D3x User Experience

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by kuryan_thomas, Feb 16, 2009.

  1. About 2 weeks ago, I bought a Nikon D3x body. Since photo.net does not yet have a review of the D3x, I thought I would post my experiences so far with this camera. 2 weeks is enough to form a personal opinion, but it isn't nearly enough to conduct a real review, so please do not take this as a review but just as the experiences of one amateur user.

    My thanks to Shun Cheung for his encouragement and his feedback on a draft of this posting.


    In 2006, I bought a D2x body, which I still have. To this day, I'm amazed by its image quality. As I started printing images, I realized I could easily print up to 12 in by 18 in (30.5 cm by 45.7 cm). Beyond that, I needed to be very careful with resizing, and beyond about 16 in by 24 in (40.6 cm by 61 cm) the prints did not hold up to my standards. I knew I needed more resolving power.

    I saw and handled medium format systems; while they have more than enough resolution, they are very expensive at many tens of thousands of US dollars for a complete system, and their ergonomics are not up to the standards set by major-brand DSLRs. However, I decided to begin saving for a medium format system.

    2008 saw the introduction of higher-resolution DSLRs - the Canon 1DsIII and 5DII, and finally, what I as a Nikon user had been waiting for, the Nikon D3x. My initial reaction was sticker shock, since I had expected something in the US$6,000-7,000 range. When I recovered slightly, I realized that since I had saved for a medium format system, US$8,000 was not impossible. In fact, it was less than I had planned to spend, and if the camera delivered what I needed without having to buy new lenses and learn a new user interface, then it was worth it.

    After reading reviews by Lloyd Chambers and Thom Hogan, I decided the D3x's image quality would allow me to go well beyond the D2x into low end medium format territory, and would challenge me to grow into it as well. As an amateur, I find that part of the satisfaction of this hobby is the learning and growth process of improving my technique to meet higher and higher bars.

    Why not a Canon 1DsIII or 5DII? They're excellent cameras, but I've used Nikons for decades and I know them inside out. If I was going to switch brands anyway, the right solution for me would likely have been medium format.

    Why not wait for a D700x/D800? Unlike many, I actually prefer the large form factor of Nikon pro bodies. Don't ask me why: after all, they are heavier and bulkier. I just do.

    The bottom line is that the D3x was the right system for me because: very high image quality was what I was after; I was not very price-sensitive in my upgrade decision; and, I was willing to compromise some image quality for the ergonomics and familiarity of a Nikon. Again, these are my criteria, and many others will have very different criteria and weightings.

    The Camera

    The first thing to realize about a D3x is that it is exactly the same as a D3, except for the sensor, some performance numbers related to the higher resolution, and of course the price. So there's no point in me talking about the autofocus, ergonomics, or whatever - Shun Cheung's review of the D3 covers all of this in detail. I'll just remark in passing that if you're coming from a D2x, everything is pretty much where you expect and the transition is seamless.

    The major adjustments to the D3 review that I'm aware of are: the frame rate is 5 frames per second if you shoot 12-bit NEFs, and less than 2 frames per second if you shoot 14-bit NEFs as I do; and, the calibrated ISO range is 100-1600.

    In my case, since I shoot mostly landscapes, the frame rate is not a problem. As for ISO, I began shooting landscapes in the days of Kodachrome 25. Velvia 50 was a major improvement, and an ISO 100-400 landscape system seems like a miracle (I'm kidding, of course, but only a little).

    Resolution and Image Quality

    I agree with Thom Hogan's statement that the D3x has a base-ISO quality reminiscent of the D2x. What I see is a beautiful and subtle rendition that jumps off my screen. Color seems excellent regardless of which raw converter is used. The detail from the pixel count and resolving power gives a textured richness to images, giving my eyes something to linger on as I look them over. Consider it high praise when I say I took several images that captivated me with their detail and tonal rendition until I realized they were poor compositions.

    The dynamic range is broad, and I see clean details in areas that would be blocked up in D2x images.

    On the other side of the equation, small flaws such as unintended subject motion or poor focusing are obvious. No longer do they fade into the fog of lesser resolving power. This is where I need to personally improve to meet this new bar.

