Back in May 2000 the first issue of Linux Format magazine hit the newsstands. One of its features was a group test of Linux distributions, reflecting the state of play in Linux flavours at the time. If you fancy a trip down memory lane or just a quick look at how beautiful Linux wasn't all those years ago, we've dug out the original article complete with screenshots - read on!
Remember that nine years is a long time in the computing world -- and even more so for Linux. In 2000 the OS was still regarded as a niche player, a fantastic showcase of technology for geeks but not yet ready for prime time. Today we see Linux on netbooks, Linux on Dell boxes, Linux everywhere; it's serious business.
Corel Linux is long dead, despite a high-profile entrance into the distro scene, while Caldera Linux occupied a healthy position (before the SCO shenanigans busted it up). SUSE, Mandrake, Red Hat and Mandriva are still alive in various flavours, while the British Definite distro bought the farm and WinLinux only made it to a 2003 release.
What makes a good distro?
Back in the early days of Linux, getting the operating system onto your machine was a long and complicated task. Individual compressed packages had to be downloaded off the Net and put together on your hard disk, and lots of tweaking of configuration files was required before you had a fully-working system. Enter distributions - a concept designed to make installation and configuration of Linux much easier.
Instead of working out which software you needed and then trying to download it, everything needed was supplied in a simple, straightforward package, along with manuals and extra software CDs. Also, much of the configuration could now be done during the preparation phase.
Today, there are a wide variety of Linux distributions available, with more appearing all the time. Because Linux and its source code is freely available, anyone can grab the bits and pieces of a working system and put them together to make their own distribution. Clearly Red Hat is the most prominent distribution vendor, but other companies like SuSE and Mandrakesoft are following closely.
This freedom for anyone to make a distribution has led to an assortment of packages with different aims - some try to provide a fast and easy installation, some head for being reliable servers on networks, and some just want to be solid all-rounders. This range of focus looks set to expand as Linux becomes more popular in other markets. You can buy full boxed-sets with manuals, extra discs containing applications and the source code, and invaluable installation support. If you're familiar with Linux or just want to upgrade, you can also get hold of a cheap single CD version of the distribution or download it off the Web.
Detailed online help files are essential when you're getting started.
So, how do you choose the best distribution? It really depends on what you are looking for. If you're new to Linux and want a simple introduction, it's best to find one with a friendly graphical installer and plenty of software. This way you'll be able to get up-and-running with minimal fuss, and won't have to trawl the Web trying to find decent programs. On the other hand,
experienced users will value reliability and flexibility over flashy installers and configuration tools. If you need a distribution to run on a small file or print server, the latest dazzling desktop environments aren't going to be of any interest.
Linuxconf is the standard setup tool with distributions based on Red Hat.
One of the most significant obstacles for newcomers installing Linux is the partitioning process. If your whole hard disk is devoted to Windows, making enough space for Linux is a complicated and daunting task. Distribution engineers have devised various methods for dealing with this, ranging from automatic partitioning software to placing the whole installation inside a directory on the Windows drive.
Many distributions are based on others, which is important to note when you're trying to find compatible software. Because the majority of software in a typical distribution is free and open source, another company can take the distribution's framework, add their own tweaks and improvements, and market it themselves. One example of this is Linux-Mandrake, which began as Red Hat with KDE ready-to-go (Red Hat had been avoiding the desktop suite because of license issues). After having a solid base to work on, though, Mandrake has become a worthy distribution in its own right.
The choice of default desktop is also a crucial one, particularly for beginners. While experienced users will have no trouble in setting up their favourite window manager or desktop environment, newcomers will want things ready for action straight away, without the need for fiddling with configuration files. KDE and GNOME are the two biggest contenders for the desktop, providing tools, utilities and a drag-and-drop environment, but simpler window managers like Window Maker, Sawmill and IceWM are often better alternatives on systems with smaller memory. In this test, we've also taken note of how well the desktop is set up - has it just been thrown in, or have the developers configured it to work with the special features of the distribution?
Version numbers is also a key issue to watch out for. While it appears good to have the latest releases of popular packages, they are not always the most stable. New features need heavy testing, and often it's better to have an older, tried-and-tested version rather than the current development release. This is especially true for production machines and servers; on your home PC you can take the gamble with newer, untested packages to see the latest features. In general, most distributions stick with stable versions of important programs like the kernel and related tools, and occasionally have in-development versions of less-critical apps.
