Introduction: How to Build a Decorative HTPC

Picture of How to Build a Decorative HTPC

Why a HTPC?

A HTPC (Home Theater PC) is generally an easy, affordable build if the primary purpose is to stream video (e.g. Netflix, etc.). Even if you are using something like a Roku, having a PC in the mix expands the functionality of your entertainment center and is not dependant on what kind of TV you have. One nice thing about a HTPC for streaming or light computer activities (versus a gaming rig) is that you can generally use HDMI out and not have to worry so much about the graphics card (or even the CPU for that matter). Just about any modern motherboard will work for you.

The driver for this project was the roll-out of Steam In-Home Streaming. The thought of being able to play my games on my big screen and just use a small HTPC as the front end was too good to be true! Plus I wanted to explore using XBMC (X-Box Media Center) and perhaps setting up a DVR for over-the-air broadcasts.

In the end it turned out that I use XBMC just about every day. The Steam streaming is cool, but I really have not had a chance to do much with it.

Safety

Depending on how much wood working you want to do, this can be an extremely safe Instructable. The main things are to allow for plenty of ventilation when painting, staining, etc.

However, if you are going to be using power tools (e.g. table saw, router, etc.), remember:

  • Eye protection! You won’t enjoy your HTPC if you can’t see.
  • Hearing protection! You won’t enjoy our HTPC if you can’t hear.
  • Hand protection! You won’t be able to use your cool little QWERTY remote if you don’t have thumbs.

Step 1: Materials

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Materials

PC Components

After a little homework I found out about the ASRock AM1H-ITX motherboard and that it only needs a 19V external power supply. The specs are good enough to meet my needs for this build. So I went to PCPartPicker.com to help pick out the rest of the bits and pieces. That’s a convenient site to visit if you are doing any kind of a PC build. Here is what my PC build looks like (prices are approximate):

  • Motherboard: ASRock AM1H-ITX – the magic in this little guy was 1) small mini-ITX footprint; and most importantly, 2) I could use an external 19 volt adaptor and not a regular PC power supply! - $60
  • CPU: AMD Athlon 5350 2 Ghz - $60
  • RAM: 4GB RAM – Crucial DDR3 - $35
  • Hard drive: 120GB SSD – Corsair Force LS Series solid state drive - $75
  • Power Supply – 90W/19V/4.74A - $15
  • Keyboard – FAVI FE02RF-BL, 2.4GHz wireless mini keyboard - $30
  • USB Hub/Card reader - $5
  • Cables – Cat5, HDMI, etc. - $36
  • Switches, LED lights – salvaged materials

Other Materials

  • ¾” plywood Metal speaker grill
  • Screws, nylon spacers, lamp cord channel, shrink wrap tubing
  • Stain, polyurethane, flat black spray paint

Total cost (including misc items): $335

Step 2: Design and Software

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Design considerations

For my machine, I wanted to get the basic functionality of a HTPC (e.g. quiet, wired network access, HDMI output, low power usage, etc.). Plus, as with everything else I do, I wanted to get the biggest bang for the buck (and keep it under $200-300).

When I stumbled across a motherboard that did not need a traditional power supply, I realized I did not need a traditional case. Since I did not need a case, I had more flexibility on how I housed this guy. Plus the entire noise issue seems to disappear when you do not have to use a regular PC power supply or worry about air flow in a case.

Aside from the power supply issue, minimizing the number of cables is something you probably want to consider. Keep in mind that HDMI cables also run audio. So if you use HDMI to connect the HTPC to your TV, then you don’t need to worry about RCA audio cables.

I happen to have a nice curved metal speaker grill that I salvaged from a guitar amp just waiting to be used for something. The grill seemed to be about the right size to cover the PC components. So I just decided to keep things simple (and cheap) and mount the PC on a board and use the metal grill as a cover.

Primary Software

Steam and XBMC were the main reasons I wanted to build this in the first place, so I only focused on getting those two loaded. After I got everything up and running, it also worked great as a browser, etc. You could lay out PowerPoint slides, Excel spreadsheets or type an email to your grandma on your 60” screen if you wanted to.

Step 3: Mounting Board

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Mounting board layout

My “case” was essentially going to be a piece of plywood with a metal grill over it. One of the nice things about using wood is that it’s easy to process and you usually end up with something half-way decent looking.

  • The mounting board needed to be thick enough to hide cables behind. So I used ¾” thick plywood.
  • Using the grill dimensions as my starting point (9.25” x 11.75”), I made the mounting board about ½” wider than the grill on the top and sides. The bottom is 1” longer for the “control panel”. The final dimensions of the mounting board were 10.25” x 13.25”.
  • I laid out the motherboard and hard drive to get an idea where to drill the access holes. I then drilled ¾” holes as needed. Similarly, I drilled the holes for the rest of the buttons and lights at this time.
  • To have a place to hide the wires, I routed out a cavity in the back about 3/8” deep. I would have done a little more work in this area but my router happened to crap out on me while doing this.
  • To finish up the woodworking part, I stained and polyurethaned the plywood. The grill was sprayed with flat black paint.
  • I made the stand-offs for the grill using 2.5” threaded lamp rods covered in black shrink wrap. These turned out to be the perfect height so the grill could clear the CPU fan.