    Unlike most medium format digital backs, the D3x uses a fixed (not removable) antialiasing filter over the sensor. I've read on internet forums that the filter used is somehow optimized for the sensor. Perhaps, but I would have liked to have the option to remove this filter in order to squeeze every last bit of detail out of the sensor. As things stand now, you still have to resort to whacking your raw images with some input sharpening to counteract the effect of the filter.

    Live View

    Although the Live View feature is identical to the D3's, I'll give my thoughts here since the feature was not covered much in the D3 review.

    I find that Live View adds as much value to my digital photography as digital added to my photography, for three main reasons.

    First, I love the ability to magnify an area of interest and then focus manually. My eyes are both myopic (nearsighted) and presbyopic (if the myopia is corrected, then I cannot see close without progressive lenses), so focusing through the viewfinder of the D2x is torture. With Live View, I can take off my glasses completely and focus on the zoomed in LCD panel. It's a joy to return to the easy manual focusing I did when I was younger.

    Second, I can judge depth of field. Live View automatically stops down the lens as you adjust aperture on the command dial, which in turn changes the depth of field on the screen. No more squinting through the viewfinder at f/9 with the depth of field preview button held down.

    Third, I find that psychologically I can judge composition better when I see the image as a 2D picture than as a scene in a viewfinder. I make fewer compositional errors (visual balance, etc.) than I do when I frame with the viewfinder.

    A fourth minor reason is that my entire life, I've had a very hard time physically with closing one eye and keeping the other open. The good news is that you will never see me winking at you.

    Now that I have Live View, I compose by roughly setting up the scene in the viewfinder and checking the leveling using the viewfinder horizon. I then switch to Live View to fine tune the composition. Finally, I shoot the image.

    In bright light, I use a Black Jacket focusing cloth to complete the nerdy view camera look.

    Live View can show you a virtual horizon indicator. Although it supposedly can show you a live histogram, I find the feature doesn't work. It seems not to respond to the exposure compensation adjustment. I have no idea if this is something that can be fixed in a firmware update. I also don't know if the D3 has the same problem.

    Here is an image, taken by my wife with her Canon PowerShot 600, of the D3x in Live View mode.

    So what's not to like about Live View? The single greatest issue is that I can't shoot images out of Live View. Unlike Canon's implementation of the feature, Nikons do not keep the mirror up and simply open the shutter to expose. Instead, they drop the mirror, immediately raise it again, and only then open the shutter. This causes a lot of vibration even in the well damped D3/D3x system. Therefore, after composing with Live View, I switch to mirror lockup (MLU) mode and expose the image as I do on the D2x. If needed, I then fine tune the exposure to expose to the right.

    ISO noise performance

    I hardly ever shoot at any ISO over 100. Fewer than 5% of my D2x images are taken at ISOs above 100, and none above 500 (the ISO 500 images were shot handheld without VR in the darkish interior of the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum at Washington DC's Dulles Airport). However, there is interest in how the high ISO performance of the D3x compares to other current DSLRs.

    My take: it is better than the D2x, but that isn't saying a whole lot.

    Reviews have pointed out that it does not perform as cleanly as the D3 and D700. I don't own those cameras, but I have no doubt their high ISO performance exceeds that of the D3x.

    Below, I will post some shots that show at 100% magnification, a small portion of the same landscape shot taken at ISOs ranging from 100 to 1600. In keeping with my emphasis on actual user experience, this is a real scene, so the scene very likely changed slightly from one shot to the next (although to my eye, the lighting stayed the same as I made the shots). I have not tried to play with camera and raw processor settings to analyze the noise. Instead, I set the camera to my normal D2x-legacy settings (in-camera ISO noise reduction OFF, long exposure noise reduction ON) and then applied default Lightroom 2.3 RC settings for noise reduction, along with Landscape input sharpening. Those settings represent how I would handle my camera and raw files, at least as a starting point. I believe that is a realistic appraisal of how the camera would respond to my use.

    For this posting, I did not process the images in any way (curves, contrast, etc.). Normally, I would make various global and local adjustments.

    I then exported cropped images as high-quality (quality setting 100 on Lightroom's export dialog) JPEGs, with no export processing or output sharpening.

    In my opinion, the noise characteristics are acceptable up to 400, which is probably way beyond my needs. There seems to be a sudden increase in qualitative noise at ISO 800. Each person will have different needs and criteria for judging results.