Here we take a look at eight of the major distributions, examining the areas discussed above and determining the type of user each distribution would be suited to. We're looking at the single CD versions here, which are available from retailers such as the Linux Emporium (http://www.linuxemporium.co.uk).
Corel Linux 1.0
Corel's desktop is based on KDE, with various extra enhancements.
When Corel announced that they would move into the Linux distribution market, the news was greeted with both hope and apprehension by the community. While it was clear that they could help to improve Linux's position on the desktop, many thought they were in danger of dumbing-down the OS. The software company, responsible for WordPerfect and CorelDRAW, have based their package on the respected Debian distribution, and aimed it at new users who have switched from Windows.
Corel's graphical installer is welcome news to new Linux users and those who have switched from Windows, featuring mouse and dialog driven configuration. As well as taking over the whole hard drive, you can install directly into a Windows directory. However, our system froze just after it had copied the files onto our drive, and reports from other users in the main Linux newsgroups confirm that this is a common problem. According to the detailed support pages on Corel's site, these difficulties are due to hardware probing. Fortunately, though, the files were already in place on our drive so we could still start Corel Linux up.
Network and video configuration can be done from the control panel
Corel's desktop is based on KDE with various tweaks and enhancements. The most significant addition is the Corel File Manager, which resembles Windows Explorer and provides a familiar interface for new users. FVWM 95 is included too as an alternative. The XFree86 version is 3.3.5, and also supplied is the GIMP 1.0.2, Netscape 4.7 and Adobe Acrobat Reader. This is a reasonable range of desktop applications, although adding extra software is trickier as Corel Linux uses .deb packages rather than RPMs (which most other distributions use).
Still, there are many Debian packages around and the supplied 'alien' tool can convert RPMs to the native .deb format. For more advanced users, the gcc compiler and Midnight Commander file manager are also available.
This is a promising distribution, and Corel appears to have worked hard in many key areas. While there's little variety in the available desktops, the ability to perform X and network configuration through the KDE control panel is a bonus. Advanced users may feel restricted, though, and the sheer amount of installation problems we've come across and heard about make
it hard for us to recommend it. If they can sort out these troubles and produce a reliable installer in their next release, Corel Linux will be worth keeping an eye on.
Ease of use: 3/5
Software range: 3/5
Overall: 3/5 - Has potential, but needs work on the troublesome installer
Definite Linux 7.0
The GNOME desktop with the Enlightenment window manager.
Produced by Definite Software PLC, a UK-based company, Definite Linux is based on the Red Hat distribution. It aims to be up-to-date with extra enhancements over Red Hat, and includes full UK support. The text-mode installation program is, like Red Hat 6.0's, fast and straightforward. We chose our language and time zone, and used the simple Disk Druid tool to create our partitions. It installed our selected packages and detected our mouse and video card. After installing the boot loader and configuring a few extras, we were ready to go.
From starting the installation to booting our new Linux system, only 30 minutes had passed - very impressive, and essential when several machines need to be set up. While many distributions are moving towards graphical installers, the speed of Definite's setup program is hard to beat.
GNOME, the default desktop with Definite, has not been altered much. Ready-prepared icons for the CD-ROM and floppy drives would have been a nice touch, although typical users of this distro would be familiar with configuring such things. Definite have added links to their support pages on the desktop, with extra links to other sources of information in the documentation. KDE is also included for those who prefer it, and other window managers like Window Maker and FVWM 95 are available too. In terms of applications, GIMP 1.0.4 and Netscape 4.61 are joined by Apache 1.3.9 and the egcs compiler. The supplied kernel is version 2.2.12, and the XFree86 release is 3.3.5.
Window Maker is also supplied as an attractive alternative.
But Definite really excels under the hood - with RAID support it makes a very capable server solution, and not just a solid desktop OS. Another neat feature is the ISDN support, which won't mean a lot to most users but demonstrates the flexibility that Definite provides. And because it's made outside of the USA, this distribution also offers improved security over its rivals - so, for example, Netscape supports full 128-bit encryption.
