Best Browsers 2011: Which Is the Best Browser for You?

In early 2011, there have been major changes to four out of the five browsers that dominate the browser market: Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Internet Explorer. So it’s a great time for my third annual browser comparison, along with recommendations.

NOTE: In 2015 I posted a more current comparison of the latest browser versions, Best Browsers . . .

In last year’s browser comparison post, I noted that:

“Google’s Chrome browser was designed from the ground up to be good at running web applications, with an underlying architecture that is faster, more secure, and more stable than the competition. Chrome succeeded. The competition responded. Users have benefited.”

I also thought that Chrome deserved the “best browser” award at that time. However, the competition has since greatly improved. Though I again rank the browsers 1 through 5, the gap between #1 and #5 is narrow, as the current versions are all very good. Each browser is best for a different set of users.

The Easy Browser Decisions

Before you spend much time researching and deciding which browser is best for you, I suggest you start with the easy browser decisions:

  1. Keep your browser updated with the latest version. This helps speed, security, reliability, and compatibility. Firefox users with many add-ons may want to delay upgrades a few months to wait for add-on compatibility.
  2. If you’re satisfied with your current browser, keep using (and updating) it. It can take months to learn how to most effectively use a new browser. Except . . .
  3. Stop using Internet Explorer 8. All Internet Explorer versions prior to 9 are far behind the competition in speed, features, security, and usability. Windows 7 and Vista users can upgrade to the much superior Internet Explorer 9 but users of Windows XP don’t have that option and should adopt one of the other 4 browsers.
  4. Don’t use the password manager built into your browser. The best password managers are more secure, easier to use, and allow you to use your passwords anywhere.

Browser Speed Tests

Slow loading sites are a distraction and a waste of time. Happily, the latest versions of all 5 browsers load most sites quickly. Users will only notice significant differences between browsers on sites that make heavy use of graphics, animations, or JavaScript (like some web apps).

I’m not a big fan of detailed benchmark speed tests that don’t reflect real world use. For example, Chrome and Opera typically achieve the highest benchmark scores for many tests. But after several hours of using 10-20 tabs (or 3-5 web apps) on my 1GB Windows XP system, these browsers get very slow and need to be closed and restarted. Not so with memory-efficient Firefox, even though it scores lower off a fresh start.

Nevertheless, some of you will want to see the results of formal benchmark tests. This section on speed tests has been updated several times since this article was first published as more recent and/or thorough tests become available. The most thorough speed and memory testing I’ve seen as of September 2011 is:

Tom’s Hardware Web Browser Grand Prix VI August 29, 2011

However, both Firefox and Chrome have been updated since and these less thorough but more recent testings show some changes:

Lifehacker Browser Speed Tests February 14, 2012

Lifehacker Browser Speed Tests September 27, 2011

These tests supersede tests that were performed on older versions of the 5 major browers:

Computerworld browser speed tests March 10, 2011

Computerworld browser speed tests March 16, 2011

ars technica browser speed tests and IE9 review March 2011

Though SunSpider test results indicated IE9 to be slightly faster than Chrome Chrome 10 and Opera 11 in March 2011, the order has changed after July 2011. According to Tom’s Hardware, test results depend on operating system. For OS X, Safari 5.1 is fastest with Chrome in 2nd, Opera 3rd, and Firefox 4th. For Windows 7, Chrome is fastest, Firefox 2nd, IE9 3rd, Opera 4th, and Safari last. The ordering is different for individual tests – this summary combined many different tests.

Lifehacker tests conducted a month after Tom’s Hardware yielded different results. Opera 11.51 was overall fastest with Firefox 7 close behind, while IE9 and Chrome 14 trailed on a number of tests.

In all tests I’ve seen in 2011, there’s not a large difference in speed between the fastest and slowest of the 5 major browsers’ latest versions, with the exception of Apple’s browser. Safari has not been been significantly updated since June of 2010 while the other browsers continue to get faster, and this speed difference is starting to become noticeable on Windows systems. Safari did release a new version that can be used only on it’s latest operating system, OS X 10.7 (Lion), but many people are reporting that it’s slower, especially when many tabs are open.

Expectations are that Firefox 8 (November 8th) will have significant overall speed improvements, and Firefox 9 (December 20) will speed up JavaScript. So it is possible that by the end of this year, Firefox will have better performance than the other 4 browsers.

