model #s at that time) with an updated 5 Mg HD, with additional RAM chips, yes they were chips back then :o)for the unheard of 512 kg (? not sure of that #, it was a while ago) 2 - 5 1/4 floppy drives, a monochrome monitor and keyboard. The mouse wasn't around then. Given an equality to the IBM in those days to a standard Desktop today, it's funny to think I ran so many programs and databases on that dinosaur! I wish I had kept it!


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Chairman of the Board and CEO?
by PhooPhan / August 8, 2008 1:49 PM PDT

It took 30 years for you to make a decision to boycott Western Digital? All of your failures have been Western Digital? Ahhhhh, something smells a little fishy. Sounds more like sour grapes. I know a few CEO's and mid-sized company owners and I honestly can't see any of them making a statement such as you did here, especially using the word "boycott". Sorry, but when something smells, feels and looks like a duck.....

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by Overington / August 2, 2008 1:15 AM PDT
In reply to: External Hard drives

I agree with Lee about hard drives. Most will last around 4 years. Having a UPS will help with longevity with your entire machine. Also, as we all know, heat is not good. As for backups, there have been quite a few options over the years. Tape drives, CD's, DVD's, etc. RAID has its good points and bad points. Needless to say, if you get a virus it's going to be on both drives (assuming your useing a mirrored system). Personally, I keep my old machine and partition and format my new machine the same. You can use something like pcAnywhere to keep the two machines in sync. Odds of both machines going out at once is pretty slim. If one machine dies, you can still keep going on the other while you fix the broken one. Worst case you would have to reload the OS and all your programs, but your data would be all duplicated on the other machine. I also have a Buffalo TereStation that I back up onto. It has 4 256GB drives. I don't have it raided, but I back up all my spreadsheets, word processor files, data bases, game backups, game plugins, downloads, clipart, photos, etc. on 2 of the drives. (Just in case one goes bad). I have 4 copies of all my data. Only way I'm going to loose any data is if my house burns down. At any rate, I've been using the 2 computer system for a long time and I've never lost any data. To each his own and whatever works.

Tom O.

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off site storage
by guywayne / August 5, 2008 11:08 PM PDT
In reply to: Backups

"Only way I'm going to loose any data is if my house burns down".

That is why any backup plan should include some off-site storage for a back-up copy.

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Off site storage-web servers storage
by vladone / August 24, 2008 7:41 AM PDT
In reply to: off site storage

I was wondering why storage on web servers did not show up in this conversation. I will check on the the cost with my related Dell(laptop), Seagate( external drive) or Adobe(video business) resources.
Can anybody share some knowledge on this?

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My external hard drive solution
by Dougcbum / July 25, 2008 12:55 PM PDT

I recently purchased and installed a Mercury Elite-AL Pro 800 RAID MIRROR (Raid 1) 400 GB drive using a fire-wire 800 connection. The install was smooth and easy, and 15 minutes after I opened the box my system was well on its way to a full backup.
Like you, reliability and durability are more important to me than saving a few dollars up front and then paying for it later in lost data.


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by jaywindy / July 25, 2008 1:07 PM PDT

Hi Ben,

I dont reccommend external backup drives for normal pc use.
External hard drives should be used to transfer large files between computers or for a back up of all your data.

I reccommend you add a 300g or more hard drive to your existing pc to store all your music etc on. In fact i would not store anything on the hard drive that occupies C drive as these are in risk of being lost in a pc crash. Storing these files on a seperate hard drive safeguards them.

By all means use a external hard drive to back up your important files , and i would reccomend buying a external case such as a Vantec nextar or a coolermaster case as these are quite good looking and have Esata connection which is your fastest data transfer method, and they come with a Esata bracket to install to your desktop pc for easy connection. Then buy your hard drive, western digital or seagate to your preference. These hard drives are dirt cheap these days, you can set up a 300g external hard drive for about $100.00.

The reason i reccomend to buy these seperately is that a lot of bought external hard drives have cheap quality internal hard drives and you are better off buying your own, and in fact this method is cheaper.



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Back-Up to External Hard Drive
by Looberay / July 25, 2008 1:07 PM PDT

Any brand name hard drive will likely serve you well.
Don't use their pre-packaged back-up software.

I downloaded a free back-up program called 'syncback' and it works like a charm. Once it does a back-up of all the files that you select, it backs up only new and changed files each time thereafter.

Doesn't get any simpler than that!'


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by curt_grymala / August 1, 2008 11:19 PM PDT

I agree with what Looberay said.

First of all, with any external hard drive, you're going to hear one group of people tell you that they're the greatest things since sliced bread. You're going to hear another group of people tell you absolute horror stories about how many times they've had the drives fail on them. It really doesn't matter what brand you pick up, you're just going to have to hope you get a reliable drive from a good batch, unfortunately.

I can tell you that Seagate has good customer service, and, if your hard drive fails within the warranty period (which, I believe is 12 months), they will replace it. I'm sure most of the other major companies have similar plans, so that's not a major concern.