We found Definite Linux to be an excellent and solid all-rounder. The fast installation and decent range of software included makes it a powerful load-and-go solution, and the usual Red Hat configuration tools together with Linuxconf create an easily maintainable system. Documentation and support is superb, and helped considerably by Definite PLC being based in the UK. New users may find Mandrake easier to work with initially, but if you're looking for Red Hat with extra bang for your money, this is it.
Ease of use: 4/5
Software range: 4.5/5
Overall: 4.5/5 - Powerful and flexible with some impressive features, and a great choice all round
KDE, the default desktop, has been tuned to provide extra screen space.
WinLinux 2000's main selling point is that it can be installed onto a Windows drive without the need for tricky partitioning. It's based on Slackware and claims to be "the easiest to install Linux system in the Windows world". By working with the UMSDOS filesystem, WinLinux uses a Windows directory to hold the Linux files, although it's slower than a proper, dedicated partition. We booted Windows 95 and ran the SETUP.EXE program. A typical installation utility appeared, and after choosing the 'Typical' choice for packages, the installer started copying files
onto our C: drive. So far, so good.
The Windows-based installer offers a selection of installation sizes.
The installer finished and launched the configuration tool, and an error appeared. After dismissing it, we were faced with a blank configuration window. Pressing the Back and Next buttons resulted in more errors, leaving Cancel the only option. Sadly, this wasn't just a problem with our system - we found many people complaining of the same difficulties on message boards around the Web. At WinLinux's site, we searched the Updates and Support section with no luck. We sent an email to their support team, hoping to find a solution, but had no reply.
Eventually we found a link in one of the FAQ sections to an updated configuration tool. Why this was hidden away and not highlighted in the Updates and Support section is a mystery, but finally we installed the new configuration utility and it ran better, although it only detected our mouse and not the video or sound card. When starting Linux, we encountered error messages with some of the kernel modules.
WinLinux includes kernel 2.2.13, XFree86 3.3.5 and version 2.1 of the glibc library, so it's up to date. The default desktop is KDE 1.1.2, which has been set up reasonably well, and the developers have changed the panel's size to fit smaller screens. FVWM is also available as an alternative. Other software provided includes the GIMP 1.0.4 and Netscape Communicator 4.7, and the egcs compiler is available for development work. This is a satisfactory setup, and KDE provides plenty of extra utilities for multimedia and the Internet.
In use, WinLinux's Slackware base makes it a solid and powerful system. Slackware's configuration tool (invoked with 'setup') is also a comprehensive utility, although no mention of it is given in the very small and badly-written documentation. Clearly WinLinux is aimed at newcomers, but until they sort out the setup problems and provide some detailed and clear help files, it's best to avoid it.
Ease of use: 2/5
Software range: 3/5
Overall: 2/5 - Good concept, let down by a problematic installation routine and poor documentation
Red Hat 6.1
GNOME and Enlightenment, the default desktop for Red Hat.
One of the older distributors in this roundup, Red Hat have a reputation for making solid packages for both the desktop and server. The company created the popular RPM package format and remains the dominant figure in an increasingly competitive market. Like many others, they have made the move to a graphical installation process with Anaconda, which can also install in text mode.
While not as visually impressive as some of the other offerings, Red Hat's installer is clean, fast and presents useful help text at the side of the screen. It detected our mouse and graphics card correctly, and the Disk Druid partitioner was simple enough to operate. You're offered a choice of installation classes - from a typical GNOME and KDE workstation
to a server, with a 'custom' option for more advanced users. The installer also creates a normal user account, which is essential for a secure and reliable system.
Red Hat has put significant backing into the development of GNOME, which remains the standard desktop environment for its distribution. While debates over GNOME vs KDE are likely to go on for some time, it's still a good choice and the number of programs and small utilities provided make a very rich and usable desktop. Icons are ready prepared to point to the CD-ROM and
floppy drives, while the GNOME help browser offers links to the Red Hat Getting Started guide. The CD is also equipped with alternative window managers like FVWM, Window Maker and AfterStep. A good assortment of typical programs is supplied, with development tools, server applications (including Apache and Samba), and Internet utilities like Netscape, Pine and Lynx.
For common system administration tasks, Red Hat uses the Linuxconf configuration program. While this is powerful, it relies on a certain amount of experience and comprehension of general Linux terms. Kudzu, started at boot-up, checks for new hardware and tries to configure it. Also, the new RP3 utility for creating a dialup Internet connection is accomplished and simplifies a complicated process. These, together will all the other small utilities like printtool and sndconfig, make a very manageable system that's quick to set up.
