Hardware

The Apple MacBook Air tries to fill a niche that doesn't exist

The Apple MacBook Air is the current poster-child for the effective combination of design and engineering. Apple should be commended for how well the Air is built. But I still cannot figure out who would actually want to buy and own a MacBook Air.

TechRepublic purchased an Apple MacBook Air so we could take it apart as part of our Cracking Open series. There is no doubt that the MacBook Air is a testament to the technical ingenuity of Apple's engineering and design teams. They were able to squeeze substantial computer power into a very thin space. Check out Cracking Open the Apple MacBook Air for details.

However, while we can admire the technical achievement, it is impossible to ignore the shortcomings of the MacBook Air in terms of the hardware sacrificed for the sake of space and power consumption. At a price tag of $1,799, consumers should expect much more.

Specifications

Our Apple MacBook Air is the standard $1,799 model, which is made up of these parts:

  • 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU
  • 80GB Parallel ATA Drive running at 4200 rpm
  • 13.3-inch widescreen LED backlit display (1280-by-800)
  • 802.11n WiFi (draft specification)
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • 2GB RAM (not upgradeable)
  • 1 USB port, 1 mini-DVI out, a headphone jack
  • Weighs 3 pounds

With hardware like that you are limited to a notebook that can surf the Web, check e-mail, and play an occasional video. In other words, basic computing and not much more.

And while those aren't bad specs for a $500 notebook, they just don't cut it for one that is retail priced at $1,800. Those are the kind of hardware specifications I generally expect to see in Sunday's newspaper ads for HP or Dell notebooks. Those notebooks are good for general computing and cost a lot less than the Apple MacBook Air.

Take note that the Air also does not have an optical drive. This is by design -- the Air was built to take advantage of an increasingly wireless world (according to Apple's marketing).

So if you want to watch a video, you'll have to download it. Of course you could buy the MacBook Air SuperDrive for a mere $99, which will play CDs and DVDs and allow you to install software. But again, for the price tag I would expect an optical drive (the notebooks from HP and Dell have DVD burners). I would also expect a Gigabit Ethernet port just to keep my network connection options open.

Not all bad news

But the verdict on the Apple MacBook Air is not all bad. What you do get for your $1,800 is a great looking, albeit small, LED display with a high resolution and a battery life approaching five hours under normal Web browsing conditions.

You also get a light-weight and extremely thin notebook that is easy to carry around. With Bluetooth and 802.11n WiFi, wireless connections are a snap. However, there is no support for 3G wireless, which would have been a nice feature for a notebook that emphasizes the benefits of a wireless world.

Your $1,800 also gets you a notebook that will score style points with the commuter crowd or the gang at Starbucks, that is, if you are into that sort of thing.

Bottom line

The Apple MacBook Air is quite a technical achievement. The extraordinary thin shape and crisp LED display are fantastic and deserve praise. But the rest of the hardware specifications leave me scratching my head. Considering the small, slow hard drive, the lack of an optical drive, the lack of an Ethernet port, and the minimal interface ports, the MacBook Air is just too expensive for what you get.

For $1,800 I can get a darn good gaming notebook (NoteMagix C90 Ultra from Velocity Micro) and for about a thousand less than that I can get an HP or Dell that can handle my needs for basic computing. And if all I need is a device to surf the Web, check e-mail, and download and watch an occasional video, I think I'd rather have the iPod Touch. The Apple MacBook Air seems to be filling a niche market that doesn't really exist.

About

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.

72 comments
Noolan
Noolan

"With hardware like that you are limited to a notebook that can surf the Web, check e-mail, and play an occasional video." Now, don't get me wrong, I think the Macbook Air is overpriced, underpowered and pointless, but people have been managing perfectly fine for years with all kinds of computing work on machines a lot less powerful than this. People do get a bit carried away with the idea that as soon as a new generation of hardware is released the old generation is only good for web surfing and e-mail. My current laptop isn't much higher spec than this Macbook and I use it at work for everything from video and photo editing to web development. There's plenty to lay into about the Macbooks price without needing to make up exaggerated criticisms like that.