Here’s lifehacker’s March 2011 attempt at a real world speed test:

lifehacker browser speed tests

Lifehacker’s real world tests (Safari not included) found Opera and Chrome fastest in most tests with Firefox not too far behind. The 64 bit version of IE9 was considerably slower while the 32 bit version of IE9 was comparably fast in some respects, though slower at starting up and processing DOM/CSS.

Microsoft has stated and others have confirmed that the 32 bit version of IE9 executes JavaScript faster than the 64 bit version. A new installation of IE9 is set to the 32 bit version by default.

Browser Comparisons

Below are summaries of the strengths, weaknesses, and future expectations of the five major browsers—and what makes each browser distinctive and appropriate for a certain type of user. The browsers are ranked according to my preferences, which are based on the following criteria in order of importance:

  1. How well does the browser stay out of my way and let me focus on work?
  2. How flawlessly does the browser run web apps like Gmail and Google Reader?
  3. If I need additional features, how much flexibility do I have?

1. Chrome 10

Chrome 10 is available for Windows (XP and later), Mac (10.5.6 and later), and Linux systems. It continues to be very fast, secure, and reliable. Chrome 10 is much faster than prior Chrome versions, and this is especially noticeable on web apps and graphics-intensive sites. Google’s own web apps such as Gmail get an additional speed boost by using the SPDY protocol in place of HTTP. For graphics-intensive sites, Chrome can be made even faster (if your system has a modern operating system and a graphics card with up-to-date drivers, turn it on by typing about:flags in the URL and enabling both GPU acceleration options).

As in prior versions, Chrome’s uncluttered interface, automatic browser updates, and reduced use of dialog boxes help you work without distraction. Chrome works especially well for running various Google web apps as well as others like Evernote or Facebook.

Furthermore, Chrome now has a rich and diverse set of extensions, second only to Firefox. Some types of Firefox extensions will never be possible on Chrome due to a purposeful tradeoff that sacrifices flexibility and potential capabilities in order to keep Chrome fast, reliable, and uncluttered.

Chrome continues to enhance stability and security with additional sandboxing techniques. A properly sandboxed computer process is isolated from the rest of the computer and therefore is not able to have an impact on any part of the computer apart from its own process. The latest sandbox addition is Flash, the source of many a crashed browser. Starting with Chrome 10, Flash may be able to crash a single tab, but presumably nothing more than that. Thanks to sandboxing and other techniques, Chrome 10 is the most secure browser after a fresh installation, though IE9 is stronger in certain aspects of security and Firefox can be made more secure with appropriate add-ons.

Chrome is not for everyone. Firefox users may miss the functionality of some of their favorite add-ons. Some people don’t like the lean interface. Animated alerts for pinned tab updates are distracting (I use the “minimal” theme to take care of this). And though my testing suggests Chrome 10 is slightly more memory efficient than prior versions, Chrome is still a memory hog. You’ll need 1GB RAM for 5-10 tabs, and 2GB RAM if you routinely keep more than 10 tabs open—otherwise you’ll need to close and reopen Chrome every few hours (see here for more elegant workarounds).

Perhaps most importantly, some people feel uneasy about how much of their data Google can see, which can really add up if you use Google search, Gmail, and Chrome. For people who are uneasy about Google’s data collection but still want Chrome’s benefits, there are nearly identical alternatives that don’t collect user data, such as SRWare Iron or other browsers mentioned here. (However, controversy surrounding Iron is discussed here). Google has also attempted to alleviate privacy concerns with a Keep My Opt-Outs Protect My Choices extension and detailed explanations of privacy settings.

Despite these issues, Chrome is a great browser. For both power users and regular users with 2GB or more of RAM (and who are not afraid of Google data tracking), Chrome edges out very tough competition for my “best browser 2011” award.

Chrome simply does a better job than other browsers of getting out of the way while you work. Others are liking Chrome as well, as Chrome market share has grown from 7% to 11% since the last time I compared browsers 9 months ago.

Best browser for:

  • Power users who value speed and working without distraction over Firefox’s extra flexibility
  • Typical users with at least 2GB of RAM who want to get to work, not mess with settings
  • Users who frequently use web apps such as Gmail, Google Reader, Google Analytics, etc.

