An ultra-zoom digicam with HD video recording capabilities and some handy functions for still shooting.Sony has brought its Exmor CMOS technology to the super-zoom arena in the form of the 9.1-megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-HX1. Styled like a mini-DSLR - but too big to be pocketable - the HX1 is the highest-priced model on the current market. However, it boasts a 20x optical zoom lens plus a couple of features that make it stand out from the crowd, including a Sweep Panorama mode and 10 frames/second continuous shooting speed. . . [more]
Sony has brought its Exmor CMOS technology to the super-zoom arena in the form of the 9.1-megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-HX1. Styled like a mini-DSLR - but too big to be pocketable - the HX1 is the highest-priced model on the current market. However, it boasts a 20x optical zoom lens plus a couple of features that make it stand out from the crowd, including a Sweep Panorama mode and 10 frames/second continuous shooting speed.
Unlike some Sony digicams, the 20x zoom lens on the HX1 isn't Carl Zeiss branded; instead it sports the Sony 'G' label, which purports to be higher quality. The lens has been designed to complement the 'Exmor' CMOS sensor and BIONZ processor and consists of 13 elements in 10 groups.
Aspherical and ED (extra-low dispersion) elements are included to minimise aberrations. Covering a focal length range equivalent to 28-560mm in 35mm format for 4:3 aspect ratio shots (31-620mm in 16:9 aspect ratio), this lens has a maximum aperture range of f/2.8-5.2 and minimum aperture of f/8, in line with the small size of the sensor.
Design and Functions
Physically, the HX1 is a pretty typical ultra-zoom digicam, with a plastic body, prominent extending lens, large hand grip and pop-up flash. A large LCD monitor covers two-thirds of the rear panel. It pulls out to tilt up through 90 degrees or down through 160 degrees for high- and low-angle shooting but doesn't swivel. The screen's resolution is unimpressive, at only 230,400 pixels but it offers automatic brightness adjustment to match ambient light levels.
Front view of the DSC-HX1 showing the lens, grip and AF-assist light. (Source: Sony)
Above the LCD is an electronic viewfinder (EVF), which is small, cramped and of low resolution. (We suspect most users will frame shots with the monitor for preference.) A semi-recessed rotating dial on the side of the EVF housing allows diopter adjustment.
Rear view of the HX1 showing the LCD monitor and arrow pad. (Source: Sony)
Most camera controls lie on the top panel. Left of the EVF/flash housing is a button that toggles between the Finder and LCD monitor. Atop the housing, between the EVF and flash is the stereo microphone, covered by a protective grille. Between the EVF and mode dial is the on/off power button. Behind it are the Playback and Custom buttons.
The top panel of the HX1showing the mode dial, shutter button, grip and stereo microphone. (Source: Sony)
By default, the Custom button is set to trigger the Smile Shutter mode but you can replace that with either White Balance of Metering Mode controls. Only one function can be allocated to the Custom button at a time.
The mode dial lies to the right of the on/off switch and carries 11 settings: iAuto, P, S, A, M, Easy mode, Movie mode, Scene Selection mode, Sweep Panorama, Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur. Within the Scene Selection mode are a further 10 pre-sets, covering High Sensitivity (max. ISO 3200), Portrait, Advanced Sports Shooting (which combines fast shutter speeds with predictive AF), Landscape, Twilight Portrait, Twilight, Gourmet, Beach, Snow and Fireworks modes.
Just in front of the mode dial, where the grip begins, are two more buttons that access the burst/bracket sub-menu and the focus modes. At the end of the grip lies the shutter button, surrounded by the zoom lever, which operates with variable speed. If you pull hard it can go from wide to tele in just over two seconds. With a softer touch, a fair degree of precision is obtainable, thanks to more than 40 intermediate steps.
The rear panel buttons consists of an arrow pad, which accesses the display, close-up, flash and self-timer sub-menus. The Menu button sits above the arrow pad with the delete button below.
Side view of the HX1 showing the location of the connector jacks. The dioptre adjustment dial for the viewfinder can be seen on the viewfinder housing. (Source: Sony)
Two rigid plastic covers pull out of the left side panel directly beneath the strap lug, each attached with flexible tags. The upper one covers the DC IN jack while the lower one hides the multi-connector for the combined USB and video cable. It also provides a connection point for an HDMI cable (not supplied), which plugs into a rather clunky HDMI adaptor plug (supplied). Surely it would have been simpler to provide a separate HDMI connector?