    Full image at ISO 100. The crops are taken out of the dark area on the middle ridge just to the left of center.
    ISO 100
    ISO 200
    ISO 400
    ISO 800
    ISO 1600

    Lens corner performance

    So far, I've only shot images with my Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 G lens. My existing ultra-wide is the Nikkor DX 12-24, which is unsuitable for this FX body. I'm still evaluating wider angle lenses or possibly a PC-E lens. A Nikkor 300 f/4 is on the list. My 70-200 f/2.8 G VR has well-known issues with corner performance; if Nikon doesn't release a replacement, I will consider the Nikkor 180.

    Here is a 100% zoom of the detail of the grass stalks just below the center of the image.

    Here is a 100% zoom of the detail of the grass stalks at the bottom right corner of the image.

    Aperture was f/9 at a focal length of 52mm. My conclusion is that there may be some loss of sharpness in the extreme corner, but not enough to worry me.

    File size and card usage

    I shoot 14-bit lossless compressed NEFs with no attached JPEGs. Each NEF is in the 30MB range. My D2x-legacy 2GB CF cards have a capacity of about 40 images, although the camera says 38 when a card is freshly formatted. This reminds me of the days when I carried 36-exposure slide film. Note to self: buy some larger cards.

    Card speed is not vital to me given how long it takes me to set up a shot, but it seems to take roughly 5 seconds to write an image to my 2GB SanDisk Extreme III.


    The D3x is certainly the best camera I have ever owned. It will challenge my technique and force me to learn and improve for years to come. I look forward to learning and to taking more images that I can be proud of.

    Is it worth the money? Yes, to me.

    My pros: Image quality; build quality; ergonomics; Live View; familiar Nikon layout; price is less than a medium format system.

    My cons: Live View shooting isn't well implemented (should allow vibration free shooting as Canon does); fixed antialiasing filter.