RP3 being used to create a new Internet connection.
However, while we didn't experience any difficulties ourselves, reports from other users describe problems with the installer freezing or generating errors, and complications when upgrading. In general, though, Red Hat Linux is a powerful and flexible distribution with excellent documentation and a very useful collection of configuration programs.
Ease of use: 4/5
Software range: 4/5
Overall: 4/5 - Robust, with a solid range of software, but a few installation problems
Debian GNU/Linux 2.1
FVWM 95 is a fast and small window manager, emulating the look of Windows 9x.
Unlike the other commercial distributions in this review, Debian is produced by a non-profit making organisation called Software in the Public Interest. Volunteers all over the world help to maintain the system, and the distribution has acquired considerable respect from experienced users in the community. The text-mode installer is available in mono or colour, so Debian
can be installed on very old systems that don't have colour displays - a good idea, and a refreshing change from the new jazzy installers we're seeing everywhere else.
From the start, though, it's clear that new users would find this heavy-going. The cfdisk partitioner assumes plenty of knowledge and there's little of the hand-holding you get with others. On the other hand, you're constantly prompted and alerted to what the installer is doing, which is a world apart from the "do everything automatically" idea behind other distributions like Corel.
The installation takes some time, as after choosing one of the package categories (desktop, development workstation etc.) you have to sit through the post-install configuration and occasionally answer questions for each package. Debian uses the .deb format, which is similar to RPM. However, with the extensive dselect package management tool, adding and removing
software is very straightforward. But the best feature of all is the apt (Advanced Packaging Tool) system, which allows the entire system to be updated with just a few commands.
dselect, Debian's package management system, listing the installed software.
After experiencing slight incompatibilities with RPMs from various distributions, we were glad to see such painless upgrading and package control. On the software side, Debian is showing
its age. The supplied kernel is 2.0.38 - not even from the 2.2.x series - and XFree86 is back at 3.3.2. An old version of GNOME is supplied, along with several window managers such as Enlightenment, Window Maker and FVWM. Being a technically-orientated distribution, a plethora of console programs that don't need X are included, with mail programs, development
tools and network utilities.
The Debian CD's packages are slightly behind the times for a few reasons. Firstly, as it's a volunteer project, the developers can't just throw out another release whenever possible. More importantly, they are concerned with stability and maintenance of a working system (as seen by the excellent upgrade process). This development process and general attitude is similar to that of the kernel itself - technical excellence takes preference over commercial interests. Debian is not a good choice for Linux beginners - if you're starting out for the first time, you'll
have an easier introduction with Mandrake or Caldera. But for experienced Linux users who need a very reliable, easily maintainable and carefully crafted distribution, this is the best you can get.
Ease of use: 2/5
Software range: 3/5
Overall: 4.5/5 - Not suited for new users, but technically superb and easily maintainable
Mandrake's desktop, KDE, as it appears at first boot.
The concept behind Linux-Mandrake was originally born out of Red Hat's refusal to include KDE in its distribution. This was due to licensing concerns, so Mandrakesoft decided to create a variant of Red Hat with KDE included and ready to go, and therefore new users wouldn't have to find and download the desktop suite off the Web. Since then, Mandrake has evolved into a solid distribution in its own right. The new graphical installer is a fantastic, easy to use tool, and we had no problems getting underway with it.
Clearly a lot of thought has been put in here - a column of lights down the side acts as a progress meter, while a bar of help text at the bottom provides tips for choices in each dialog box. You can choose a preset security level, and even decide if num-lock is activated at boot time! Thankfully, a proper user account is created and PPP (dialup) configuration is done here too. Apart from the long package installation process and lack of ability to configure sound, Mandrake's installer is the best graphical one we've seen and is a joy for newcomers and experienced
The excellent installer, with its powerful partitioning tool.
In operation, the distribution still remains similar to Red Hat. However, one major enhancement lies in the hardware setup tool, Lothar. This automatically detected most of our hardware, although configuring it still proved to be difficult. Still, it's certainly an impressive start and with more development it could really attract non-technical users to Linux. The DrakConf configuration tool will be a great help for newcomers and assists in a range of administration chores, while the Supermount feature for automatic mounting of removable media is a nice touch.