The battery/card compartment is located in the base of the hand grip and accessible through the base panel. The Memory Stick Duo card fits into a narrow slot at the rear end of this compartment. People with limited dexterity will find it difficult to insert and remove cards.
The HX1 provides the usual handy shooting aids in the form of an AF illuminator and a rule-of-thirds grid overlay. Both must be switched on in the Settings sub-menu before they will work. Two digital zoom modes are provided in the Settings sub-menu: Smart and Precision. The degree of magnification provided in the former is dictated by the image size setting, whereas the Precision mode enlarges all images by the same amount - at the expense of picture quality.
Serious photographers will be concerned by the lack of raw file capture, which would normally be expected at the HX1's price point. (You can buy an entry-level DSLR with lens for less money - and get raw files plus a significantly larger sensor to boot!) Another omission is a decent user handbook. The printed document supplied with the camera is perfunctory and non-indexed; a more user-friendly handbook is provided in electronic form on the supplied software disk. However, neither is particularly informative and the former has a very limited specifications page, while no specifications are provided in the latter. (We wonder why.)
According to the electronic manual, users can fit an optional tele conversion lens to the HX1 to obtain a longer zoom. However, neither of the user manuals provides a model number for this lens and it's not listed on Sony Australia's website so we can't see local buyers taking advantage of this facility.
Although the HX1 provides plenty of controls for photographers, using the menu system is frustrating because it's icon-based and many of the functions you want to adjust via the menu (such as ISO settings and exposure compensation) are simply not there. Different shooting modes restrict access to certain settings and some functions are only available in one shooting mode. Furthermore, you have no control over image quality (JPEG compression) settings; it's one size fits all for the selected resolution and, although compression levels are modest, most photographers prefer more options.
The main menu is the P, A, S and M shooting modes.
Adjustment of white balance via the Custom button.
The manual shooting mode gives full control over aperture and shutter speed settings. White balance is adjustable via the menu button in the P, A, S and M modes. However, if you wish to change ISO settings or adjust exposure compensation you must push in the jog wheel in the top right corner of the rear panel and use a 'click and rotate' process to toggle between them and the aperture or shutter setting displayed on the LCD monitor, depending on the shooting mode. Font sizes on the display are small enough to deter all but the serious enthusiast from changing these settings.
The drive button in front of the mode dial accesses sub-menus for continuous shooting and bracketing. Continuous shooting speeds are variable, with three burst speeds to choose from: high, mid and low. Each setting can record up to 10 frames in a sequence, the high setting at 10 fps, the mid at 5 fps and the low at 2 fps.
The HX1 supports bracketing for three functions: exposure, white balance and colour mode. Only one function can be set at a time and you must hit the menu button and locate the Bracket Set control to make your choice. Each setting is bracketed in three steps and exposure bracketing can use steps of 0.3EC, 0.7EV or 1EV.
As well as the standard face detection system, the HX1 also offers smile and blink detection. Up to eight faces can be 'detected' in a scene and you can set the camera to prioritise adults or children for focusing and exposure. Smile detection only triggers the shutter when a smile is detected. and you can set detection to three levels: slight, normal and big smile. In Portrait mode, Anti Blink detection will automatically take two shots and select the one with open eyes.
Dynamic Range Optimisation is one of the handier choices in the menu. Designed to analyse the scene detected by the sensor and adjust the brightness range so it falls within the sensor's recording capabilities, it is supposed to produce pictures in which both highlight and shadow detail is recorded. Three settings are provided: off, standard and plus. (Sample images can be found at the end of this review.)
Three settings are also provided for noise reduction processing: weak, standard and strong. Both noise reduction and DRO processing are only available in the P, A, S and M shooting modes.
The Colour Mode control provides five settings: standard, vivid, real, sepia and B&W, while the Colour Filter sub-menu has six settings: off, red, green, blue, warm and cool. Both are available in the P, A, S and M shooting modes. Saturation, contrast and sharpness can also be adjusted through three steps, but only in the P, A, S and M shooting modes and Sweep Panorama.