gcaventjr
gcaventjr

I keep hearing everyone complaining that they don't get the purpose of the "Air". I listen to pundits argue that they MUCH prefer their hyper-portable Toshiba's or Sony's that don't sacrifice the optical drive. What they DON'T say is how uncomfortable it is to type on a sub-sized keyboard, or to squint at a 12.1" display on a PC that costs $2.5-3K. Now, I am not a Mac fanatic (my wife uses a MacBook; I'm using ubuntu on a Dell Latitude D600 and WinXP on a Dell Latitude D830), but Apple does have nice products. The MacBook Air is targeted specifically at users who do a lot of typing, while moving from location to location. That's it... If this is you, you already want the "Air". If this isn't you, don't buy one.

David.Apimerika
David.Apimerika

I guess you bemoaned the lack of a floppy drive in the original iMac or even the choice of 3.5in over 5.25in floppies in older Macs too. And yet, slowly but surely, every other manufacturer follows Apple's lead. Look at the success of USB (stemming from being a standard fixture on Macs). But seriously, when I had my Mac G4 tower (years ago), I used it for 4 months before trying to insert a floppy, only to find it didn't have one. Wow! perhaps superflous after all. And now I have a MacBook Pro. I rarely use the optical drive, preferring to use the network or USB drive/memory sticks for file transfer/application installs. So good on Apple for taking the next step in the evolution of the mobile computer. No ethernet port? Get a wireless router!

cavlosnap
cavlosnap

The "Air" appears to be designed for the Cartmans of the world who absolutely must have the latest toy. It will also appeal to the road warriors who travel constantly even if it is only from their cell to a conference for a meeting. The weight , size processor are attractive the HDD and removable media capacities are not. The price is ridiculous. I'm a hardware junkie of sorts but limited by cash and to some degree by the scrooge mentality of value for money. I have an ASUS eee which weighs less and seems able to do at least most of the stuff the AIR can & it costs

lastchip
lastchip

"And if all I need is a device to surf the Web, check e-mail, and download and watch an occasional video, I think I'd rather have the iPod Touch" Or the Asus Eee! Just like the iphone, the "Air" is for fashion conscious people, but lacks any real substance. Edited for strange reaction to cut and paste!

yobtaf
yobtaf

I don't think that Apple expects to sell a lot of MacBook Airs. Though the Air was drawing a lot of attention at my local Best Buy (that is now an Apple dealer). This machine is for a small group who want to be on the cutting edge. What you are are looking at is the future. The critics of the Air are the same people who said that they would never buy a machine without a floppy drive. Yes, you are correct that you can buy a lot more machine for the same amount of money. But mark my words you will some day own a computer without an optical drive and an ethernet port (I no longer use my ethernet port), that has flash memory and is extremely thin and light. The only thing that the Air is missing is a OLED screen, and the only reason for that is probably the current cost of OLEDs. If you are criticizing the Air you don't under stand what you're looking at, the future. Mac fanboy

Lexxus
Lexxus

I don't own the Air, but would still like to get one, if the price was half of what it is. The definite shortcoming of this machine for me though is the lack of CD/DVD drive included, only one USB port, and no RJ45. However, I'm not blind to what Apple is tring to do. They are not buildng a gaming PC, and they are not building a desktop replacement. If you're looking for that, go elsewhere. When I see the MacBook Air, I see an ultrathin/ultralight machine to take to meetings, conferences etc. I see this as a companion to my desktop. I really like the small form factor, but I think I'll wait to see the next generation and hoping that Apple will fix the mistakes made with this release.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

At Arun Radhakrishnan's Air review over a month ago: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/tech-news/?p=1921 This reminds me of the Compaq Aero M300, a misbegotten piece of technology purchased when our senior executives insisted system weight was their primary criteria in a laptop. It didn't weigh much and was relatively thin for 1997, but it lacked many hardware features I consider key at that time - floppy (still relevant in '97) and optical drives, Ethernet ports, and wireless and dial-up ('97, remember?) modems. It made up for this by offering those accessories on PCMCIA and dongles. If you have to lug drives and dongles in the carrying case, you really haven't reduce the carrying weight, now have you? Plus you get the added convenience of having to keep up with the dongles. Since the docking station had all the necessary drives and ports, many of my users purchases a second dock and left it in the case. Yeah, that really reduced total weight too. We eventually referred to that model as a "Solitaire", because that's about all it was good for. This isn't a knock at Apple so much as the design. I wouldn't consider this type of machine no matter who cranked it out. EDITED: This is the fourth article on this piece of ... hardware since Apple introduced it. Can we agree that this machine is a bad value for the price and move on to other topics?