    A con of the entire Nikon FX lineup at the moment is the lack of a good 70-200 landscape lens. But that's another rant for another time.
  2. It's really good to read a good review of this camera. I do not think it is over priced. It all depends what you want to do with the camera. The image quality I have seen from this camera is simply outstanding. The best I have ever seen on a DSLR. Better than Canon.
    From what I have seen on the net alone, the D3X seems to match or is not better than the Mamiya system.
    I wish I could afford one, but it is very much a pro camera.
    I'm sick and bored of Ken Rockwell and others bashing this camera. I honestly don't think it is over priced, it's a pro tool. Like you I'm more into using a camera at around 100 asa. I don't really shoot sports. In the meantime I'm more than happy with my D80!
  3. excellent review....perhaps they'll publish with some samples on this site. I think a review should be independent of price as, the consumer needs to decide if the price works for them.
  4. Congratulations on your new camera and thanks for posting a very well written and informative review. As a D3 user, I have a lot of interest in the D3X although it is currently priced well out of my price range. Perhaps I will be able to afford a used one when the D4X comes out!
    Can you explain the type of differences you are seeing in your pictures when comparing your D2X to the D3X? For example, are the pictures noticeable clearer, sharper, more detailed? Are you getting richer, more vibrant colors?
    @ Certain Ratio KR is not bashing the camera, he is bashing the retail price of the camera. Ultimately, it is overpriced for anyone who wants one and can't afford one.
  5. Can you explain the type of differences you are seeing in your pictures when comparing your D2X to the D3X?​
    I'll start by saying that I do believe in quantitative, measurement-based reviews, but I lack the equipment needed to make those measurements, so my analysis is purely qualitative.
    To me, the greatest differences are the detail and the dynamic range. The detail gives what I can only call "richness" to the image. Everywhere I look, I see things that capture my attention. As I hinted at in the main posting, the danger is that I might lose sight of the forest (overall composition) for the trees (rich detail).
    Dynamic range opens up shadows. For example, under a rock in a cascade would be a blocked up black on the D2x. Not a huge problem, really, but on the D3x, you can actually see a little bit under the rock. Again, it's another way of just adding some detail and richness. I suspect I can also recover more detail from highlights, but I'm still working to overcome my "blown-highlight-ophobia" that I acquired from all my experience with slide film and previous digital cameras.
    The colors to me are not very much better than the D2x, but the D2x has always been pretty spectacular at color rendition. There may be some incremental improvement, but not anything that leaps out at me. Then again, keep in mind I bought this camera in the middle of our US mid-Atlantic winter. There is hardly any color in the landscape at all. I may have more to say after my Great Smokies trip this April.
  6. Very well done, thank you for sharing.
  7. One more thing about Live View: the frame rate is not 30fps as I've seen on the Canon 5DII. It's definitely more jerky, so I'd guess it's 15fps.
  8. Kuryan, thank you for a well written and informative summary of your experience with the D3x. I'll be looking for updates when the Spring colors begin to appear. I can identify with your enthusiasm about using live view to focus, as my eyes are like yours.
  9. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    Hi Obi (Oli's Kuryan's nickname), thanks a lot for a very informative post.
    I don't have access to a D3X yet, but here is an image of a D2X (left) and D3 side by side, and they are very similar. Nikon swaps the position for a few switches and the command dials on the D3 is actually tilted a bit for a slightly more comfortable control. I would imagine that it is very easy for Obi to switch back and forth between the D2X and D3x.
  10. Thanks for a very good review, Kuryan. This is a camera that very few of us will ever own or handle, so it helps to have the perspective of someone who is using it for what appears to be Nikon's intended design.
    BTW, this comment really opened my eyes:
    Card speed is not vital to me given how long it takes me to set up a shot, but it seems to take roughly 5 seconds to write an image to my 2GB SanDisk Extreme III.​
    That's one of those comments that says a lot about the realities of the file sizes created by these high resolution cameras. My 4mp D2H can shoot up to 40 NEFs without any hesitation to the SanDisk Extreme III or comparable Lexar card. My first digital camera, an Olympus C-3040Z, takes longer than five seconds to write a 3mp TIFF. These high resolution files are enormous and it helps to put into perspective the amount of computing power packed into cameras like the D3X to handle these files. It takes my old computer longer than five seconds just to open a 20-30MB file!
  11. Nice casual review and I thank you for it.
    As for the full-frame sample, it is a interesting one but the cropped 100% samples could be better chosen. On my calibrated monitor, they are pretty dark and there are hardly any objects of interest in there for a closer examination.
  12. Lex,
    Sounds like you're pixel-challenged. :p
    If it takes 5 secs to open a NEF, you need to upgrade your disk or your computer or both.
  13. the cropped 100% samples could be better chosen​
    Let me know if there is a part of the image you would like to examine more closely and I can post crops.
  14. I am not sure where your focus point is but if the DoF allows the bottom right hand corner to be in focus, perhaps the tall dry plants will serve a good starting point.