Avoid this browser if:

  • You spend hours per day using a browser on a system with less than 2GB of RAM (unless you’re willing to take steps to reduce Chrome’s memory usage).
  • You are concerned about how much Google tracks your computing activities

Major upgrade: Google’s philosophy of frequent, incremental updates means that Chrome version numbers no longer really matter. However, changes in Google Chrome 10 (released March 8, 2011) were very noticeable due to the large speed boost, support for hardware acceleration, and a changed interface for settings. Google does not plan any major new features to be added in the next few months, though hardware acceleration will be enabled by default starting with Chrome 11.

Google has users testing a CR-48 netbook that launches into the Chrome browser within seconds after turning on. Like Apple’s iPad, such devices are easier to maintain and keep secure than today’s general purpose computers. Google “Chromebooks” will be available for purchase on June 15, 2011.

Update October 2011: Many users, including myself, are noticing that Chrome 14 is slower than prior versions. On my Windows XP (1GB RAM) system the slowdown is so noticeable that I’m starting to use Firefox 7 instead – which is quite fast when used in combination with add-ons Tab Utilities and Noscript. Given Google’s obsession with speed, my guess is that the recent speed issues will be fixed within a few months.

2. Firefox 4

Firefox is available for Windows (2000 and later), Mac (10.5 and later), and Linux. A fresh installation of Firefox covers all the browser basics with no common features omitted.

A great thing about Firefox is that it doesn’t even matter what the exact feature list is. If there’s anything you don’t like or don’t yet have—you can probably change it or find it among Firefox’s vast library of add-ons. The richness and diversity of these add-ons makes Firefox the most powerful and flexible browser, though some learning is required to take advantage of all this power.

The “awesome bar” feature Firefox introduced last year is worth highlighting. It combines the search and address boxes together along with your bookmarks and browsing history in a way which magically does a great job of figuring out what you want to do next. Most other browsers now have this feature, but it seems to work much better in Firefox.

For those who desire or need the highest level of security, nothing beats Firefox used in conjunction with various security add-ons, such as NoScript and HTTPS Everywhere.

On systems with limited memory, I’m finding that Firefox beats the competition. (Note: many observers are experiencing Firefox 4 as less memory efficient. So it may depend on your system and add-ons configuration). I can open and close tabs all day and have 15-20 tabs open on a system with only 1GB of RAM. Firefox is not as speedy as Chrome or Opera when you first start it and open your first few tabs. But try using Chrome or Opera for a few hours and your 1GB system will slow down so much that you’ll want to close then reopen your browser.

Firefox 4 nearly catches up to Chrome with speed and key features. However, in my opinion it does not catch up with the interface.

Firefox 4 tries for an uncluttered interface (like Chrome or Opera) but misses both aesthetically and functionally. I find myself distracted by the bright orange menu-access button and tabs strike me as too boxy and wide. Worse is what happens when I click that orange button. I am confronted with a large, cluttered, dual-column menu that I find unintuitive to use. For example, it took me minutes to discover how to bring back the old Firefox menu (Click options half way down the second column, then check the item “menu bar” by selecting it). I suspect that bringing back the menu bar is something many veteran Firefox users will want to do.

Of course, Firefox’s sub-optimal interface is only a minor drawback if you’re willing to spend some time customizing. With less than 15 minutes of tinkering you can make Firefox look like it used to. Or you can make Firefox look more like Chrome. Or if you don’t like either of these looks you can customize further with add-ons such as Tab Utilities (do anything with tabs—even Phantom tabs) and Personal Menu (Don’t like Firefox’s menu organization? Make your own!). Or if you like everything about the new interface except the bright orange button, install the App Button Clear add-on. In general, just Google “Firefox add-on” and a few extra words to describe the feature you’d like to change or add, and you should find what you want pretty quickly.

All this tinkering is fine for users willing to make the effort to customize. However, the majority of users just want to work without distraction, not tinker with settings. If you’re such a user, and you don’t like the Firefox interface, I’d recommend Chrome or Opera, or if your needs are very simple, Safari. Conversely, if you want as much control as possible over your browser, you want Firefox.