The HX1 comes with a number of special shooting modes that will appeal to different types of photographers. For novices - and dedicated point-and-shooters - the iAuto and Easy modes will have the greatest appeal. It's important to understand the differences between them so you can select the mode that best suits your picture-taking.
The menu in the Easy mode provides only two adjustments: you can choose between Large and Small image sizes and switch the flash to Auto or Off. However, you can use the arrow pad buttons to select the flash modes or turn the self-timer on or off.
The Easy mode menu.
In the iAuto mode you can select from the full range of image sizes, choose a histogram overlay in the display sub-menu and use the self-timer. The sensitivity of the Smile Shutter mode can be adjusted and you can set the Face Detection to On, Off, Child Priority or Adult Priority. You can also turn red-eye reduction on and off for flash shots.
Both the iAuto and Easy modes will select the most appropriate scene mode for you automatically, choosing from twilight, twilight portrait, twilight using a tripod, backlight, backlight portrait, landscape, macro and portrait. Selecting the Advanced iSCN mode from the menu in iAuto mode not only lets the camera set the scene mode automatically; it also shoots two pictures with different adjustments, allowing users to choose the one they prefer.
The Sweep Panorama, Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes are novel additions that take advantage of the sensor's ability to record a rapid succession of frames. Although used solely for recording still images, they appear to use some of the facilities required for recording video clips.
Sweep Panorama enables users to produce panoramas by simply pressing the shutter button and panning the camera across a scene. The camera records continuously as long as the shutter button is held down and tracks the speed of the pan at the same time. The recorded images are stitched together within the camera. You must hold the shutter button down until recording stops; if you lift your finger sooner, the end of the panorama is recorded as a black rectangle (shown below).
A Sweep Panorama shot truncated when the photographer's finger was lifted prematurely.
Two resolution settings are available. Vertical resolution is restricted to 1080 pixels for the Standard image size or 1920 pixels for the Wide size. Horizontal resolution tops out at 4912 pixels for vertical pans and 7152 pixels for when panning is horizontal.
The Sweep Panorama menu, showing the direction settings (above) and size settings (below).
You can pan in any of four directions - left to right, right to left, upwards or downwards. A guidance bar is displayed on the LCD monitor as the camera is moved. When it reaches the end, the shooting stops and the image is recorded. The default exposure setting in our tests was a focal length setting of 5mm, ISO 125, 1/500 second at f/5.
The Handheld Twilight mode also combines images in-camera, although this time it is used to reduce the effects of noise and provide sharper pictures in low light levels. When the shutter is pressed in this mode, the camera records a burst of six shots and combines them to make a single image, stacking one on top of the other to remove differences between the frames (which is usually due to noise). The camera locks up for a couple of seconds while this processing takes place.
The Anti Motion Blur mode is yet another mode that combines images in-camera. Once again, a sequence of six shots is recorded, although this time in-camera processing 'looks for' the sharpest parts of each shot and combines them to make a single image. The camera becomes locked while processing takes place, again for a second or two.
This mode is useful for wildlife photography since you can capitalise on the camera's long zoom lens and use relatively slow shutter speeds. In our tests the camera varied the ISO setting and shutter speed automatically, depending on ambient light levels. The resulting image files were 3456 x 2592 pixels, the largest size offered by the camera.
In the Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes you can adjust image size and white balance, select from three metering patterns and turn the face detection and image stabilisation systems on and off via the Menu button. The jog dial lets you adjust exposure levels but you can't select ISO settings or autofocusing modes.
Sensor and Image Processing
The CMOS sensor in the HX1 isn't the first of its type in a digicam; Canon's PowerShot SX1 IS (which Photo Review reviewed in December 2008) was the first CMOS-equipped digicam. In fact, the HX1 has a lot in common with the SX1 IS, including a 20x optical zoom lens and support for HD video recording. However, the sensor in the Canon camera is slightly larger than that in the HX1 and its RRP is $200 lower.
According to the press release for the HX1, the 'Exmor' CMOS sensor was originally developed by Sony for its Alpha digital SLR cameras. But this sensor is very much smaller. By our calculations, roughly eight of the chips in the HX1 would be required to cover the sensor in Sony's entry-level DSLR models.