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

I just bought an Acer with better specs (1.8GH CPU, DVD/CDR) for $399! Why would anyone waste their money on a Mac?

squirrelonfire
squirrelonfire

It's just plain funny saying that I have to download a movie dvd just to watch it. Worse, no ethernet, what were u thinking apple?

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

learn how to configure it safely. That would be the exising giant whole in wifi routers: left wide open for the most disinterested home owner's convenience. 802.3 neworking is easily resolved with a NIC dongle out the USB though.

andy.nelson
andy.nelson

I?ve got a MacBook Pro and love it (I use it for music production/performance and graphic design, pretty much 2 of a Mac?s main uses!!) ? saw the Air in the flesh for the first time this weekend and must admit, it really is a rather fetching piece of kit. I expect we will see a lot of people picking it up for the wow factor, for a bit of style, to look cool. What?s so wrong with that? You can only drive a Ferrari up to the speed limit, which is way below the capability of the car. You also lose a lot of things with the expensive Ferrari ? like decent luggage space, rear seats, practicality, but it?s still a cool thing to have if you can afford it. Sometimes a product is about more than its technical capability and about making a statement ? which to my mind, the Air does brilliantly.

Quasar Kid
Quasar Kid

Funny thing about the future (Apple)...an old guy from the past said it best - "there is a sucker born every minute"

jasondlnd
jasondlnd

Apple is a forward thinking company, no doubt, however the featureset found on the Air have all been seen before. For years, I had an extremely thin and lightweight HP Omnibook with no internal CD/DVD or Floppy Drive, 1 USB port, no Ethernet port, and no FireWire port. I absolutely hated it. I had to connect an external DVD drive to install software. I had to hook up a USB hub if I wanted more than one USB port. I had to plug in a PCMCIA card if I wanted to connect via Ethernet. I now have a 13" Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook, and I absolutely love it! Everything is internal - the Superdrive CD/DVD burner, two USB ports, FireWire, Bluetooth, Ethernet, Wireless, the works! On top of it all, the battery can last up to 8 hours, and Leopard makes the machine run extremely well. Self Containment and portability is the future, not the reliance on external devices and wireless networks to "complete" your computer. The Air isn't the future. It's the past.

yobtaf
yobtaf

look at it that way we would still be driving around in horse carts. Get with it, the people who are still using Windows 97 will never change. I'm talking about the direction that technology is moving in. It's undeniable that the next generation of machines will include all these feature and more, regardless of how backward your clients are. To be honest, this is really isn't the future, it's the present and like the flash memory, the price will drop rapidly.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I may be looking at the future, but my users' needs are still those of the first decade of the millennium. In the late '00's most people still need optical burners. Most wireless is still slower than a wired connection, so ethernet ports are still preferred options. Hard-wired connections are still required if you're in a facility with any decent security on it's wireless network. The Air is configured to use a draft .11n standard; I hope it remains compatible with the final standard. It's going to run at .11g speeds until more people deploy .11n under the final standard, and by the time that happens the machine will be obsolete. In short, the future ain't here yet. This machine doesn't meet current needs.

Al_nyc
Al_nyc

The future is an overpriced underpowered machine?

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...needs all that stuff these days. There are still people out there who only use a PC to get their e-mail and surf the web. Although pricey, this computer is more than capable of doing that.

