Holiday gift ideas: PCs and notebooks galore

Computers, notebooks and tablets are cool again – and netbooks, too

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The October release of Windows 7 helped unleash a slew of new notebook and desktop systems upon the world, and the good reviews for the operating system helps ensure that this holiday season will see lots of people upgrading their older systems for new ones. Plus, the low price of netbooks means that people can get some computers without breaking the bank – always good in a recession. Here are some systems that we liked playing with over the past few months:

Dell Studio XPS 16 notebook

Dell Studio XPS 16 notebookAt work I use one of those industrial Dell notebooks that's as boring as can be (sorry, Latitude, but you're just a workhorse, nothing more). So discovering a Dell notebook that is cool and hip was quite a surprise.

It's hard to tell whether I was more excited about this notebook's features, or the fact it had Win 7 installed on it. Trying to separate the two can be difficult, but it's good to know that if you want a Win 7 on a great notebook, this is a good place to start.

Performance and style really do go together quite well with the Dell Studio XPS 16 notebook. New Intel Core i7 Mobile processors, 1080p HD support and a 15.6-inch display mix with leather accents, a backlit keyboard and sleek finish to make a system that's not only fun to use, but also fun to see and be seen with.

Other awesome features – up to 8GB of RAM, up to 500GB of hard drive space (or you can opt for a 128GB solid state drive), Blu-Ray slot-loaded drive, and 802.11n wireless capabilities. I used this system to test some of the PC games for the After Hours article, and it performed without a glitch.

My only complaint is a lack of USB ports – there's only two on the system. My tendency to use lots of USB gear (storage, mouse, keyboard, etc.) means that choices may need to be made (or just invest in a USB hub or docking station).

Cool Yule Rating: 5 stars Starts at $999

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

ProBook 5310m, by HP

HP ProBook 5310 notebookHP packs a lot into this laptop, which is being targeted at the small to midsized business market. HP's higher-priced EliteBooks are aimed at the enterprise market, but it's hard to see why an enterprise user wouldn't be satisfied with a 160GB hard drive, 2GB of RAM and a 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Dual processor.

The ProBook works as a status symbol as well, since HP claims it's the thinnest notebook out there at .93 inches high – besting Apple's Macbook Air (.94 inches high). And when it comes to style, black is the new black, so the ProBook is all black, except for a silver power-on button.

Everything about this notebook feels solid and well-built. On some laptops, the keyboard seems like an afterthought, which is a shame, since there's nothing worse than trying to type on a cramped keyboard that has a soft, mushy feel to it. The ProBook gets it right. The keys are raised and separated and have sharp edges that help you avoid hitting two keys at the same time. The screen is 13.3-inches measured diagonally, and the LED backlight display is bright and clear.

HP says the Lithium-Ion battery provides up to 7 hours of battery life. And there are a bunch of other enterprise-focused features, such as a three-axis accelerometer that helps protect the hard drive, an anodized aluminum display enclosure and palm rest area to help guard against scratches, and a slew of security goodies such as HP SpareKey, drive encryption, pre-boot security and HP Disk Sanitizer.

The overall look of the ProBook is minimal and sleek. There aren't a lot of extra buttons. In fact, outside of the keyboard proper the only buttons are the on-off switch and tiny "quick-start" buttons on the right side that control wireless and Internet access. There's not even a button or latch to open the laptop; you just use your fingertips.

The ProBook 5310 that we tested came with Win 7, which is a marked improvement over XP. (I skipped Vista.) Other features include a built-in 2 megapixel camera, 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth, three USB ports, an SD-MMC slot and an Ethernet port. All in all, HP has done an outstanding job with this product. Of course, you're not getting a CD-drive. But you're also paying $699.

Cool Yule Rating: 5 stars Starts at $699

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Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

HP TouchSmart 300 PC

HP TouchSmart 300 all-in-one PCHP follows up last year’s very impressive all-in-one PC system (the computer and the monitor are built into one solid unit – just like a Mac!) with even more features that make you want to move your computing habits out of an office or den and into a living room or even kitchen environment.