Coupled with the sensor is a BIONZ image processor, another chip 'shared' with Sony's DSLR model. This microprocessor enables the HX1 to achieve continuous burst speeds of up to 10 frames/second, using a mechanical shutter. It also underpins the camera's HD video recording capabilities.
As mentioned above, the HX1 provides no quality adjustments. But it does offer a good range of image size settings, covering three aspect ratios. In Sweep Panorama mode, image sizes depend on which mode (standard or wide) is selected and whether the panoramas are shot horizontally or vertically. Typical file sizes are shown in the table below.
Typical File Size
3456 x 2592
2592 x 1944
2048 x 1536
640 x 480
3456 x 2304
3456 x 1944
1920 x 1080
Panorama wide (Horizontal)
7152 x 1920
Panorama standard (Horizontal)
4912 x 1080
Panorama wide (Vertical)
4912 x 1920
Panorama standard (Vertical)
3424 x 1920
Selecting Movie mode on the mode dial sets the camera for video recording, which uses the H.264/AVC codec for efficient data compression. Clips are saved as MPEG-4 files in the MP_ROOT folder on the memory card.
The Movie menu.
Unlike Canon's PowerShot SX1 IS, which records Full HD video clips at 1920 x 1080 pixels using progressive scan ('1080p'), the HX1 captures video at 1440 x 1080 pixels then up-scales it to 1080p in-camera. Only Memory Stick PRO Duo cards can be used for HD recordings - and they must be pre-formatted in the camera.
For HD recordings, users can choose from Fine and Standard modes, delineated by bit rate. Other options include the lower resolution (but still HD format) 1280 x 720 resolution and 'plain vanilla' VGA resolution. Typical recording times are shown in the table below.
Recording time/2GB card
1440 x 1080
21 minutes 10 seconds
1440 x 1080
35 minutes 40 seconds
1280 x 720
41 minutes 30 seconds
640 x 480
76 minutes 50 seconds
Playback options are, as expected, plentiful although options are very restricted in the Easy mode, which also enlarges text on the screen to make it easier to read. Pressing the Playback button displays the last shot taken and you can display basic data, such as the image size, aspect ratio, file number and number of images stored in memory as well as the date and time the shot was taken. It's also the only way to access the deletion sub-menu.
A small brightness histogram can be overlaid on the screen. However, it's not available for movie capture or playback; nor for Sweep Panorama shots or images shot with vertical orientation. Rotated images are also displayed without histogram overlay, regardless of what playback mode is set.
Playback zoom of up to 8x is provided via the zoom lever and you can trim shots in this mode by pressing Menu > Retouch > Trimming. Turning the jog dial lets you move from one shot to the next keeping the same zoom setting.
You can view index displays of 16 thumbnails, apply DPOF tagging for automated printing and protect or delete selected images or groups of shots. Images can also be classified in the camera by date or as events (birthdays, travel, etc.), tagged as favourites or stored in folders and viewed accordingly. Selecting Filter by Faces lets you view only shots containing people, children, infants or smiling faces.
Panoramas can be viewed as a scrolling preview on the camera's LCD screen. You can also play slideshows of recorded images (excluding panoramas), either using all images on the card or images tagged as favourites, grouped by date or stored in specified folders. Four transition effects (Simple, Nostalgic, Stylish and Active) are provided.
Background music can be added to slideshows and users can choose from four tracks already loaded in the camera or transfer their own MP3 files to the camera. (Up to four clips can be uploaded to replace the pre-set pieces.) Users can also select from four transition intervals (one, three, five or ten seconds) or set the interval to Auto and allow the camera to set the interval to match the background music.
Images stored on memory cards can also be viewed in Sony's digital photo frames or previewed on a PlayStation3 or any HD Ready television. Owners of Sony Bravia TV sets can control slideshow, zoom, image index and other functions with the TV's remote controller.
In-camera retouching facilities include trimming, red eye correction, unsharp masking and partial colour removing (which surrounds a chosen point with monochrome). Special effects include simulation of a fisheye lens, cross filter or radial blur and choosing Retro softens the image and adjusts its tone to simulate an old colour photo.
The final editing effect, tagged 'Happy Faces' can be used to make a straight mouth smile. It only works with a limited range of images. Two resizing settings let you adjust the size and aspect ratios of images to suit viewing on widescreen TV sets or uploading to emails and blogs.
