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Build a powerful PC for Photoshop and other imaging applications
Article Details

Last Updated
29th of May, 2014

Summary: This article discusses the principles for building or buying a PC that offers excellent image processing performance specifically (i.e. focuses on Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One etc) - but note these PCs are also of course excellent for general purpose usage as well.

The PCs are not designed to be the bees knees for gaming etc, but specifically focus on those parts of the system most critical to a responsive, enjoyable and stable image making & editing experience.

Note this is obviously a PC focussed article - if you want Mac info there is some great info here. (You'll pay at least twice the price for the same performance unfortunately). That said, reading this is still useful as the same basic design holds true when selecting parts for your Mac as well.


The links to directly purchase these PCs are: Image Science Value Image Editing System and Image Science Extreme Image Editing System

Should you have any questions or enquiries regarding these systems, please contact AusPCMarket directly on (02)9646 8000 or email Michael from AusPC, who will be happy to answer any questions you may have.


Jump to:

Introduction

Creating an optimised PC for Photoshop/Lightroom has become significantly easier in recent times thanks to recent technological advances and price drops. That said, there are still some significant design differences between a PC really designed for efficiency with imaging, and your regular office or home PC.

A primary reason you now get significantly more bang for your buck is the growth in digital capture versus film scanning - this change means the machine is able to do a lot more for the same money, simply because average files sizes are (counter intuitively!) so much smaller than they used to be. For example a high resolution scan of 35mm film is very often 300 megabytes or more, most digital camera files of the same quality are 100 megabytes or even less (thanks to a much higher signal to noise ratio with digitally captured images). That's a two thirds saving in data processing right there! That said, what has been saved in the size of single files has more than been lost in the sheer volumes of files we're now dealing with - people are shooting/generating many more files per shoot, and thus doing far more batch processing and also formally exotic things things like High Dynamic Range (HRD) and stitching. It is now common practice to have very large libraries of files open - files that we want to be able to access near instantly.

This fundamental shift from large, single file processing to small, batch style processing means we now need to build a Photoshop PC a bit differently from 5 to 10 years ago if we want to maximise performance while minimising budget. This article helps you choose the best performing PC for Photoshop and Lightroom use (or any other image editing apps as they general needs are the same). A PC like this can literally save you time every single day by being responsive and snappy even under very heavy load, and the budget required is quite reasonable - about $2000 for a professional level machine and $4000 for a truly extreme machine.

The Parts List & How Things Have Changed

Way back in 2003, when I hand built my first dedicated Photoshop PC, my order of where to put dollars from most to least, was this:

  • (Monitor + Calibrator) - this always comes first and we have guides on buying high quality imaging Monitors and Calibrators
  • Ram
  • Processor
  • Disks
  • Fast Optical Burner
  • Motherboard
  • Any video card with a DVI output
  • Case

My PC from that time lasted me for 7 years of professional, intense daily use here at Image Science - a business with, as you can imagine, very heavy image processing demands. Hand built by me, it cost over $3000 at the time (and that is not counting the monitor/calibrator). This is a very good run for a PC, and the extra consideration, time, and dollars were definitely well spent - very few people get 7 years out of a PC especially in a demanding environment like Image Science. Clients would often comment that they'd never seen such a quick machine - even years after it was first built. This PC originally performed so much better than off the shelf systems for similar prices, I was convinced (and remain so) that there is a lot of value in having a custom machine built if you're an image maker. But time changes all things - for example, fast quality optical disc burners which were rather expensive in 2003 are now $25 and commodity items - furthermore, I wouldn't dream of backing up all but the most important files this way - I actually now back up over the internet.

The order of where to put dollars has now shifted to:

  • (Monitor + Calibrator) - this still definitely comes first
  • Disks
  • Fast Ram
  • Video Card
  • Processor
  • Motherboard
  • Case

(This article won't discuss monitor or calibrators - good monitors are utterly essential and where you should spend at least half your total budget if not more as they are unquestionably the most important tools in your image making chain from the quality perspective. There's no point having the fastest computer in the universe if you're making constant colour mistakes because your on-screen representation is not accurate. Read about monitors for high quality image making and monitor calibrators.)