  15. Arthur, the bottom right hand corner is provided at ISO 100 (see the section on lens corner performance). If after looking at that, you want to see the same section at higher ISOs, I can oblige.
  16. Thanks, got it.
  17. Kuryan, I enjoyed your review, thanks! One question about the Live View mode: Doesn't the mirror slap happen AFTER the exposure has been completed? Unless you're trying to shoot exposures in rapid sequence, I'm not sure how post-exposure vibrations could damage the clarity of a single shot.
  18. Kuryan,
    Is it possible to post a 14-Bit NEF file taken at ISO 100 on a tripod? I am interested to see how strong the optical low pass filter and inherent sharpness of the sensor is. Recently dpreview.com posted comparisons between Sony a900 (which has an identical sensor) with the Canon 5DMKII and Sony lacked the critical sharpness
  19. Doesn't the mirror slap happen AFTER the exposure has been completed?​
    No, that's exactly the problem. What you describe is what Canon does.
    Canon: You engage Live View and press the shutter release. The mirror moves up and Live View begins. To shoot the image, press the shutter release again. The mirror stays up, the shutter opens and the exposure is taken.
    Nikon: You engage Live View and press the shutter release. The mirror moves up and Live View begins. To shoot the image, press the shutter release again. The mirror slaps down, immediately moves up again, the shutter opens, and the exposure is taken.
    I have no idea why Nikon designs the mirror to slap down and up again before the shutter opens.
  20. What I do when in live view, I just use live view mode to focus, then switch to self timer mode (with exposure delay mode active) and take the shot. I have no idea why it was implemented in such a complicated way but it doesn't bother me since I only use LV for tripod based manual focusing.
  21. Interesting read. I agree 100% with the mirror issue; it's weird that there's 1 year between the introduction of the D3 and the D3x, yet Nikon didn't fix this issue.
    One thing I'm interested in is do you use Lightroom and ACR for all your raw file editing? Do you use Capture at all? And most importantly, how do you find that these cope speed-wise with the huge files that the D3X generates? I'd think that Capture would choke on those, but Lightroom is probably ok.
  22. Arash, I can post an image if you wish, but I'm not sure what good it would do without an identical image taken by another camera. Since I don't have a review methodology, my images are "real scenes", and a lot depends on where I set the focus, what are the sizes and shapes of the high frequency details in the image, and so on.
    I don't mean to be difficult, but really the only way any conclusion could be drawn is by evaluating identical images using identical methodologies, which is what sites such as DPReview do so well. I have to assume they will review the D3x using their standard methodology in the near future, which would allow a definite comparison to be made.
    I'm also not 100% certain it's been established that the A900 and the D3x have identical sensors: I think it depends to some extent on what you mean by sensor. Does it include the readout electronics and the ADCs?
  23. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    On the D3, there are separate hand held and tripod modes for Live View. I assume they are the same on the D3X. Are you using the hand held mode?
    In the hand held mode, the mirror needs to drop first so that the camera can use the usual phase detection AF as the AF system is below the mirror and it has to engege the secondary mirror for AF to work. After AF, the D3 (D3X??) will capture the image.
  24. do you use Lightroom and ACR for all your raw file editing? Do you use Capture at all?​
    For the D2x, I use Lightroom 2 for cataloging and about 95% of edits. I use Capture and Raw Developer for the other 5%.
    So far with the D3x, I've only used Lightroom. But I suspect the statistics will converge towards the D2x numbers (95%-5%) as time goes on and I shoot more images. There are always a few images that require less effort to "look good" with Capture or Raw Developer than with Lightroom 2.
    how do you find that these cope speed-wise with the huge files that the D3X generates?​
    Lightroom is fine. I have a late model Mac Pro with 8 Xeon cores and 10GB RAM, with the images on an internal SATA 1.5TB 2xRAID-0 (striped) array. I'll probably upgrade to 16GB. On this hardware, things are good. As I say, I haven't tried Capture yet - to my knowledge, it is not well designed for multicore parallelization and sometimes can be deathly slow even with D2x images.
  25. Are you using the hand held mode?​
    No, tripod mode.
    I first read about this behavior at Lloyd Chambers's website. I was incredulous too and asked the same question.
  26. I'd be really interested in comparing a landscape scene shot at ISO 100 on the D3x, with a film camera shooting the same scene on say Velvia 100, using the same lens.
    I use my D300 for candids and street photography, and keep my landscapes to my F4s and film. I use the same lens for both...the 28/2.8 AIs.
    I rarely print anything bigger than A3.
    I have $700 invested in the F4s and lens. What would you have invested in your D3x lens and computer? I'm not injecting anything controversial, but I can go three ways with landscapes to get truly magnificent images: 1) Stay with film and buy a $4000 Fuji 612/617 and get the slides scanned. 2) Go the D700 or D3x way. 3) Buy the about to be released Nikon MX with its 32mb sensor and 6x6 format, but the pricing would have to be less than the Leica S2.
  27. Hi Kuryan,
    You are right, it is not possible to compare two things having only one at hand, however I just wanted to see how the per-pixel crispness compares with the other bodies (Nikon D700 and Canon 5D MKII) that I have. I have found that the AA filter on my D700 is a bit too strong and softens very fine detail, I just want to see how D3X does. So I'd appriciate if you could post a NEF.