Occams Aftershave
Occams Aftershave

Your Acer weighs twice the Air - instead compare the same ultralight class w/ excellent 13" screen, fullsize keyboard. Weighing only 8 oz. more than the Air, but the same price (& including the external DVD), the new LG P300... 2.4GHz Penryn, GeForce 8600GS 256MB, 250GB 5400rpm HD, and 3 USB, ethernet, audio in/out, S-Link, HDMI, VGA, SD cardreader, ExpressCard/34 for WWAN Hardware which crushes the Air. And can swap the fricking battery.

kjshark
kjshark

That's like saying it's insane to want a rubber mallet when you could have a sledgehammer. A computer is a tool. Different people have different needs. Not all hammers are appropriate for all jobs so why should all computers be ? Why be so intolerant ?

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Not everybody uses their laptop to watch movies. Personally, I can't remember the last time I had either a cable or a drive connected to my laptop. (geeze, I hope I can find them the next time I need them) The only thing the drive bay of my laptop gets used for is the 2nd battery.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

These days, wifi is to networking as cell phones are too POTS. The only place I've seen a router without wifi in it is on the manufacturer's website. With the popularity of wireless, I can understand not having an rj45 jack on the machine since one could always throw a USB wired NIC into the hub along with whatever other USB you've got forked off the single port. It would limit me in other ways but I'm not the target market for the device.

lastchip
lastchip

It depends on how you view a computer. For me, it's a working tool and therefore the "Air" simply doesn't hack it, given it's cost v usefulness. I wouldn't argue for a second that it is indeed (like all Apple products) an impressive looking piece of kit, but for me, it lacks essential capabilities that I would not tolerate at this price point; as has been pointed out in the original article. In the same way, i see the iphone as a also-ran compared to the sophisticated 3G options we have here in the UK at a fraction of the cost. Perhaps we view life rather differently. I would see a Ferrari as a complete waste of money and have absolutely no ambition to ever own one (not that that is likely ;-) )

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Sometimes a product is about more than its technical capability and about making a statement..." So what's the statement being made by either the Air or the Ferrari? I'd like to know what you think before I disclose the message I'm receiving from both pieces of equipment.

yobtaf
yobtaf

"there is a sucker born every minute" W C Fields is generally associated with this quote, though I don't think anyone would dispute that the expression is much older. I'll bet the ancient Greeks used it first. "Ta ta, see you in the funny paper."

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Right. Very pricey. If all you're doing is e-mail and web sniffing, why drop the big bucks on this system? Get a system with a bigger screen; oh, and save money too!

jbergman
jbergman

Hmm, this would not work for me. I need the wire connection to work on routers, net printers, and wireless routers. Always having to remember the fussy little adapters required would drive me up the wall. Someone will find it cute but I need function more than form.

dbranizor
dbranizor

How many buisnesses have half way secure 802.11i wireless networks and how many are like Target-- with APs letting everyone log in from the parking lot, with just WEP? Not having an ethrnet jack is pretty weird, and I'm coming from a former military background where wireless conectivity was shunned because of the gapping secuirty flaws. I'm surprised Apple would sell somthing this werid and unusable.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

I think the Air is the computer version of the Corvette. The Corvette gets people into the Chevy dealership to look and dream, but then they buy something that is more practical to their needs. At the same time the Corvette creates an bit of an aura for the rest of the Chevy line. Wow, the folks that created my Malibu also make the Corvette! Some of it must have rubbed off. Another way of looking at it is like a concept car. Obviously the folks at Apple were tasked with making the slimmest laptop computer they could, and make it functional enough that it would be usable for most situations. So you throw the book away and go create and come up with something unique. Even if you don't sell a bunch of them you've made something special that will set folks to talking - witness this article and the responses. That said, no I'm not even a Mac owner. I still like to run cmd so I can do my dos commands. I wouldn't buy the Air, but I can appreciate the styling, thought, and ingenuity that went into it.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

here's the message I get from both Air and Ferrari users: "I, the purchaser of this equipment have more money than sense. I feel the need to be the center of attention, and lacking any viable skills to attract it, I resort to defining myself with extravagant, impractical toys in an effort to make a favorable impression. "Oh, and my winkie is on the small side, too." What message do others get? Inquiring minds want to know.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

While I used to know who's on first by word (and the In Living Colour rewrite of it), my classic comedian's material is sadly lacking.