Best browser for:

  • Users with less than 2GB of RAM
  • Developers
  • Power users who want to customize and personalize their browser

Avoid this browser if:

  • You use browsers no more than a few hours a week
  • You want an easy-to-use interface right out of the box
  • You value speed and/or working without distraction above all else

Major upgrade: Firefox 4 was released March 22, 2011. Soon after this major release, Mozilla adopted the Chrome model of frequent, incremental updates on a 6 week schedule.

UPDATE: Firefox 5 and 6 were minor updates but users will notice big performance improvements in versions 7, 8 and 9 as follows:

Firefox 7 (September 27, 2011): more efficient memory usage

Firefox 8 (November 8, 2011): 10%-20% speed increase in every aspect of browsing except for JavaScript

Firefox 9 (December 20, 2011): 20%-30% JavaScript speed increase.

This is Mozilla’s planned schedule as of August 2011 but actual dates for these performance enhancements may change.

It has been my family’s experience that Mozilla’s rapid updates since March 2011 are resulting in incompatibilities with specific web sites and add-ons. Specifically, when Firefox 6 was first released, I was not able to use, and my wife experienced setup hassles and decreased functionality with the 1Password add-on for Firefox. Whether or not  you encounter difficulties will depend on which add-ons or web sites you use. But it can be a good idea to wait 1-2 months before upgrading to the latest Firefox version. That is usually enough time for authors to make their add-ons compatible with the latest Firefox version.

3. Opera 11

Chrome, Firefox, and Safari attempt to be bare bones browsers, to which you add functionality with extensions. Opera, on the other hand, already comes bundled with many extras that users typically want, such as ad blocking (though not automatic), note taking, and various tab features. Opera also includes a very flexible framework for sharing any kind of data across devices (Opera Unite).

Opera supports many forms of customization through third-party add-ons, including plug-ins, skins, panels, as well as separate applications called widgets. Opera now finally supports extensions as well. Hundreds of extensions are available, including automatic ad blockers and extensions for popular password managers such as LastPass and RoboForm.

On top of all that, Opera works on a wider variety of operating systems than any other browser, including Windows (2000 and higher), Mac (10.4 and higher), and Linux. Two-year-old Opera 9.64 runs on Windows 98 and Mac OS X 10.3. Opera also makes a simpler browser available for most mobile devices, which can sync bookmarks and history with Opera on the desktop. Opera’s turbo feature compresses data, which increases web browsing speed on slow connections and saves money if you have a metered connection where you pay per kilobyte.

Despite the extra included features, Opera is as fast and uncluttered as Chrome. I prefer Opera’s interface to the other browsers as it uses panels and a well designed menu to hide a tremendous amount of power and flexibility, giving me one or two click access to pretty much everything I need. On top of all this, Opera has historically experienced fewer security issues than other browsers.

So if Opera is such a great browser, why is it in third place, why am I not using it, and why don’t more people use it?

  1. Like Chrome, Opera is very fast when starting, but quickly overloads my 1GB of RAM and then gets progressively slower. For my Windows XP system, this slowdown happens sooner than with any other browser. I did not experience these memory issues with Opera 10.
  2. Some web sites don’t work flawlessly, as many developers don’t test their sites with Opera. Various Google web apps seem to be especially problematic. Examples include incorrect line heights for Google Reader’s article list mode, not automatically placing a curser in Gmail’s “Compose Mail” window, and not immediately changing a date range in Google Analytics (to make it work after the attempted date range change, you have to click to a new report then back to the current report). I have not experienced these types of issues on Chrome or Firefox.
  3. Most people have simply never heard of Opera.

The last reason should not stop you from checking out this browser. Opera is a terrific browser that can work well for a wide variety of people—so long as their system has more than 1GB of RAM and they don’t use a lot of Google Apps. If Opera worked as smoothly as Chrome with Google Apps and my 1GB RAM system, it would be my primary browser and rated #1 for 2011.

Best browser for:

  • Power users who prefer Opera’s extensive customization options
  • Typical users who simply prefer the elegant interface
  • Computers with old operating systems (Windows 2000, PowerPC Macs, etc.)
  • Users with slow or metered connections (enable Turbo)

Avoid this browser if:

  • You spend hours per day using a browser on a system with less than 2GB of RAM
  • You frequently use web apps like Gmail, Google Reader, and Google Analytics

Major upgrade: Opera 11 was a major upgrade (December 2010). Opera 11.5 is expected to include much fuller support for hardware acceleration that works with a much wider variety of operating systems and graphics cards than competing browsers.