Test shots taken with the review camera appeared sharp and colourful and saturation was relatively modest for a small-sensor digicam. Autofocusing was generally fast and accurate, although low light levels initiated minor hunting. The special shooting modes (Sweep Panorama, Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur) were fun to use, although they did restrict many shooting controls. Hoever, we believe many photographers could find them useful.
The dynamic range optimiser control failed to live up to expectations in the bright Australian sunlight. Highlight clipping was difficult to avoid, although otherwise this control did produce some differences in test shots, although they weren't particularly dramatic (examples are shown below).
Imatest showed the review camera's resolution to be up to expectations, with the highest resolution figures being obtained at the widest lens apertures. Edge softening was detected at all focal length settings we tested, although it diminished as the aperture was closed down. The graph below shows the results of Photo Review's Imatest tests.
Resolution declined progressively as sensitivity levels were increased, with a significant drop at the ISO 3200 setting. The graph below shows the results of our Imatest tests.
Image noise was visible in the long exposures we took at night at all ISO settings, becoming obvious by ISO 400 and very obvious at ISO 1600 and above. Noise reduction processing tended to soften shots, reducing the amount of detail in them. Flash exposure fared somewhat better, although softening was evident in shots taken at ISO 800 and above.
Lateral chromatic aberration ranged between low and negligible, as shown in the graph below (the red line marks the boundary between 'negligible' and 'low' CA). However, we observed some noticeable purple fringing in outdoor shots, particularly at longer focal length settings.
Flare tended to eat into contrast and aperture patterns could be seen in shots where the sun was just outside the frame. Colour scattering was also evident in these shots. We found no evidence of vignetting and very little rectilinear distortion throughout the focal length range of the lens.
Auto white balance performance was typical of many cameras we've reviewed. A slight green cast remained in shots taken under fluorescent lighting, while shots taken in incandescent lighting retained a prominent orange cast. In each case, the camera pre-sets tended to over-correct but manual measurement produced good colour neutrality. Flash performance was generally good, with the test camera producing evenly-exposed flash shots from ISO 125 to ISO 3200.
The image stabilisation system was as effective for movie capture as for stills and, for the latter, enabled us to use shutter speeds as slow as 1/25 second with relatively long focal length settings. Movie quality was good with the HD settings but average in VGA mode. The stereo soundtrack was also quite good, although the lack of a wind filter reduced sound quality when shooting outdoors.
The review camera took approximately two seconds to power up and a little less to shut down. We measured an average capture lag of 0.3 seconds, which was eliminated by pre-focusing the lens. Shot-to-shot times averaged one second without flash and two seconds with. It took just under three seconds to process a Large 3:2 aspect ratio image.
In the high-speed burst mode, the review camera recorded 10 frames at maximum resolution in just under one second. It took 15.9 seconds to process this burst. With the medium-speed setting, it took 1.8 seconds to capture 10 frames. Frame rates slowed progressively towards the end of the burst and processing took 15.6 seconds. The low-speed burst mode recorded 10 frames in 4.1 seconds and took 19 seconds to process them.
Buy this camera if:
- You're looking for a well-built, long-zoom digicam with good wide-angle coverage, plenty of user-adjustable controls and image stabilisation.
- You use the monitor for shot composition and enjoy shooting with the camera close to the subject, low to the ground or above your head. (The tilting LCD makes this easy.)
- You find the Sweep Panorama, Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur shooting modes enticing.
- You'd enjoy shooting HD video clips with stereo sound.
- You're happy with its relatively high asking price.
Don't buy this camera if:
- You're looking for a pocketable camera.
- You want to shoot raw files (the HX1 is restricted to JPEG capture).
- You prefer composing shots with an optical viewfinder.
- You require colour accuracy under artificial lighting.
- You don't have any Memory Stick Duo cards.
Auto white balance with incandescent lighting.
Auto white balance with fluorescent lighting.
Dynamic range examples:
Standard setting, bright sunlight.
Wide dynamic range subject:
DRO off (no in-camera dynamic range adjustments):
Standard DRO setting:
Plus DRO setting:
Close-up. 5mm focal length, ISO 125, 1/800 second at f/4.