This is my current recommended setup for a complete, professional level digital darkroom:

  • From a quality perspective, the most important things are:
  • Monitor - Eizo CG or NEC PA monitor, an i1Display Pro calibrator
  • Printer - Epson 3880 plus some custom profiles for your favourite papers

  • The Actual PC
  • We have carefully designed and tested two systems - note the price fluctuates based on the $AUD and exact configurations but are usually at or below the listed figures:

  • The Image Science Value Imaging System - a very fast machine that is more than adequate for anyone with moderate image processing needs (around $2000)

  • The Image Science Extreme Imaging System - a more extreme system that pays a little less attention to the budget and will run rings around pretty much every other PC on the planet from an imaging perspective (around $4000)

  • Each system is discussed in more detail below, but we have tried to design systems that balance the performance needs with other factors like (obviously) price, but also noise, heat, and upgradability into the future. We have avoided anything exotic and risky to system stability (like overclocking or SSDs in RAID configurations).
  • Below the discussion of each system are longer notes discussing the rationale behind these system designs in greater depth.
  • We have recently arranged with the good people of AusPC Market to have these machines pre-loaded into their website for quick and easy purchase. You can also split the systems into individual parts and change, add or remove anything as suits your particular needs. AusPC will beautifully assemble the system and deliver it to your door. You can even arrange an inexpensive on-site support warranty through them, and we recommend that you do.
  • Please contact us directly for the supply of your monitor, calibrator and any image editing software needed, or if you have any questions about these systems before purchase - we'll be happy to help.


The Value System - best imaging performance for around $2000

Image Science Performance MachineThis is the system that will suit most people with significant imaging needs and a moderate budget.

Here's a direct link to this system on AusPC Market's website that you can use to directly purchase and/or further configure this system - Image Science Value Image Editing System

To get one made as is, just add the system to your cart and complete the checkout - you can balance the budget by choosing the minimum spec (already a very powerful machine), or you can 'up spec' it all the way.

This system as configured offers a very fast and stable SSD for use as your primary system drive - this will greatly speed your boot and application loading times. A second small SSD is used as a dedicated scratch disk for Photoshop. A third fast traditional hard drive offers a greater amount of storage. The video card offers good performance, is 10 bit compatible, and critically is very compatible and very stable with the GUI acceleration offered in Photoshop CS4+ - there are faster cards for games etc but for Photoshop this is more than adequate and very stable and well tested. The CPU is an up to date Ivy Bridge i5 processor that offers excellent performance. The motherboard, power supply & case have been selected for easy of future upgradability and general good performance across the board (e.g. low noise and good looks).

Additions you might want to consider:

  • Internal camera card reader - e.g. this one. Personally I just plug my camera in directly via USB but card readers are generally quicker if you regularly download high volumes of files from multiple cards.
  • Buying guide to monitors, printers and calibrators as mentioned above.
  • We recommend you add an on site support contract - they're not expensive (about $120 for three years) and if any hardware should happen to break, this will keep you up running. While all the parts come with their own various warranties, this is a better and easier long term strategy for keeping your system up and running with the minimum of fuss.

The Extreme System - best imaging performance for around $4000

Image Science Extreme MachineThis is a real beast of a machine. If budget is less of an issue, and you are really looking for a very very powerful machine, this is the system for you. It's built to offer very serious levels of performance and should cope with even high intensity imaging work very well, and still has come scope for upgrades toward the future as new hardware becomes available. This is the machine we use on our primary service desk which is under constant very heavy load.

Here's a direct link to this system on AusPC Market's website that you can use to directly purchase and/or further configure this system - Image Science Extreme Image Editing System.

To get one made as is, just add the system to your cart and complete the checkout. If you want to change anything about it, then just add it to your cart and then 'view cart' - you can then split the system into the individual part components and replace or add anything you want.

This system is built around 4 extremely fast hard drives. Two are very very fast SSDs, one for your system drive and the other for a 'current projects' drive (you would also put your Lightroom catalogues or similar on here). In addition, there is a smaller dedicated SSD entirely for Photoshop scratch use. And a final very fast 2TB general storage drive. In addition, this system is now powered by a top of the line i7 enthusiast 6 core Ivy Bridge CPU offering ~50% greater performance than the best standard i7 CPU as is used in the Performance system. This system has a whopping 32GB of quick RAM, and is built on a very high quality X79 motherboard, power supply, cooling and case foundation with plenty of room for further expansion in the future. The video card is also notable - it's general performance is high, supporting silky smooth GPU acceleration in Photoshop, but it's also a 'workstation level' card, offering rare, working support for 10 bit output over DisplayPort to the latest high end monitors, which is going to offer significant performance gains going forward, particularly with the rendering of very smooth gradients and colour accurate deep shadow tones. And, very importantly, it is very stable with Photoshop's GPU acceleration, unlike a lot of other cards.