4. Safari 5

There have been no major changes to Safari since version 5 was released on June 7, 2010. Safari is the browser bundled with all new Mac systems and is good enough for many users. It works on Macs (OS X 10.5.8 or higher) and Windows (XP and higher). The pretty interface blends in well with the overall look and feel of a Mac and Safari is easy to use. Although Safari is not quite as fast as the latest versions of the other 4 browsers, users with fast connections will rarely be distracted by slow-loading sites.

On the topic of distraction, Safari lacks distraction-blocking full screen mode. However, a click of its built-in “reader” button transforms cluttered web pages into an easy-to-read format (similar to arc90’s “readability” bookmarklet). Safari’s smaller feature set and limited flexibility also help reduce distraction and interface clutter. Safari is therefore ideal for people who spend just a few hours a week using the Internet. Such people typically have no interest in ever more powerful features or customizing the browser.

Those wanting to customize the browser do have hundreds of extensions to choose from, including Adblock for Safari. This post on Safari extensions describes some of the better ones, as well as sites that offer extensions not available through Apple. Extensions are a welcome addition to Safari, but the quality and quantity of extensions and overall customizability of the browser trails the competition.

Safari lacks many features users have come to take for granted with other browsers. Missing features include full screen mode, automatically reopening all tabs from last session (must be done manually from the History menu), and pinned tabs, to name just a few. Safari also has had many security issues over the years. While Safari 5 has many improvements over prior versions, hackers still find it easy to exploit Safari vulnerabilities to take over a computer.

Though I’ve listed far more negatives for Safari than the top three browsers, I enjoy using it. It’s simple, fast, and easy to use—ideal for light browsing.

Best browser for:

  • You love simplicity and want to avoid anything that is the least bit complicated
  • You use browsers just a few hours a week or less
  • You want an easy-to-use interface right out of the box
  • You want your applications to have the same look and feel as everything else on your Mac.

Avoid this browser if:

  • You are a power user with significant needs for customization, flexibility, and some of Safari’s missing features
  • Though not a power user, you typically have many tabs open and could benefit from extra tab management features available on other browsers
  • Avoiding security issues is a major priority for you

Major upgrade: Version 5 was released on June 7, 2010 for both Windows (XP, Vista, 7) and Mac (10.5.8, 10.6.2 and higher), and is described above. Apple has not discussed future specific plans, other than to announce WebKit2 development. This implies that the next version of Safari will be faster, especially on multi-core hardware.

Simpler versions of Safari are available for the Apple’s iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch devices. These versions do not support Adobe Flash, but are otherwise very easy to use and well suited to these devices.

5. Internet Explorer 9 (IE9)

IE9 is much faster, more secure, and more standards compliant than IE8 and vastly better than versions before IE8, which were very slow, dangerously insecure, and outrageously non-compliant with web standards. As always, I urge my readers to abandon older versions of IE in favor of the latest version of one of the five major browsers profiled in this post.

What do people like about IE9? The 32 bit version (but not the 64 bit version) scored higher on speed tests than already-speedy Chrome and Opera in March 2011 (UPDATE: As of August 2011, Opera and Chrome are faster, and Firefox will be faster by the end of 2011). It is especially fast on graphics-intensive sites that can take advantage of hardware acceleration. Tabs are now separate processes, benefiting security and performance. IE9 warns about socially engineered malware better than other browsers, offers better Active X controls, and has addressed many security issues found in prior versions of IE.

With regards to the interface, the browser integrates with the Windows operating system (especially Windows 7) in a way that makes using web apps seem more like regular desktop software—much more so than Chrome. Many popular features of other browsers such as combining the search and URL bars and an improved download manager have been incorporated. There are many options for customizing and controlling the browser, though some complain that configuration options are strewn all over the user interface. Perhaps most importantly, the interface now uses very little vertical screen space. IE9 may be the best browser for small screen devices such as netbooks, as user can set tabs to be on the same line as the address bar.