Featured specs: AMD Athlon processors (dual-, triple- or quad-core available), up to 4GB of RAM, up to 750GB hard drive, slot-loaded DVD drive, 802.11n wireless and Gigabit Ethernet, 6-in-1 memory card reader, TV tuner option, integrated stereo speakers with subwoofer, 20-inch LCD screen, and 5 USB ports (two on the side, three in the back),.

First off, the inclusion of Windows 7 makes me very happy, there’s not the twinge of angst with using Windows Vista. HP did a great job by implementing its TouchSmart overlay on top of Windows 7, and lovingly refers to the operating system as “productivity mode.” The TouchSmart application is meant to be the more entertaining or “home productivity” part of the system.

It’s this part that’s really cool – the touch screen display lets you scroll through different applications, such as organizing your photos, creating a “refrigerator bulletin board” where you can write out notes for other family members, and even record messages via the Webcam. Like other devices that are implementing the “app” concept, the new verision includes a Netflix and Hulu app that lets you access those services to watch videos. A Twitter app lets you keep track of your Twitter feed, and post updates. The HP Recipe Box app let you import favorite recipes from the Web, enter your own creations, and manage them (again, see how HP wants you to use this in the kitchen?). It’s the growth of this app concept that will help the TouchSmart design and concept move people away from thinking that this is a computer, and more into the realm of a home productivity device (lousy term, but interesting concept).

Like other PCs, you can watch movies, listen to music, view photos and do all sorts of things with this. A Bluetooth keyboard and mouse means less cable clutter – if you really want this in your kitchen, just plug it into a wall somewhere, connect via wireless and you don’t necessarily need anything else connected.: 5 stars: Starts at $799Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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Lenovo IdeaPad S12 by Lenovo

Lenovo IdeaPad S12 netbooksThe Lenovo IdeaPad certainly blurs the line between netbook and laptop to the point where I don't see any significant difference. For a starting price of $449, we're talking about a 12-inch LED screen, full-size keyboard, 160GB hard drive, 1.6MHz Intel Atom chip, 1GB of RAM, and a built-in camera. OK, with a full-blown laptop, you'd probably get a slightly bigger screen, 2GB of RAM, a faster processor. But if all you're doing is basic, e-mail, Web and Office, the IdeaPad is perfectly capable of handling your needs. Plus, there's the option of getting the IdeaPad with the NVIDIA ION chipset, which improves the user experience if you're watching video, flipping through photos or playing games.

The IdeaPad is certainly well-built, solid and easy to navigate. The basic color scheme is black, and some of the function keys are accented with bright orange, which works well.

The IdeaPad also has an interesting feature called a QuickStart key, which lets you check e-mail, go to a Web site URL or open an application without going through the whole boot procedure.

Some minor complaints: There's a row of function keys above the keyboard, including the on/off key, the QuickStart key and volume keys, which are poorly marked. If you were trying to turn this baby on in a dark room or on a plane at night, you'd have to do it purely by feel. And there's another row of lights on the front of the machine – battery indicator, wireless, and power – which emit a pale white glow. I'm accustomed to a solid green that shows when the battery is charging or when the wireless is connected, so the white light seems a little strange.

All in all, however, the IdeaPad is an impressive netbook that makes you wonder why you would ever need a full-blown laptop again.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 stars starts at $449

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Product Web site.

Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Acer Veriton Z280G Nettop PC

Acer Veriton Z280G Nettop PCWhat do you get when you take the guts of a netbook (Intel's terrific 1.6 GHz. Atom N270 processor) and package it as a compact all-in-one desktop? Well, the Acer Veriton Z270G, for example. This compact PC features a bright and clear 1366x768 18.5-inch display, a 160GB hard drive, 2GB of RAM, GigE, 802.11g, and a DVD burner – all for around $500. It's designed as a "green" PC (EnergyStar 5.0 rated), but there's no real compromise in performance apart from wimpy output from the built-in speakers. Our version came loaded with XP Pro, but Vista (if you must, or for a Win 7 upgrade) was also in the box. Setup couldn't have been easier, although we'd prefer a wireless keyboard and mouse, and you can easily add these via the copious USB ports. There's even a card slot for MemoryStick (including Pro) as well as MMC and SD. CyberLink's PowerDVD is included for watching movies, but you'll want to use the audio-out jack and some real speakers for that.