This is the sort of PC that will make you say 'by golly this thing is fast'.

Additions you might want to consider:

  • Internal camera card reader - e.g. this one. Personally I just plug my camera in directly via USB but card readers are generally quicker if you regularly download high volumes of files from multiple cards.
  • Buying guide to monitors, printers and calibrators as mentioned above.
  • We recommend you add an on site support contract - they're not expensive (about $120 for three years) and if any hardware should happen to break, this will keep you up running. While all the parts come with their own various warranties, this is a better and easier long term strategy for keeping your system up and running with the minimum of fuss.


Building this PC (or having it built)

You can of course build your own PC and it's surprisingly easy these days - it's pretty much just follow the pictures in your motherboard manual and plug doo-dad A into slot B etc. It's quite educational as well, and gives you a real sense of what's going on inside your PC box.

That being said, the professionals still do it much better. For one, they have a lot of experience to draw on and will know which parts work best together - so they can advise in this area and do a check of the parts you've chosen to make sure everything will play nicely together. They're also MUCH better at cabling than a lay person, and thus creating a really reliable and neat, tidy build. I thought I was pretty good at this till I got my latest PC made by AusPC and it boggles the mind how nicely they've built this machine.

So my advice is get a good PC store to build it for you (not one of those bargain basement stores who offer no support after the sale!) - the fee is usually only about $50 (often they will do it for free), and well worth it if it's a good company. My favourite place for this is definitely AusPCMarket. We've recently asked them to put together pre-configured systems of our design, and you can visit them using the links above.

Motivation & Goals

From my perspective, the thing I desire most from my PC is responsiveness - even under stress. I want it to feel snappy and my day to day tasks to execute quickly and without annoying lags. I am willing to sacrifice some performance under unusual circumstances (e.g. when manipulating extremely large files) for the sake of general performance when dealing with lots of files and my day to day activities.

To significantly improve responsiveness we need to look at the most serious bottleneck points - those things that tie up a computer for a significant amount of time to the exclusion of other activities. Almost always, this involves disk operations. When computers are dealing with disks - even the fastest disks - they are operating at least 10 times slower than when they are dealing with RAM. So what takes 1 second in RAM takes 10 to 20 or more seconds with disks. The answer therefore seems to be to load the machine with more and more RAM so that as much as possible is done in RAM and not with the disk. And certainly a good amount of RAM is essential, but there's a flaw in this theory - for one, Photoshop will always write a scratch file to disk no matter how much RAM you have, meaning Photoshop will always be significantly disk bound no matter how much RAM you have (see this note about RAM Disks for a possible solution to this!). The other flaw in this theory is that RAM is volatile - when we turn off the computer, we lose what was in the RAM - and since the goal of any Photoshop session it to be productive, we're going to want to save what we produce - so that reality is that loading and saving files is a HUGE part of the work of a Photoshop PC. When you're browsing your library in Lightroom and, for example, checking alternate versions of files to decide which is the best, your machine is constantly accessing the database which is stored - you guessed it - on disk.

You need fast disks and lots of them!

So there is no question that currently it is of critical importance to have very fast disk access in your machine to improve it's overall responsiveness. This has been well known for a while, but the emphasis has shifted even more in this direction given the change from large, single file processing to the 'many small files' processing model. Fortunately, at the same time this need has become more important, there has been a real change in the PC landscape - the most important change in PC structure for at least the last decade. Of course I am talking about SSDs - Solid State Drives. While these are still relatively expensive, they are quickly coming down in price and affordable options are definitely on the table now for anyone building a PC.

Imaging machines should have several hard drives in them, not just one fast one. Indeed, three is really a minimum, although 4 or more is even better. They needn't ALL be solid state drives, but ideally at least two of them are. Fortunately, they don't have to be particularly high capacity disks - speed is more important than space, although you will of course need at least one high capacity drive for longer term storage.