On the desktop side, Mandrake has KDE 1.1.2 by default, and GNOME, Window Maker, IceWM and Enlightenment are included as well. Also on the CD are Netscape, the GIMP and WINE for running Windows apps, while Emacs, KDevelop and egcs are available for developers.
Mandrake's KDE setup is good, and the on-disc documentation is thorough and well-written. The range of apps on the CD is varied and up-to-date, and while it's doubtful how much of an effect the Pentium-class processor optimisations have, the system feels snappy and responsive. With all this in mind, and the brilliance of the DrakX installer, Mandrake is currently the best general-purpose distribution available. New users will love the easy setup process, ready-to-go KDE desktop and helpful documentation. Experienced Linuxers will be pleased with the variety of desktops, development tools and general flexibility of the system.
Ease of use: 5/5
Software range: 5/5
Overall: 5/5 - Easy to use, robust, fast, with lots of great software. Highly recommended
Caldera OpenLinux 2.3
The plain KDE desktop, as set up by the Kandalf configurator.
Caldera's main focus with its OpenLinux distribution has been the commercial sector, providing a stable desktop and server operating system that fits well into a business environment. It can be installed through Windows or onto a clean hard drive, and sports a fully graphical setup process. Lizard, the installer, is very polished and features a column of relevant help text down the side of the screen - invaluable for newcomers and a useful reference as the installation progresses.
Our mouse and graphics card were detected correctly, and the partitioning tool was clear and straightforward to work with. We could create a default user and finish some other configuration while the packages were being installed - a nice touch, and saves wasting time too.
We came across a snag when starting for the first time, though - the swap partition hadn't been assigned properly. This problem is reportedly common with OpenLinux 2.3, and although we could change the fstab file and add a swap entry ourselves, new users would find the system very sluggish and have no idea how to deal with it. OpenLinux's default desktop is KDE, which when
started for the first time launches Kandalf, a wizard that offers various customisation options for the desktop. These include choosing a theme and adding icons to the desktop for the floppy and CD-ROM drives. It all has a polished and professional feel to it, although there's no choice of alternative desktops if you're not keen on KDE.
COAS, or the Caldera Open Administration System, is a suite of programs designed to make configuration and management of the system easy. While not as comprehensive as Linuxconf, it's less daunting and simpler to work with. COAS includes utilities for managing users, setting up a network and installing packages, among others. The usual desktop applications like the
GIMP and Netscape are installed by default, while Dosemu, WINE and Samba are provided for Microsoft OS connectivity. Developers are catered for too, with XEmacs and the egcs compiler.
COAS, Caldera's administration tool, in action.
Apart from the swap partition difficulty, we found OpenLinux to be a very competent distribution suited for newcomers and intermediate users alike. There are some problems with using RPMs: they're OpenLinux's default package format, but many typical Red Hat RPMs won't install without using extra options. Most veteran Linux users won't feel at home here, but overall it's
a polished distribution and, with the simple installation and uncomplicated configuration tools, it makes a good desktop OS all round.
Ease of use: 4.5/5
Software range: 4/5
Overall: 4/5 - Polished and user-friendly, OpenLinux is an good choice for the desktop
SuSE Linux 6.3
KDE with the SuSE menu, automatically generated from the installed applications.
Another experienced distributor, German company SuSE have been around for many years and have been very popular in the European markets. One of their highlights is the large amount of software on their CDs, reaching up to 1,500 applications in the boxed set. They have also recently converted their distribution to run on the Alpha processor, and have put money into various key areas of Linux development. SuSE's installer is based on YaST, a long-running setup utility which has finally been updated from text-mode to a full graphical installation.
Sadly, when we
started our YaST2 installation, it told us that our 2GB partition was too small for the minimum installation. Wisely, though, SuSE have included the original tried-and-tested YaST, and this worked properly. Installation is reasonably quick, although it isn't very neat - first YaST starts, then exits to restart the system services, then starts again, then exits and waits
for a minute before running some scripts. But overall it's a reasonably simple installation and the online help is thorough and useful.
YaST is also the main system configuration tool in SuSE, offering different administrative and setup options from adding new users to configuring modems. For the most part it's easy to use and powerful, but occasionally it didn't do exactly as commanded, and if you're editing configuration files by hand it can have trouble working with them. Like others, SuSE has opted for KDE by default. It's set up fairly well, with icons for the disk drives and easy access to YaST and the help system.