Overall, a great PC for the kids, the den, the workshop, the… OK, you might not want it as a primary PC, but at that price, it's a deal.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 stars (after all, it's just another PC, but it's compact, convenient, easy on the AC power, and fast enough for most people). About $500 (street price)

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Reviewed by Craig Mathias

Lenovo ThinkPad X200 Tablet with Multi-Touch screen

Lenovo X200 TabletYou wouldn't buy a tablet unless of course you intended to use the device a good percentage of the time in that configuration, so our review focuses on the tablet aspects of the X200 rather than its ability to be used as a laptop.

As we have come to expect of Lenovo machines, build quality of the X200 Tablet is first rate. It has a solid feel, nice black finish and bright screen (nice keyboard too, but that's covered when the machine is used as a tablet).

The first thing you notice when you spin the screen and lay it down is a little thing: the screen catch is sticking up, but a simple push and it slips through and sticks out the other side to act as the catch in tablet mode. Slick. No protrusions left to snag stuff on.

Our tablet came with a Multi-Touch screen that really adds another dimension to tablet functionality. The screen lets you control standard interface buttons with your finger or a stylus (which hides in a hole on the side of the machine when not in use), and also supports iPhone-like controls such as paging down with the swipe of a finger, or shrinking on-screen objects by pinching two fingers or enlarging them by doing the reverse. Very cool.

The stylus can also be used in applications such as Word to take notes, edit copy, etc. In Word, tapping the stylus on the screen opens a dialog box that you can write in, with each completed word captured and interpreted. The success rate was quite good, even though my penmanship is lousy. Presuming that tablets will appeal mostly to professionals that are using a lot of forms and taking short notes, this feature was ideal.

You can also bring up an on-screen keyboard, but writing was much faster, especially given how good the text recognition software was.

The X200 Tablet also features something Lenovo calls SimpleTap. A little red ball hugs the edge of the screen (you can drag it around to get it out of the way) and, when tapped, brings up a set of standard control "tiles" for speaker volume, screen brightness, camera on/off and microphone on/off. While those are handy, what's really impressive is you can add your own tiles to launch programs, open Web pages or open files. That makes it a breeze to customize the tablet to access core applications that take advantage of the tablet functionality.

It is also worth noting that our machine came with a fingerprint reader (a $20 option) that was simple to set up and would probably be appealing in environments where tablets would be used. A diagram showed each finger on both hands and you select the one you want to use. You scan your selected finger three times and it compares the scans to see if it got a good capture. It took two attempts (six scans) before it got mine, but then using the reader to log in was a breeze.

That is, a breeze in tablet mode when the reader is oriented correctly on the frame of the screen. If you're in laptop mode, the reader is down near the hinge and sideways, making it hard to swipe correctly.

The whole package was very slick. And since it is a Lenovo, it comes with all the ThinkVantage tools to simplify IT management of these mobile assets: Password manager, update manager, power manager, system health and diagnostics, factory recovery, enhanced backup and restore, Internet connection manager, active protection, notebook fingerprint reader.

The one downside: While 3.5 pounds is light for a laptop, carrying that weight on a bent arm in tablet mode gets tiring.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 $2,060 as tested

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Reviewed by John Dix

Lifebook A1220 by Fujitsu

Fujitsu Lifebook A1220This system would make a cool gift for someone who's looking to clean up their home office by getting rid of their existing desktop, monitor, keyboard, mouse, Webcam, maybe even their telephone if they're into Skype. It's a desktop replacement and there are tradeoffs, but it stands up pretty well.