Step 4: Installing the Components (Lights, Switches and Motherboard)

Picture of Installing the Components (Lights, Switches and Motherboard)

Installing the components

Securing everything to the mounting board was pretty straightforward.

  • I started with the buttons and lights. I put a little silicone sealant in the holes to help hold those items in place. The LED lights have a little collar on them – I used a step drill to drill in from the back so the light bulb end would have its little hole to peak through and the collar would have a bigger space to snuggle up in.
  • I used black plastic spacers for the motherboard mounts. The black-headed screws were a little too big for the motherboard holes, so I had to drill the holes out a little.
  • The solid state hard drive was super light and I used hook and loop fasteners for that.
  • Prior to actually screwing everything down, I ran all the I/O cables and connected them to the motherboard. I probably should have had a bigger opening for the main access hole. Things got tight in there and even after I slimmed down the CAT5 cable, I still had to put things back in a certain order.
  • Once all of that was completed, I worked on the back to secure and hide the cables.

Step 5: Installing the Components (Cabling)

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More pictures relating to installing the components.

Step 6: Loading Windows/Testing

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Loading Windows/Testing

Getting Windows 7 installed took me longer than I would have expected. Between the solid state drive, different drivers for different SATA ports on the same motherboard, an external DVD drive to install Windows from, needing more USB 2.0 ports than I had and having to buy a newer service pack version of Win 7, it actually took me a few days to get Windows up and running.

But once I got all the drivers and Windows 7 going, the system proved to be very responsive.

Step 7: Mounting the Unit on the Wall

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Mounting the unit on the wall

Now that I had the OS in place I was ready to mount everything in its new home. This part was relatively easy as the wall I was using opened up into the utility/laundry area. All I really needed to do is open up an access hole for the cabling.

  • To secure the HTPC to the wall, I drilled a hole behind the SSD and screwed through the drywall that had an additional small piece of wood on the other side. Since the drive was only attached with Velcro, it was easy to put back in place.
  • All the cables go through one big access hole in the wall.
  • The USB hub/card reader is attached a little lower on the wall. The hub has a blue LED that is always on, so it actually works as a night light when all the lights are off in the basement. Having the hub mounted like that is probably a little wonky looking compared to what I did on the actual HTPC – but it turned out to be rather functional that way. In addition to the “night light”, it’s easy to hook up a gaming keyboard and mouse with the hub at that level.
  • Once I attached the black grill, the wall mounting part was essentially done.

Step 8: Loading and Testing Steam/XBMC

Picture of Loading and Testing Steam/XBMC

Loading and Testing Steam/XBMC

With the HTPC in its final location, I then did the final loading of the Steam client and XBMC.

  • Steam - Installing Steam is pretty non-eventful. Once all the Steam streaming stuff gets installed, you just need to start your game on the gaming PC and work on your settings from there. The main issue with streaming is that you MUST have a wired network connection – as is having a gigabit network. Since we have not used the streaming service that much, there’s not much I can say. It’s easy to get going, the game play is fun and you can get a decent frame rate. It’s funny, the Steam streaming service was the reason I started to think about doing this in the first place. But…
  • XBMC! This is where I REALLY enjoy this thing. XBMC (X-Box Media Center) is outstanding! I won’t go into great detail about XBMC, but I will say that it opens up an entire new arena of streaming media options. Between XBMC and the Roku, I have no reason to leave home (except to go to work and get groceries on the way home). XBMC is very responsive on this system and the streaming has been outstanding. I don’t think I get 1080p very often, but 720 happens all the time.

Step 9: Remote Control

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Remote Control

Getting the right remote is what makes or breaks a HTPC. I was using a keyboard/mouse originally because I was thinking I would only use this for Steam. But I found using a full sized keyboard and trying to use a mouse on the couch wasn’t happening for watching content with XBMC. Enter the FAVI Mini-Keyboard.

· FAVI FE02RF-BL Mini 2.4 GHz Wireless Keyboard – This one was about $30 on Amazon. This little guy has a full QWERTY keyboard and touchpad, backlit keys, great connectivity for my set up (about 10’ max between couch and receiver). I did have to move the USB receiver from the HTPC down to the USB hub to get the best reception (I wonder if the metal grill I’m using messed with the reception). The battery life is about 3-4 weeks before it needs recharging. It’s very easy to thumb type on this, great tactile feedback. Check out the on-line reviews on these. I definitely recommend getting one of these for a HTPC.