Close-up with Anti Motion Blur mode:
Crop from the above image, enlarged to show bee:
5mm focal length, ISO 125, 1/500 second at f/5.6.
100mm focal length, ISO 125, 1/800 second at f/6.3.
Precision digital zoom; 100mm focal length, ISO 125, 1/1000 second at f/5.6.
Lens flare: 219 5mm focal length, ISO 125, 1/500 second at f/6.3.
Coloured fringing: full frame shot; 100mm focal length, ISO 125, 1/1000 second at f/5.6.
100% enlargement to show coloured fringing (circled in red).
Flash exposure; 30.5mm focal length. ISO 125, 1/60 second at f/4.5.
Flash exposure; 30.5mm focal length. ISO 3200, 1/60 second at f/4.5.
Night shot: ISO 125, 10 second exposure at f/2.8; 8mm focal length.
Night shot: ISO 3200, 7 second exposure at f/7.1; 8mm focal length.
Night shot taken with the Hand-held Twilight mode: ISO 3200, 1/4 second exposure at f/2.8; 8mm focal length.
Low light shot taken with the Hand-held Twilight mode: 38.7mm focal length. ISO 400, 1/25 second at f/4.5.
Slow shutter speed showing effectiveness of image stabiliser: 5mm focal length, ISO 125, 1/10 second at f/2.8.
Sweep Panorama with the Standard setting: 5mm focal length, ISO 125, 1/500 second at f/5.6.
Sweep Panorama with the Wide setting: 5mm focal length, ISO 125, 1/500 second at f/5.
Vertical Sweep Panorama, Standard setting: 5mm focal length, ISO 125, 1/500 second at f/5.
Still frames from movie recorded in 1080p Fine mode. Top - 5mm focal length; below - 80mm focal length.
Still frame from movie recorded in VGA mode.
Image sensor: 5.92 x 4.57 mm Exmor CMOS Sensor with 10.3 million photosites (9.1 megapixels effective)
Lens: 5.0-100mm, f/2.8 Sony G-Lens (28-560mm in 35mm format for still shots, 31-620mm for 16:9 movies, 38-760mm for 4:3 movies)
Zoom ratio: 20x optical, 2x digital
Image formats: Stills – JPEG (Exif V. 2.1); Movies – MPEG-4 (AVC/H.264 compliant)
Image Sizes: Stills – 4:3 aspect: 3456 x 2592, 2592 x 1944, 2048 x 1536, 640 x480; 3:2 aspect: 3456 x 2304; 16:9 aspect: 3456 x 1944, 1920 x 1080; Movies – 1280 x 720, 1440 x 1080, 640 x 480, all progressive scan at 30 fps
Shutter speed range: Auto – 2 to 1/4,000 second; Manual and shutter priority up to 30 seconds
Self-timer: 2 or 10 second delay
Image Stabilisation: Optical
Exposure Compensation: +/- 2EV in 1/3EV steps
Focus system/range: 9-point TTL AF with multi, centre-weighted and flexible spot modes plus manual and Face Detection AF; range - W: Approx. 1cm to infinity, T: Approx. 150cm to infinity
Exposure metering/control: Multi-pattern, centre-weighted and spot metering
Shooting modes: iAuto, Easy, P, A, S, M, Handheld Twilight, Anti-Motion Blur, Sweep Panorama and Scene Selection (10 presets)
ISO range: Auto, ISO 125, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200
White balance: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent (x3), Incandescent, Flash, One Push, One Push Set
Flash modes/range (ISO auto): Auto, Flash On, Slow Syncro, Flash Off; range 0.3 to 9.2 metres; +/- 2EV adjustment in 1/3EV steps
Sequence shooting: Approx. 10 frames/second (max. 10 shots)
Storage Media: 11MB internal Flash Memory plus Memory Stick Duo expansion slot
Viewfinder: 0.2 cm EVF (approx. 201,000 dots)
LCD monitor: 3.0-inch Clear Photo LCD Plus (230,400 pixels)
Power supply: Rechargeable InfoLITHIUM H type 6.8V battery (approx. 390 still images/charge)
Dimensions (wxhxd): 114.5 x 82.8 x 91.8 mm
Weight: Approx. 453 grams (without battery and card)
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