The YaST tool assists with administration and configuration of hardware.
One particularly nice feature is the automatic updating of menus - install a new application through YaST and it will add an entry to the KDE menu. This can also work for the FVWM and IceWM menus (among others) as well. SuSE Linux uses the RPM package format, but we had compatibility troubles installing many off the Web. Thankfully SuSE provide an excellent service on their site for new KDE programs, which are tailor made to fit the distribution.
One cause for concern we noticed was the inclusion of GIMP 1.1.11, a development version. The program's docs say that it's an unstable version "intended for developers only", so it seems SuSE is chasing version numbers here. A shame, then, but a good, wide range of software for both the desktop and server is included which makes up for it. In all, SuSE is a generally good distribution with some attractive features. Some of its quirks hold it back, though.
Ease of use: 4/5
Software range: 4.5/5
Overall: 4/5 - A decent distribution, with some clever features and a wide choice of software
Of the 8 distributions on test here, some are clearly more suited to different types of users than others. Corel, for instance, definitely has newcomers to Linux in mind with its attempt at automatic hardware detection and a very simple installation routine. As most unfamiliar users will be coming from a Windows background, extra effort has been made to provide a familiar working environment with an Explorer-like file manager and integrated video and network configuration in the desktop control panel.
On the other hand, distributions like Debian and Definite are aimed at the more experienced users who will be putting reliability and flexibility above flashy desktops and installers. This is important when making your choice - you'll want an easy introduction if you're unfamiliar with Linux, but if you know your way around then the restrictions of beginner distributions may prove to be frustrating.
While most are starting to feature graphical installers (based on the VGA16 X server for compatibility), this isn't always the best choice. Linux is proving to be increasingly popular in use on older hardware, where it can function as a file or print server, or simply as a development OS for trying out new software. In this light, text-based installers are crucial - running a graphical installer would be far too slow or even impossible on very old hardware.
The best solution is to provide both, as Red Hat have done for example, so you can revert to the standard setup program if any problems occur. In general, the graphical installers in these distributions add little to the functionality, but provide an important level of comfort for newcomers.
Another issue to watch out for is with package formats. Most distributors have opted for the RPM format created by Red Hat, but this doesn't guarantee compatibility with others. RPMs made for some systems may not work on others, as we've seen with OpenLinux and SuSE. If you're careful, you can avoid checking for dependent packages when installing (using the '--nodeps' switch at the command line), but ultimately this can just lead to more problems.
In general, the distributions derived from Red Hat - such as Mandrake and Definite - have fewer troubles with using standard RPMs off the Web. SuSE and Caldera aren't left out, but finding packages that will work with these isn't as simple. Their sites can provide tailor-made RPMs that are ready to use, but they're not always totally up to date. Corel and Debian take a different approach by opting for .deb packages, although you can use the Alien program to convert RPMs to the default format. While RPM packages are more abundant around the Net, there's no shortage of .deb archives thanks to the popularity of the Debian distribution.
What's the best choice of desktop? Pop in to a Linux newsgroup or join a mailing list and you'll see the occasional heated debate over KDE and GNOME. While KDE was started earlier and was first with a solid, usable desktop environment, GNOME has caught up and now there's not a lot between them. Because they're both freely available, you can try them out yourself and see which one you prefer. And if you don't like either, or want to run something less resource-hungry, you can switch to a simple window manager like FVWM or Blackbox and use most of the KDE and GNOME
applications from there.
Still, it has to be said that most distributions reviewed here feature KDE as standard - it's slightly easier to work with in places, and due to the native window manager (kwm), new users don't have to worry about two different configurations at the same time. But with a compliant window manager like Enlightenment or IceWM, GNOME provides an
equally friendly drag-and-drop desktop with lots of useful utilities.
From our tests, we found Mandrake 7 to be the best of the bunch out of the eight reviewed here. Debian and Definite are perhaps better alternatives for power users and experienced Linux fans, and SuSE, Caldera and Red Hat are all worth considering too. But if you're looking for a friendly, powerful all-rounder with lots of great software, Mandrake should be your first
Breakdown of features
||Auto X setup
||Yes (in Windows)
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