Both Photoshop and Windows use a disk based system for virtual memory known as paging. Put simply, if you run out of RAM, your computer will start using a small amount of disk space as if it is RAM. It will take the least important stuff in your RAM and write it out to disk to make more room in the available RAM for what you currently need. When you need back what is now stored on the disk, it will load the data back in from the disk and write something else back out to the disk. So while you might have 4GB of RAM in your machine, the computer happily pretends it has 8 or more GB in practice through this virtual memory technique. Now - Photoshop and Windows both do this - but unfortunately they don't co-ordinate this system (Photoshop has its own memory management subsystem unlike almost all other applications that simply let the operating system do this for them).

If you allow both Photoshop and Windows to use the same hard drive for virtual memory you can run into dramatic slowdowns surprisingly quickly. If you create a few layers in Photoshop on top of your 100Mb file, you will notice that the file size in Photoshop goes up rapidly - it's not uncommon for a fairly simple file edit to result in a 1GB+ file. If Photoshop has to page some of this out to disk, and Windows also feels it is running out of room at the same time, Windows and Photoshop will thrash back and forth if they're using the same disk and your system will crawl to a halt. So it is critical that the Photoshop Scratch and Windows Page disk be different disks.

Hard drive 1 - Boot Drive: Your primary boot and programs drive should now be an SSD. 120GB SSDs are now thoroughly affordable and have transfer rates of 500MN per second or more!! They are silent, low power, low heat and a joy to use over conventional hard drives. When used on Windows 7 (they're not recommended for XP/Vista as those operating systems don't have native SSD TRIM support which is critical to long term high performance from an SSD), they make your entire system considerably quicker - the performance gain is well and truly worth the price and it's a real revelation and pleasure using a modern powerful Windows 7 machine with an SSD.

To get real speed, in the past, people have often created striped RAID arrays for their primary disks but I am generally not a fan of this. While it can be very very fast indeed, it tends to be very non-resilient as well. The failure of any drive in the array means the loss of the whole array and while this shouldn't be the end of the world with a sensible back up strategy in place, in my experience the hassle isn't worth it any more given you can get much the same speeds from a single SSD drive now for far less difficulty and expense. (You might be tempted to RAID up some SSD drives - which is of course possible and results in bewildering speed, but there is no TRIM support for RAID arrays yet I believe, so the performance will quickly degrade. I don't think there's much point in this yet unless you like to image/re-install a lot, I personally don't think it is worth the bother).

Boot times from cold boot to Windows 7 being fully responsive with a good SSD should be less than 30 seconds in my experience, and since this is generally once a day at most, that's not a big issue in my opinion.

Hard drive 2 - Photoshop Scratch & Lightroom Catalogue Drive: Consider having a very small but very fast second hard drive that is used exclusively for Photoshop scratch files & your Lightroom (or Capture One etc.) catalogues. Because you never really use Lightroom and Photoshop at the same time as such, this drive can share these two roles nicely, and it keeps your scratch/catalogue operations separate from operations on your actual files which are on the next drive.

Hard drive 3 - Fast Working Drive: I store current working projects on this drive. This is also an SSD drive (128GB in my case), which means all my current and day to day stuff is very quickly accessible.

Hard drive 4 - Storage Drive: This is a 7200RPM terabyte+ storage drive where I store projects that I am not currently intensively working on. It's still quite quick and it has lots of space. Anything not on here that I am simply storing for the very long term is backed up to external hard drives and over the internet.

Make sure whatever PC case you buy you have room for at least 4 internal hard drives, preferably 6 to 8 for future expansion (and your motherboard should have this many SATAIII ports as well).

Which Hard Drives Should You Buy? For traditional hard drives (i.e. not SSDs) - I am a big fan of Western Digital - having owned more than 50 hard drives to date, going back from the early 90s to now, I have found them to be by far the most reliable brand. LaCie and Maxtor by far the worst. I have pretty much never had a Western Digital enterprise class hard drive (or Caviar Green) fail on me within the life span of the computer. Always buy 7200RPM or quicker drivers, the old ones that spin at 5400 are just too slow for this sort of work. Fine for longer term storage though.