yobtaf
yobtaf

W C: "Was I here last night, and did I spend a twenty dollar bill?" Bartender (played by Shemp Howard): "Yes" W C: "What a relief, I thought I lost it" From "The Bank Dick"

yobtaf
yobtaf

This is a really dumb thread and it's fun to yank people's chains on it. I always understood that you weren't all that serious.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

We derived countless advances in medical and engineering fields because of pushing that particular envelope for no other reason than to stay ahead of Joe Russkie. However, we didnt' abandon ground transportation and start commuting in lunar modules.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

It's off topic but what the heck: In terms of pushing the envelop, "because you can" is a great reason. I can get behind that idea fully. It makes perfect sense to push limitations simply because you can. Snowboarding would not have evloved very var nore would many other sports. Innovation is the very act of pushing back limitations because you can. To stick with tech examples, the very mindset and act of Hacking (not in the prejoritive) is exploring limitations and finding ways past them; "I wonder if the new radio I baught can do [blah] if I connect these to contacts or load a bit of home built software into it". Granted, most hackers don't have the financial resources of a computer manufacturer behind them for when they want to explore a new envelope limitation. In terms of pushing the limitation of how much you can layer into how thin a packege; the Air is a very beautiful piece of bragging rights. Pushing the envelope just for the sake of pushing the envelope is everything. While there are good reasons for one to buy an Air, buying one just to have the latest apple logo or "because you can" is the bit that makes no sense too me.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I was getting a little concerned with your "ok, you guys win" comment as I was just poking fun with the initial post into the thread but the humour of the joke didn't seem to translate into text well. As for pushing sixty; yeah, I'd be a young whippersnapper in that case but wouldn't the steriotype expect me to be explaining "LOL" to you? Still all in good fun. As other's have mentioned, if your the target market for the Air, you probably already have one. I have more interest in the updated macbook pro models but that's no different from my interest previous to the air. A last bit of noise from me about floppy drives. Unfortunately the ns7-s bios does not support boot from flashdrive so a floppy is the most practical place to put a boot partition outside of the hard disk MBR. I also still include my Dos license in my OS collection and continue to find old floppies I can scrap some last remaining archives off of for it. Otherwise, I pretty much live out of flashdrives. The one I carry with me is a complete desktop less the hardware and Windows (portableapps are windows based) and the N800 is all flash based. Rushing headfirst into the future doesn't mean giving up the past when there's good reason to remember it. There are some other's around who have made a habbit of picking fights and it's left some of us a little quick too the defense. Anyhow, happy reading and hopefully my humour comes across better the next time.

Quasar Kid
Quasar Kid

Pushing the envelope just for the sake of pushing the envelope makes absolutely no sense. No sense at all.

yobtaf
yobtaf

Take care, you're OK in my book. This is all just in fun anyway.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'm with a manufacturing company. At my location we have appx. 20 'hard core' road warriors, mostly in Sales, Purchasing, and senior management. I didn't say we keep 5.25" floppies, I said I have machines with a 5.25" drive. I have two machines on the shelf for reading obsolete formats, just in case. I haven't seen a 5.25" diskette in years, but these are old machines and there's no reason to remove the drives from the bays. I should probably shrink wrap one to keep the dust out. We're not saying there's no future for the individual technologies you describe, and we're happy to use them when appropriate. However, we still have a need for technologies like optical drives, and prefer the convenience of multiple USB ports over keeping up with a hub. As to going exclusively wireless, our 802.11g set up is still much slower than a hard-wired Ethernet connection, and with a wired connection you aren't competing with other wireless users for WAP time. In addition, we require VPN authentication for all wireless connectivity within the building. My laptop users don't like authenticating when they aren't at their desks; if they had to do that at their desks, they'd have fits every time the system hibernated. As I've noted elsewhere, we once had ultra-lightweight Compaq laptops. My objections to what I see as the hardware inadequacies of the Air are based on my experience with the Armada M300. It had the newest goodies, but it reduced the weight by eliminating accessories that were considered current in other models. It quickly became despised where I work by both users and support staff. I'm don't think I've said there's no place for it. If so, I officially retract that statement. What I've been trying to say is there's no place for it where I work.