First, the screen is so attractive you'll barely miss your current desktop screen. Its ultra-bright, Crystal View high-contrast 15.6-inch HD screen renders gorgeous images. The 16:9 display with 1366 by 768 pixels and 350:1 contrast ratio make for crisp visuals.

The full-size keyboard with 10-key keypad takes a firm touch, like you'd expect from a separate desktop keyboard. Fujitsu says it's spill resistant, but I decided not to test it. It's also got a built-in Webcam and microphone, and supports Bluetooth. With the aid of Win 7, transferring photos and videos from a cell phone was intuitive and simple. The laptop screen showed off the low resolution of the phone's optics.

The A1220 is a 4-bit system, with plenty of horsepower for the price with its Intel Core2 Duo T6600 CPU at 2.2GHz process. The review unit shipped with 2GB of RAM and Windows 7 Home Premium for an operating system, and came with a 140GB hard drive. The low-end shipping model comes with more memory – 4GB – and a larger hard drive – 500GB.

It's got a six-cell lithium battery and energy-saving controls that send it snoozing after five minutes of inactivity. I used it lightly over a period of days without recharging it. It quickly revived itself from hibernation and the battery didn't run out. According to the specs, the battery will last five hours of regular usage.

The look of the notebook is pretty slick if you like gleaming black finishes. (You can actually read your own fingerprints on it after normal handling with clean hands. Keep a polishing cloth handy.) The biggest downside of the machine is that it's pretty bulky for a laptop, especially if you've been admiring how slim and trim they've been getting. How big? Well, it wouldn't fit into the laptop compartment of the TSA flip-out laptop bag I was also testing.

For the price and performance, though, this would make an excellent gift for the person looking to clean up their small office/home office space.

Cool Yule Rating: 4 stars $749

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Reviewed by Tim Greene

HP Mini 5101 netbook

HP Mini 5101 netbookNetbooks are often designed for the consumer, with basic features for people who just want to web browse, do their e-mail and other light functions. You never really see one that's aimed at the business user, so I was pretty surprised to see the business-oriented HP Mini 5101. HP doesn't even call it a netbook, probably so people won't think they're buying a consumer netbook.

The 5101 includes a 10.1-inch diagonal LED-backlit display, with the option of adding a wireless WAN connection (our model was just Wi-Fi). With a starting weight of only 2.64 lbs., it's a lot lighter and smaller than a standard business notebook. The keyboard is designated as a 95% full-size, which means you have all the keys, yet it's just slightly smaller in order to get into the smaller size. I did notice that I was making some typos, but it wasn't too hard to get used to the smaller keyboard. The keys are raised a bit higher than keyboards on other notebooks I've tried, more like chiclet style than bunched together.

The Web site says the device comes with Windows XP Home edition, but the unit we had was running Windows Vista. You can also put SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11 on it.

Other tech specs: Intel Atom Processor N280 (1.66 GHz), up to 2GB of RAM, up to 320GB hard drive (or 128GB solid state drive), integrated 2 megapixel Webcam, three USB ports (nice!), and an SD card slot. You can get either a 4-cell (lighter weight) or 6-cell lithium-ion battery (longer life) to power the Mini 5101. The netbook does tend to get warm, so you might want to use a notebook cooler of some sort.

Overall I was impressed with the netbook, it didn't seem to have the consumery look and feel, and you can pretty much do everything you would on a notebook (other than watch DVDs or install programs from an optical drive - you would have to attach one to do that).