    You are also right that it has not been established if the sensors are exactly the same or not, but one fact is known at this time and that is the readout and ADCs are most likely the same, since D3X is also a native 12Bit sensor which can output 5fps, the 14Bit mode is achieved by oversampling of the 12Bit ADCs and thus frame rate drops to 1.8 fps just like the D300 which has a Sony sensor. There was one picture of the camera's main PCB posted somewhere and it was shown that it did not have the discrete ADC chips that the D3/D700 have (thus the body is actually 20g lighter than D3!), we know that Sony uses integrated ADCs so they are similar in this regard at least...That said sharpness in these cameras is mostly a factor of pixel size and the optical low pass filter on the sensor and IMHO Nikon still hasn't got the filter quite right.
  28. Thank-you for a thoughtful review. I am one of those that hopes that many of these cameras are sold so that I can pick up a used one in a few years. I currently use a D2X, bought used a year ago, and a used full frame Kodak SLRn, again bought about a year ago. Like you, I enjoy the size and build of the D2X, really the first pro level body that I have owned in 25 years of photography.
    The SLRn does not have an AA filter. The lack of an AA filter was the focus of the original hatred by reviewers of this camera. I primarily shoot landscapes and architecture and have rarely seen the artefacts (moire patterns) created by the lack of an AA filter. I am sure Nikon and Canon are wary of Kodaks experience in this area and will never eliminate the AA filter. However your idea of making it removable is excellent, if dust could be controlled. For most landscapes it would be very beneficial to remove it. The SLRn is significantly sharper than the D2X even though it only has 2 more MP for a much larger sensor and from website samples that I have seen the 14 MP of the SLRn can compete with 16 MP+ cameras. I attribute the high resolution of the SLRn to the lack of an AA filter.
  29. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    For those who are interested in NEF files from the D3X, do a search and it looks like there are some available on the web. Those are huge files, and I haven't tried to download them myself. Since those files are so demanding on bandwidth, I wouldn't expect Kuryan to make those available.
    Additionally, each NEF file also contains the serial number for the camera used. I can see that some people don't like to make that public (or go through the trouble to strip off the serial number from an NEF file).
  30. Thank you for the review Kuryan, although this camera is likely something that I'll never buy, it's still nice to read about it!
    I was hoping that you could share some examples of your work, or point me to your website? I can't find anything under your profile.
  31. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    Kuryan "Obi" Thomas has created a D3X portfolio to show some images: http://www.photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=895247
    Some of the images there are details of shadow area and that is why they look almost completely dark.
    But we'll probably have to wait until spring arrives before Obi has better landscape images from the D3X.
  32. I just meant any kind of images whatsoever, even from the D2x, it interests me to see what kind of shots people are taking with these kinds of cameras, especially as a fellow landscaper.
  33. I do not typically publish my photos on the web for a general audience, preferring instead to print for my home and office and a few friends. I do have a small private site with limited bandwidth allowance. Dave, if you are interested, drop me an email (use my member page) and I'll send you the URL.
  34. I like reading photographers' reviews that are similar to Kuryan's more than a technical ones for some reason. More personable, maybe. I use my D3x in studio and the result is just as good as Kuryan's on landscapes. With 24MP, I have more flexibility on cropping for larger prints. Just like Kuryan, I went down this D3x route rather than keep saving for a MF back. For what I do now with mostly my Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 and 18x22 prints, D3x works just fine. I am very comfortable to go bigger too.
    After a little more than a thousand shots that I have, there is only one limitation: the noise in the shadow using harsh strobe light through honeycomb -- dark space between the subject and backdrop with almost no light there. I checked back to similar composition that I had using D3 with the same ISO 100, the problem was not there. It is an easy fix with Noise Ninja especially my output for the current project is in B&W. Other than this and the missing dust reduction mechanism as in D700, I am totally happy with the D3x so far.
    A note to Kuryan, the 70-200mm f/2.8 is not that big of a deal anymore with in camera Vignette Control, even at wide open in my opinion (simple task in LR anyway on post processing). I would have felt missing out if I don't have the 70-200mm in my bag when I take the D3x outside of my studio.
    The D3x is for sure a keeper, at least 5 years in my case. I just can't wait to try out with some serious macro work with a Kiron 105mm f/2.8.
  35. Thanks Kuryan. I think this sentence sums up that review: Finally, we have reached a point where resolution, dynamic range and tonal scale are so good that, even for large, highly detailed prints, we can focus on the art instead of the equipment.

    I actually feel this way about the Nikon D700. I finally have a camera I can be satisfied with for a long time. Not needing medium format resolution for my work, I can always rent a D3x if I do.
  36. I wish I had 10k to blow on a body.. My car doesn't even cost that much.

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