I also agree with Looberay's statement about SyncBack. It's an extremely easy to use program, it's free, and it does a great job of syncing your data. You can download it from and you can read my review of the product at

Just make sure you download the freeware version, unless you are truly interested in the extra features offered by SyncBack SE (which is the payware version).

Regarding using files directly on your external hard drive; that's not really any different than using files directly off of your internal drive. It's not going to be any harder on the drives or your computer. It might be slightly slower, depending on how you connect your external drive.

The important thing to remember is that you must keep a backup of your important files on a separate drive. As long as you do that, it doesn't matter which of those locations you use to access those files on a regular basis.

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Back-Up to External Hard Drive
by Lee-Mann / August 3, 2008 8:27 AM PDT

Hi Looberay,
I would like to try that SYNCBACK program. It sounds like just what I am looking for. Can you tell me where you downloaded it from please?

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by bigfix007 / July 25, 2008 1:17 PM PDT

I have a 750GB LaCie NAS. It has been great.
I suggest you get one with USB and Ethernet connection because then it can be on your home network and anyone (with password) can access it without a host computer being on. I have my entire CD collection ripped to it and use a SONOS system to play the music from the LaCie NAS.

You can get a free tool called Synctoy from Microsoft that is designed to use with XP, Vista etc. It can be set to only copy files from certain folders to your external HDD if they are new or have been modified. Been using it for ages and works great.

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External Hard Drives Are Great!
by XSYLUS / July 25, 2008 1:18 PM PDT

Greetings Ben,

I have been using external hard drives for several years now, I have several 2.5" laptop hard drives in individual external USB 2.0 enclosures. I can easily disconnect any of these drives from my desktop and put them in my laptop bag so I always have specific files and programs on hand. One of the hard drives came out of an older MP3 player that broke, thus it still has all of my music on it and that's the way it has stayed.

Some of the cons of portable hard drives is that they are more susceptible to "the elements" and just being moved around can cause problems; the best way to minimize that is by getting the better, brand name drives. I prefer Maxtor, but Toshiba's hold up fairly well. I've personally had problems with Hitachi and I'd never go with Western Digital. Another thing to look at is how you are going to connect the drive; while USB is probably the most universal method it's not always the fastest. Many newer systems have external SATA ports which I would expect to be among the fastest however, since the technology is new it has not been widely adopted and most laptops don't have external SATA ports so you'd need a PC card.

Overall, my experience with external hard drives has been positive and I hope you have the same luck in your endeavor.

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Its a good idea...
by minutepoet / July 25, 2008 1:31 PM PDT

Well, I too want to buy an external hard drive for the same purpose. But I need a lot more bigger than 300 GB such as 1 TB. Recently, Hitachi released external hard drive of 1 TB. Using that, I can backup music, movies and photos and thus protect my primary drive from wearing out. But, I'm not aware whether its better to have regular access or not..I hope it will not harm the PC anyway by regular using. I think its better to buy a bigger hard drive for maximum storage. Wait a little bit, prices will automatically come down and also better changes will occur in those hard drives.

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External Hard Drive Recommendation
by Ozzie / July 25, 2008 1:55 PM PDT

While I am sure you are going to get lots of recommendations, there are a lot of companies that make good external hard drives, what concerned me was the ease of use of the software that came with it. I went through a Seagate and a Clic before doing my homework and settling on a Western Digital My Book HOME EDITION, 500 GB. If you have a lot of music I would suggest going all the way and getting a 1 TB drive.
I purchased it on Ebay for about $30 less then I could have gotten it on but typically has the best prices. Do not get the Essential Edition, which is hyped a lot and a little cheaper but does not come with the same automatic backup software and does not have the same port options. I am connected to my computer via an eSATA port, which is really the same as a hard drive SATA port and is quicker then a USB or FIrewire port. If your motherboard does not have an external eSATA port or two, and most still don't, at least you will be prepared for the next generation or, I think =, but am not positive, if you wanted to you could even open your case, find a long SATA cord, and plug the extrenal drive directly into an unused SATA port so far as I know, although I would confrim this with a call to a newegg specialist as I have never confirmed this but feel si simply makes sense given that the eSata ports are simply plugged into any avaiolable SATA port. Sorry for the spelling but I am frankly to tired to spell check. You should get the message. My main point about the My Book home edition is that the software mimics backups you do on your main drive to your extrenal drive. If I save some files to my c crive the westen digiatal software willl amke copies of the files and save them to the external drivei n a similar location automatically. The same goes for music files which have all become redundent. I could not find any other external hard drive with such sophicticated backup software built in although you can purchase it sperately and install it yourself and set it up. Bottom line it takes more work in my opinion as I looked at them all. Western Digital have made cittomg edge droves fpr years and I am extremely uncomfortable with his walking around in there. Lets act now.