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars: Starts at $399

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

VPC100 all-in-one PC, by ViewSonicViewSonic VPC100 all-in-one PCWhen you think ViewSonic, PCs probably aren’t the first thought that comes to mind. The computer monitor and TV manufacturer has expanded out into other technology products, including this all-in-one PC. The system includes a 19-inch display combined with a Windows XP computer (maybe they’ll add Windows 7 at some point?). The computer runs on an Intel Atom 1.6 GHz processor, has 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, four USB ports, a 4-in-1 card reader, integrated 1.3 megapixel Webcam, Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11b/g wireless connectivity, and a DVD/CD drive. A wired keyboard and mouse (why not wireless?) connect to the back of the unit to provide input options.The device seems to be aimed at businesses who want to offer their employees a business desktop that takes up less space than other non-all-in-one systems. The overall package has a sleek look and feel, but it’s not particularly a performance monster. For home use, this could be a good second computer that could go into a kitchen or other small space.Cool Yule rating: 3.5 stars: About $550 (street price)

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Acer Aspire 5738DG-6165 notebook

Acer Aspire 5738DG notebookIf you're looking for a multimedia notebook with Windows 7 and some really cool 3D features, look no further than the Acer Aspire 5738DG notebook.

The notebook comes with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor (2.2GHz), a 15.6-inch high-definition LCD screen that includes 3D functionality (more on that later), 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, built-in Webcam and DVD Super Multi optical drive. Also included is four USB ports and an HDMI port for displaying the content on larger displays. Dolby Home Theater speakers with virtual surround sound features help produce great sound. A touchpad with "multi-gesture" features is included, allowing you to use two fingers to accomplish different things - a nice touch, but I'm more of a mouse guy than a touchpad user anyway. The system we tried ran on Windows 7.

The big selling point of this notebook is the 3D technology, which requires special glasses in order to experience it. The TriDef 3D demo shows some of the things you can do in 3D, such as watch specialized videos, view your photos in 3D, and even watch your DVDs in 3D. The specialized videos that come with the notebook are outstanding, showing the 3D technology to the fullest. I was somewhat impressed by inserting a normal DVD into the drive and having it "3D optimized", but it doesn't do it as much as the specialized videos do. You can also take your normal photos and view them in 3D with the glasses, a somewhat neat gimmick. It looks like you can also play some of your games on this notebook in 3D, but we didn't try this feature.

Overall this is a really good consumer notebook, and the addition of the 3D features makes it a nice computer to get if you really want to utilize things in 3D. Fortunately, the other features good for the long-term if you get bored with the 3D features after a while. Also, the glasses pinched my ears after a while of wearing them.

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 stars: About $800

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Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Lenovo 3000 C Series All-in-One PC

Lenovo C100 Series all-in-one desktopLenovo gets its right with this stylish, under $500, all-in-one computer. This C Series all-in-one provides the power of a full-blown PC with the space-saving design of an all-in-one.

The basic set-up is pretty straightforward – flip out the hinge at the back of the device and stand it up like a big, photo frame. This product doesn’t force you to sacrifice your viewing or computing pleasure in exchange for the leaner form factor. There’s a 20-inch screen, which is bigger than the monitor I’m using now. The display is also wider than it is high (the actual viewing area is 17.5- by 9.75-inches) so it has a little of that widescreen movie feel to it.

Under the hood, there’s 3GB of memory, a 320GB hard drive, and an Intel Atom chip. The version I tested was running Vista and the performance was better than some of the laptops I’ve been testing. There’s also a 1.3 megapixel Webcam and all of the usual USB and other ports.

There were a couple of minor quirky things I needed to adjust to. The CD drive stands vertically, so you need to make sure the disc is clicked into place or it falls out. And since you plug your mouse and keyboard into the side or the back of the monitor/PC, it seemed like the wires were in my way. But those are pretty minor issues that I’m sure I would get used to. All in all, this all-in-one provides an interesting alternative to the traditional monitor/tower setup.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 stars: $500

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Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Lenovo IdeaCentre Q100

Lenovo Q100 computerThe Lenovo IdeaCentre is an interesting little machine, but I couldn’t quite figure out who would love it. I found it to be completely frustrating. The Q100 is approximately the size of a DVD case and completely silent, which is very cool. It can even be mounted on the back of a monitor to save space. The downside is that in order to make it that small, all of the ports are USB ports. My monitor at home has a digital connection, the Q100 has an analogue monitor output, so I hijacked my monitor at work because it had the right connection. Then I had to steal a keyboard with a USB connection from a colleague. Thankfully, my mouse already used USB, so my thievery didn’t extend to mice. If you’re buying this as a personal computer, you may need to also update your monitor, keyboard, or mouse.