With SSD drives, it's all about the controller the drive uses, and this will usually be listed in the specs. The ne Intel 520 series are very highly regarded and our current recommendation. I am also a huge fan of the OCZ Vertex and Corsair Force line of drives that offer a great combination of performance and stability. The latest drives are amazingly quick - 500MB+ per second for both reads and writes!!

You still need lots of RAM

More RAM is always good - and these days it is very cheap. There is no point going with less than 8GB. But you can't have too much and I would get 32GB of modest speed RAM before I would spend up on 8GB of super fast RAM. The more RAM you have, the less swapping/paging you will run into, and this is the real bottleneck you want to avoid. (If you're using a RAM Disk (see below) - you really will want quite a lot of RAM - 16 GB at least).

In general, 16GB is ample for everything so there's no real need to go beyond this unless you really do want 30 applications open at a time! If you do, you will need a specialist motherboard that supports more than 16GB.

Also, if you're getting more than 4GB of RAM you will of course need to be using the 64 bit version of your operating system (we recommend you use Windows 7 64 bit, see below).

Video Card

Until CS4 came along, the video card was almost irrelevant from the Photoshop point of view. As long as the video card could output the resolution you wanted (and 1920 by 1200 was really the most ever needed) and it had the outputs you needed, then any old card could do it - even your basic $50 cheapies. This has now changed.

Photoshop CS4 and above (and several other imaging applications) now feature video card acceleration - this means when you are zooming or rotating or scaling, the processing is done by the video card and NOT your CPU. Video cards are great at this sort of thing - seriously fast - so this is a HUGE improvement in the responsiveness of Photoshop and well worth taking advantage of. Thus, for the first time in recent memory, good '3D' performance is essential for Photoshop as well. You also need enough memory to cope with your your typical file sizes - 1GB is a pretty good price/performance point right now.

From Adobe: For Photoshop to access the GPU, your display card must contain a GPU that supports OpenGL and has enough RAM to support Photoshop functions--at least 128 MB of RAM--and a display driver that supports OpenGL 2.0 and Shader Model 3.0.

Getting this to work in actual practice can be a delicate balance with drivers and video cards, so you might want to visit the Adobe forums to get tips on what works well. I am using an ATI FirePro 4800 video card with 1GB of memory and it makes a huge difference to Photoshop responsiveness when manipulating larger files. And I do mean huge - moving around, zooming and scaling a massive 6 gigabyte file is instant and silky smooth. The same file opened and moved around in CS2 is like watching paint dry. Both coats. Of course our pre-configured systems above come with video cards that have been well tested with Photoshop's acceleration features, so they are fast and stable.

In 2014 we have moved to recommending the nVidia Quadro cards - the drivers are more stable than ATI, and we have found that 10 bit output support is now very good with these cards.

Processor

In some ways, this is surprisingly far down the list. The reality is that modern processors are all pretty quick and it's only in big operations that you're processor bound - it's not where the bulk of delays actually occur. But there are still some mathematically intensive operations in Photoshop that are not GPU accelerated, a quick processor certainly doesn't hurt...it's just lower in priority than the rest. There's usually a sweet sport for price vs. performance in the line up and almost any PC store will be able to tell you what this is, and will typically be building most of their in house mid to high range systems with this processor. The new Haswell i5 and i7 processors are very quick and reasonably priced so there's no point buying anything less now. The i7 enthusiast line, as featured in our extreme machine, is about 50% quicker again - quite amazing, and has 6 cores so it's very good at dealing with multiple open applications.

Motherboard

Your motherboard is the glue that holds everything together. If it breaks, you're quite simply stuffed! You will need major PC surgery to get everything working again. So buy a good one, preferably one that advertises high quality capacitors and reliability features - these things are more important than essentially irrelevant features like on board fancy audio or video. I am a big fan of Gigabyte boards as they're well laid out, good documentation, and very reliable. Lots of ports - USB3 is now quickly becoming common so make sure you get at least a couple of those. Ideally, two Ethernet ports (one for your network, the other for redundancy and/or iSCSI systems like the DroboPro) and an eSATA port should cover all the options. Firewire is handy if you have a Firewire peripheral but not really essential these days.

Thunderbolt is not yet really of practical importance and can be added latter via a PCI card if required.