So why do I rank IE9 last? For starters, it only works on about 1/3 of all computers—those running Windows 7, Windows Vista, or Windows Server 2008. IE10 will only run on Windows 7. Many people in the U.S. now routinely use multiple computers with different operating systems installed, and it’s a considerable distraction to have to learn and use different browsers for each system. If you have a Windows 7 desktop at home, a Mac laptop, and a Windows XP desktop at work, you can use your same favorite browser on all three—so long as it is not Internet Explorer.

Also a distraction is learning how to use the full power of IE9. Remember IE8 features like Web Slices and Accelerators? (You will be excused if you don’t.) Few people actually use these features. It seems likely that IE9’s innovative integration with the desktop and extra control over Active X security will suffer the same fate. What all these interesting features have in common is requiring users to know they exist, seek them out, and learn how to use them. The few people who do may very well love this browser. However, for the rest of us who just want to fire up the browser and get to work, all these extra features are irrelevant.

I have unfortunately not been able to test IE9 myself, as my computers all run Windows XP (I’m not alone: 55% of the world’s computers run Windows XP). But I have read many reports that a number of web sites don’t work perfectly with IE9, with web apps being especially problematic. The problem is likely due to web sites that have created many hacks and workarounds to work with prior, non-standards-compliant versions of IE. These sites didn’t anticipate the possibility that Microsoft would one day ship a standards compliant browser. While putting IE9 into compatibility mode will usually solve this issue for a specific site, many users won’t know to do this. While I expect these issues to be fixed over the coming months, it’s yet another distraction users can avoid by using a different browser.

Despite the negatives IE9 is a huge step up from its predecessors and will be good enough for most people. And this is a good thing, as most computer users use the browser that comes bundled with their new computer and Internet Explorer is the only permitted browser at many workplaces. Window users who choose a different primary browser will still need to use some version of Internet Explorer for IE-only sites such as Windows updates.

For those who use only recently purchased Windows 7 systems, continuing to use the pre-installed IE9 could be the best choice, in addition to being the simplest choice. But if you’re among the majority of people who use at least one system that is not Windows 7 or Vista, you’ll be better off using the same browser on all of your different systems. That browser won’t be Internet Explorer.

Best browser for:

  • small screen devices such as netbooks
  • regular users who use only Windows 7 or Vista systems
  • Power users who like IE9’s extensive feature set and configuration options

Avoid this browser if:

  • You regularly use a non-Windows 7 (or Vista) computer
  • You need the greater flexibility offered by Firefox, Chrome, or Opera

Major Upgrade: IE9 was just released (March 14, 2011). IE10 will have features such as CSS transitions and more complete CSS gradient support that are more aimed at web site developers than end users. IE10 requires Windows 7, and will not be available for Windows Vista or earlier.

Conclusion: There’s No Best Browser

Last year I sung the praises of Chrome 5 and thought it was the best browser for most users. But I also noted that competitors were responding, and that “you just need to keep regularly upgrading your browser to see big speed, security, and stability improvements, along with an ever less cluttered interface.”

That’s exactly what has happened, and now the most recent versions of all five browsers are all so good that most differences between them are minor. Though I did rank the browsers according to my personal preference, I think there is no obvious best browser for everyone (unlike AA batteries where there is an obvious best aa battery). It’s a matter of choosing which browser best suits the kind of user you are.

Therefore, my strongest recommendation this year is to stick with your current browser. This assumes you are satisfied with your browser and that you have a computer and operating system that supports upgrading your browser to the latest version.

All this is great for users. All five browsers are far faster, more secure and less cluttered than they were three years ago and all include helpful new features. I am especially pleased with what this means for older systems. My work computer is a Dell 4600 Windows XP system that I purchased in 2004. It runs faster than ever because the majority of my work is now done using 2011 browser versions that are far faster and more capable than those from 2004.

Many people replace their computer every 3-5 years when the system gets too slow or outdated. Now, thanks to faster browsers and the trend towards working in the cloud, there is no need to replace computers until they quit working altogether. It’s good for the environment. It saves time. It saves money.

Thanks to great browsers and cloud computing, forced obsolescence of computers is becoming . . . obsolete.

If you liked this reference guide for browsers, you may also like other FilterJoe guides:

Best AA Batteries

Best Monitor Setup to Reduce Eye Fatigue and Distraction

A Guide to Using Passwords Without Distraction

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

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