Once I finally got it up and running, I was just as irritated. Nothing comes on the computer. There were no Microsoft Office products or anything similar, not even a Word type program, so I had to download Open Office. I also downloaded iTunes and attempted to download the test products from Adobe, but by then I was so tired of registering for things, I gave up. I will say this: it downloaded products decently fast; I only answered two e-mails on another computer while iTunes downloaded. Plus, YouTube videos loaded almost instantly.

Something else that I find absolutely ridiculous is that it has no disk or CD drive, none. On the front of the box, it shows that the Q100 is compatible with gaming controllers. However, last time I checked, they don’t sell games on flash drives. And I love that the machine comes with a Lenovo Product Recovery CD-ROM. Is this a cruel joke to taunt you if you break the machine? And I know that buying music on iTunes, Napster, etc is really popular, but I still load actual CDs into my iTunes. That option would be out for me here.

The Q100 does come with a 160 GB hard drive and 1 GB of RAM. It has an Intel Atom processor 230 and the graphics card is a Sis 307DV. The machine weighs about 4 pounds. The box claims that it’s environmentally friendly as it "consumes a fraction of the energy of a traditional desktop PC."

Originally, we thought this might be a great product for students, but with its lack of a disk drive and its zero programs, I don’t think many students would love this product. Along with a portable projector, this might be really useful for businesses to take to trade shows. You could pack the two of them in a carry-on bag and be able to display information to large groups of people, as long as you got the information to display from the internet or loaded it from a flash drive. I suppose this would be a decent second computer for a family that could network the two, thus allowing more people more computer time. For the price, I suppose it’s a good computer if you have low expectations and limited needs.

Cool Yule rating: 2 stars: $204.99

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Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

IdeaCentre A600 3011-4BU, by Lenovo

Lenovo A600 IdeaCentreThis system is a sleek looking all-in-one computer that has a lot going for it, and would make a cool gift for someone who wants to clean out some of the redundant electronics from their apartment.

It's all black and compact, with a wireless mouse and keyboard that feature delicate orange highlights. The all-in-one design combined with the wireless controls means you have just one cable coming onto the desk – the power cord.

The number of things the A600 tries to do is impressive. It's a PC that can play and burn Blu-ray DVDs, hook up to high-definition cable TV, and operate as a game station. It's got a video camera and microphone built in for those who want to experiment with Skype or other VoIP or video chat applications. Theoretically, you could get rid of your desktop, phone, TV, DVD player and (in theory) game console with this system.

The display screen is a sharp and bright 1900 x 1080 21.5-inch HD LCD. The display tilts to adjust to user preference, but it is possible to get your finger stuck between the bottom of the screen and the base. It's enough of a worry that Lenovo stuck a "watch your hand" warning sticker on it.

It comes loaded with an Intel Core 2Duo P7450 processor, 4GB of memory, a 1TB hard drive, a wireless keyboard and mouse and a four-in-one remote controller.

The remote works great as a mouse and video controller. It can perform as a VoIP handset (didn't try that) and a game controller. As a game controller it’s got nothing on a Wii. Response time is so delayed that it is nearly impossible to play a fun game of golf, but the FlingPC game package is clever in that when the release time is so delayed that the ball drops on the avatar's foot, it hops up and down clutching it.

There were some glitches with the cable TV connections. If the input came from our FiOS set-top box, the A600 could detect a signal but couldn't sync with it. If it came directly from the cable drop in the wall, the A600 couldn't detect a signal at all.

This remains an option as a gift for someone with a small living space assuming they're not heavily into games and can work out the cable connection.

Cool Yule Rating: 3 stars $1,399

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Reviewed by Tim Greene

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