Case

When looking for a case - size, quietness and looks. In that order. Size is of highest importance, and given these things usually live under a desk you might as well go bigger - it makes future upgrades much easier (whether you do them yourself or someone does them for you - it's nice to have plenty of room to work). Quietness is well worth considering - a small number of big slow fans is better than lots of little ones. Looks - well, that's up to you! The Lian Li ones we use in our systems are very nice to work in and have significant noise dampening applied so your system will run quietly.

Some notes on software and operating systems

Windows 7 is the obvious choice for a machine like this. Excellent SSD support and a much nicer interface than XP means it is now finally time to let go of reliable old XP and leapfrog Vista all the way to Windows 7. I have it on 10+ machines now and it is excellent and very stable - indeed I like it more than any other OS to date, including the Mac's Snow Leopard. It's also time to go 64 bit as everything seems to work just fine under 64 bit now.

You can of course use Windows 8/8.1 if you like but for work machines we still lean towards Windows 7 for stability reasons - ultimately, though from the Photoshop persepctive, 7 or 8 will be much the same.

Photoshop's install disk comes with both the 32 bit and 64 bit versions of Photoshop as standard. It is recommended that you install both versions to your machine, as there can be issues with older plugins and the 64 bit version of Photoshop. While I advise you mostly use the 64 bit version which is noticeably quicker with large files (or lots of small ones!), there may be times when you still run in to some instability. I am not a big user of plugins myself (and the only ones I do use are 64 bit now), so I use the 64 bit version pretty much exclusively, but some clients have mentioned they still need to use the 32 bit version on occasion.

Once you have your PC all set up and installed, there's a few basic strategies to follow to keep your PC running quickly for the long term.

The number one strategy is to keep your PC as simple and as clean as possible. Ideally, dedicate this machine entirely to imaging tasks and use another computer (e.g. your laptop) for your other computing tasks (email, browsing etc). Even if you can't do this - minimise the amount of software you install wherever possible. If you're trying software out, or you're just using a tool once and then deleting it, install it into a removable isolation sandbox (see Sandboxie) while you're evaluating the software - once you're sure you're keeping it you can re-install it to your machine proper, but using an evaluation sandbox is a very good strategy for keeping your machine clean. I use a sandbox for almost everything until I am sure I want it to be a permanent part of my PC. If you can keep this PC off the net, you won't need any anti-virus and the like, and these programs are a real drain on system performance. If you do need the net, then consider a modern anti-virus like Vipre rather than the old school ones like McAfee, Norton, AVG and the like, that are positively clunks in comparison to Vipre.

Once you have all your software in place, go into the System Configuration tool (msconfig.exe) and look through all your startup items and remove anything in there you don't really need (such as 'flash player updater' 'java updater' 'adobe reader speed launcher' etc). All these 'helpful' little things sit in the background wasting your computer's time. Installing things without permission in the startup area should be criminally banned, if you ask me.

Tune your system for high performance with SSD drives. I use this tool to tweak various things but be aware that some of them can have some negative impacts on reliability (e.g. disabling system restore) so this may not be for everyone.

Replace windows explorer or your file management program with the excellent, versatile and very efficient Directory Opus (an Australian product!) - with extensive and efficient file browsing, searching, image viewing, and archive handling, this one program does about 50% of the work I do on my PC outside of imaging programs. I've been using this since it's Amiga beginnings in the late 80s or so, and I have even met the developer several times, including when he came in to buy a calibrator a few months ago! I can't stand using a PC without it.

RAM Disks

RAM disks are one strategy that can - in some cases - dramatically improve Photoshop performance. You do need a LOT of RAM to really get it working properly (minimum 16GB), though, and for most users it probably doesn't offer enough of a performance boost to make it worth while, but for people who do deal with large files regularly, it can be a really nifty technique to keep Photoshop moving swiftly along.

Basically, a utility is used to get a portion of RAM to pretend to be a disk (basically, you allocate a chunk of your RAM and it is marked off for exclusive use and given a disk letter like g:), and this is then allocated as the Photoshop swap disk. It's pretty easy to try and you can use demos of these utilities to give it a try: http://www.superspeed.com/desktop/ramdisk.php & http://www.ramdisk.tk/.

The reality is Photoshop is pretty clever and because of this a RAM disk can potentially actually hamper performance in some scenarios - there a fair bit of info about this here.

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