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Best photo backup software
by wizard_chef / August 2, 2008 4:01 AM PDT

One unsolved issue I have is what is the best photo backup program to buy, a program that will do incremental backups of my photos to an external drive? Periodically dragging my entire photo folder over to an external drive is a waste of time.

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by gysgtusmc74 / August 2, 2008 6:44 AM PDT

I have been using Adobe PhotoshopElements. Ver6 is the latest flavor. You can do full backups or incremental to your exthdd and is quite painless to perform.

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Back up software = Goodsync Pro
by tbdonne / August 2, 2008 6:59 AM PDT
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Backing up data to a 2nd hard drive
by ken-cn / August 2, 2008 11:53 AM PDT

One nice product we use at work to automate backups of data files is Second Copy. I use it to backup modified data to both a network and a usb drive. It allow for multiple revisions of a document, etc. Not cheap, but works quite well for me.

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External Hard Drive Solution
by microbabydad / July 25, 2008 2:00 PM PDT

The solution I use is a Seagate Barracuda drive and Thermaltake enclosure. The Barracuda has a 5 year warranty, very reliable, and quiet. Thermaltake enclosures are well known for quality and durability, and their cooling fans are very quiet.

Drive size will depend on how much you think you'll be putting on it in the reasonable future. My backup is as big as sum of the capacities of both of my internal drives, so I'll always have room to backup whatever makes it onto my computer.

Make sure the drive and enclosure are compatible. My Thermaltake uses a SATA drive. This is just the way the drive connects to the enclosure. The connection from the enclosure to your computer will depend on what's available on your computer, so make sure you get the right enclosure. eSATA is a good choice - fast and reliable. If you don't have an eSATA connection on your computer, you can possibly add a card to get one - just make sure your computer will allow the installation of another card. If you don't have an eSATA and don't want to add a card, you can use USB. USB is slower than eSATA, especially if you have several USB devices working at the same time. But USB should be ok for what you want to do.

You can search online for good prices. I wanted a store to go to, so I got mine at Tiger Direct. To save money, get a "bare" drive - it will come in a simple package and not have any manuals, tutorials, cables, etc. But you shouldn't need any of that to put the drive in the external enclosure - the enclosure will have everything to connect to the drive, clamp it in place, and the cable to connect the drive to the computer. My 750GB Barracuda drive and Thermaltake enclosure totaled about $200.

Using a drive other than your boot drive is generally a good idea, especially if there are several things competing for disc access. Another benefit to putting all those things you don't ever want to loose on an external drive is you can pretty easily take it with you if you want/need to - much easier than than taking your whole computer. Generally external enclosures require a cable to the computer and a separate power supply (provided with the enclosure). The additional power supply will be a little inconvenient if you want to use the drive in various locations.

If you have very precious pics or music, it would be a good idea to have more than one external drive. You can then have one that you back up and then taken to a safe place such as a friend's house. A couple hundred dollars won't seem like much if something should happen to your computer at your house and you don't have those pictures saved somewhere else.

There are many backup programs available, but I use Microsoft's free SyncToy. Check out Wikipedia for a good explanation of SyncToy and a link to Microsoft to download it. SyncToy is pretty easy to set up. You can also use Task Scheduler to run SyncToy at a time when you won't be using the computer, so the heavy disc access during backup won't slow you down.

You're being very smart, Ben, by implementing a backup scheme for your computer - especially when you have things like pics that can't ever be replaced. Using an external drive is a great choice for reasons already mentioned and many more. Hope all this helps!

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External hard drives
by mbmatson / August 2, 2008 4:17 AM PDT

One thing to bear in mind is that that one possible way to lose your hard drive is to have your house burgled and that if the back up is easily visible and adjacent to your computer they'll probably steal that too.

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FreeAgent drives are rock solid performers, simple, and BIG
by shimshai / July 25, 2008 2:02 PM PDT

I have used several external hard drives but my current drive is my favorite - A FreeAgent Pro drive: 750 GB, USB 2.0 and/or eSATA, Seagate hard drive, and FreeAgent tools for backing up data.

Seagate is known for their quality drives and the FreeAgent tools were very easy to install and it AUTOMATICALLY watches and backs up the PC folders and/or files (that I told it to watch during setup) as long as the drive is connected. When I am working on my PC and save a document, as soon as I click on the save button it will back up the file to the external drive. When I reconnect my drive it immediately backs up any changes.
I also have over 400 GB of mp3 music on my Free Agent drive and play, burn, and organize my music from the drive. It works wonderfully.
My 750 GB can be found on sale for about $140- $150; A 500 GB can be found on sale for about $100.

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Seagate Free Agent

I have a 500GB Free Agent external drive by seagate. When I bought and installed it. Seagate wanted to sell me storage space with them. Then they sold me a programe for a year called Memeo. I have no idea what this program does. It it gives access to addition back up programs by installing DVD, CD or other disk? Vista'a backup program allow you to do this. I bought the exteral drive a few months after I accidently wiped by hard drive and was unable restore my information. I thought I would be safe just with the external drive. Are all these other programs necessary?

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