yobtaf
yobtaf

Hi Palmetto, What business is your company in? I suspect that's why we disagree. I'm pushing sixty, by the way. Hi Neon Samurai, At this point I'm not sure who I'm betting with, but if you need a couple of bucks I'll send it to you. Do you have a PayPal account? Very interesting, booting from a floppy. It works. Palmetto's company keeps 5.0" floppies. I suppose that works too. Don't tell me how many CRT monitor you have. The only thing I can say is, you guys win, I give up. I guess there is no future for flash memory, ultra light laptops or wireless networking. I guess OLEDs are out too (not part of the Air..... yet). See you guys later, I'm headed down to the basement to dig out my old SCSI peripherals. .....Never let a digital artist in Rhode Island yank your chain.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

" I'll bet you're over 50 and still have a floppy drive. LOL - that means "laughing out loud". " I'm surely old by some standards what with pushing 30 and your partly correct, I do keep a floppy drive in my workstation at home but I use the diskette in is as a boot partition: - Grub/LILO can be installed to /dev/fd0 (that means floppy drive young whippersnapper :) ) - I can pull the disket and let the drive too a default OS if I muck up my "fd0/boot partition". I suspect you had less humourous intentions than I did with my post but it's not worth getting stuck on. I can respect your defensive posture on the subject but I stand by my joke; it was funny.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

In what direction is the envelope being pushed? We don't give anyone two computers where I work; it's considered a waste of money. If you need a laptop for road work it has to also function as a desktop replacement. I'm pushing fifty. I have two machines on standby with both 3.5" and 5.0" floppy drives (along with DVD, tape, and other drives for every medium we've ever used). Please try to explain how this system would benefit my company. Exactly why should we buy this system when we can get something else with increased hardware capabilities at half the price (or less) with only a minor increase in weight? Please avoid using the words 'cool', 'cutting edge', 'state of the art', 'pushing the envelope', and other terms devoid of technological meaning. Explaining it in terms of ROI is strongly encouraged.

yobtaf
yobtaf

I couldn't resist it either. I'll bet you're over 50 and still have a floppy drive. LOL - that means "laughing out loud".

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

And boy are they pushing the envelope for what minimal features you can maximize retail cost for. (hehe.. sorry, I couldn't resist.. the joke amused me at least if it didn't cause other's a giggle)

yobtaf
yobtaf

It's about pushing the envelope.

newd
newd

It's true that some companies and individuals have insecure wireless networks, but it doesn't follow that that makes the MacBook Air insecure. It's also true that many companies have relatively insecure wired networks, but that doesn't indict all Ethernet adapters. Portability is one of the strengths of the Air and, in a securely implemented wireless environment, lack of a built-in Ethernet port is a non-issue. For those whose work isn't anchored to one cubicle, the Air is an excellent tool. And, if needed, there is a USB dongle for wired Ethernet connections.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

security and wifi security specifically is a whole other topic aside from Apple's hollywood dieting supermodel notebook. I'm still not surprised though when considering the expected market for the Air; mobile business types who only need the limited functionality, those who have to be "that cool guy" at the coffee shop or classroom and the Cult of Mac who'll buy it up just because of the glowing fruit with a bite out of it. I'm behind the Thinkpad or Toughbook brands if you want to really talk security. For businesses, I'd hope they use something more than WEP. WPA2 with a passkey is minimum though something at the military level would be expected to use certs and probably with a VPN tunneling through the native wifi encryption. With a home router and WPA there's little chance of someone connecting from the parking lot but as always, it's a moving target that network admins and home users need to keep up with; WEP was secure until it wasn't after all. With wifi being to networks as cell phones are too POTS, I hope they continue to put more security research into routers rather than the lax security that makes up cell phone networks. If I had to use an Air, I'd be adding a usb wired NIC dongle too my kit bag for those times when wifi was not acceptable. Over wifi, there is always ssh tunneling or other VPN solutions. Realistically, if wired security is the only acceptable network option then your likely being issued a macbook pro rather than one of these minimalist fashion notebooks.

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