Step 10: Closing Thoughts and Next Steps

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Closing Thoughts

I’ve literally built dozens of PCs through the years of various conventional and odd-ball designs. This one is probably the most successful special purpose PC's I’ve done so far (from a design and performance standpoint). I haven’t even started exploring any DVR possibilities yet. I’ve been using this about 2 months now and here are some of my thoughts so far:

  • The HTPC on the wall is a cool conversation piece. I’m very pleased with the aesthetics and functionality of the build.
  • Performance is outstanding for HTPC use.
  • There are ZERO issues with noise. You have to put your ear right up next to the fan to hear anything – and you don’t hear much.
  • Video quality is as good as the source you are able to access.
  • Audio is as good as your amp set up.
  • XBMC is the greatest thing since sliced bread (and it’s free – you still have to pay for bread… even if it’s not sliced). This complements the Roku extremely well.
  • The FAVI remote is a winner.
  • Steam streaming gaming works, but it’s not super convenient when you are sitting on the couch. I’m waiting for the Steam controller before I make final judgment.

Next Steps?

  • I want to explore using this as a DVR for over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts. I can use my network attached storage, or just connect to another hard drive to store material.
  • I would like to try something like this again with a Raspberry Pi for one of our other TVs. If I use a Pi, I think I would just Velcro it to the back of the TV though. The Pi could be another XBMC box, but also access the NAS (or whatever) for recorded OTA content. The problem with Pi is that it’s only a Linux box and that alone limits much of the functionality.

Please let me know if you see anything that needs corrections or clarification – or just let me know if you have a question. Thanks for looking!

Comments

scristian (author)2014-12-23

Great project, I was just wondering why use an SSD over a normal HDD since it would cost like 60$ and have way more space for storrage.

An SSD is also way faster than an HDD

fishpotpete (author)scristian2014-12-23

That's a great question about the HD. My thoughts doing it this way were:

1. I never used a SSD before and thought it was a good time to start :-) Plus you do get a little more quiet with solid state.

2. I've got a NAS and if I was going to go the DVR route, I would want storage on the network anyway so the rest of the house could easily get to stuff.

bob.surface (author)2015-05-11

Hi,

Your theory about the grill messing with your 2.4 GHz wireless is spot-on.

Microwaves (which they are) are quite happy to bounce off a loose grill.

In fact, if you look at any satty receiver, you'll see 99% of them are grill mesh, because microwaves are more or less the same size as the mesh - so they just bounce off the metal and don't really fit through the holes.

The holes on your mesh are a bit larger, but they'll still block a good percentage of the microwaves.

fishpotpete (author)bob.surface2015-05-11

That's really good to know. So a metal grill can be a blessing or a curse depending on what your end goal is :o) Thanks for the comment!

jasondev (author)2014-12-23

Doing a xbmc raspberry pi is very easy much easier than on pc and it boots direct to xbmc. I used open elec as a os on the PI it works very very well especially with NAS.

milegrin (author)jasondev2014-12-28

OpenElec (www.openelec.tv) is brilliant for a HTPC and based on XBMC (now called Kodi). Stripped down to do what it needs with no frivolous processes wasting RAM & CPU and best of all; saves you that very expensive Windows licence.

Plex (www.plex.tv); also based on XBMC/Kodi; is excellent but requires a "server" and "client" setup for optimal operation but if you are going that route anyway (you mentioned a NAS) it may be a better match for you than OpenElec or XBMC on winblows.

Both OpenElec & Plex work well booting from Class10 SD/microSD if you don't have a budget for a SSD like me.

I use Plex at Home and OpenElec on my Raspberry Pi b+ with an external drive when on holiday.

Obviously if you are going to game etc on your HTPC as well, then you would need to dual boot for windows if you go the Plex or OpenElec route.

richardjw (author)milegrin2015-01-07

The only way to get XBMC to run reliably as a DTV/DVR is to overclock the heck out of it, not to mention most USB TV sticks are generally SD and the TV channels mostly transmit in HD. Of course Im talking from Austtralia and I was trying to get a RaspberryPi + HD HomeRun + XBMC. The only thing I havent tried yet is to put the Pi and Homerun on its own router to speed up the process. I ended up giving up (and so did a lot of others I have spoken to). But I look forward to Pi developments.

legless (author)richardjw2015-01-18

Really? I have several USB TV tuner sticks and they all do HD as well as SD.

milegrin (author)richardjw2015-01-07

I have a RPi B & B+ which I have OpenElec running on with no problems; both with media on a network share and USB drive plugged straight into them but don't use TV sticks.

When I received the B+ a few weeks ago I loaded OpenElec 5 based on latest Kodi (XBMC renamed to Kodi) and it is a marked improvement so make sure it is not just the B+ vs B, I did the same on the RPi B and works like a charm.

I use my RPi primarily when on holiday or not at home (Scouts, friends etc) as I already had small PC as an OpenElec dedicated media player.

I love the RPi and it works well!

g dude (author)2015-01-08

Just as a note for anyone who may have a hard time finding XBMC, it has recently switched names to Kodi.

Just thought I would let you know

fishpotpete (author)2015-01-07

I just wanted to comment on Linux since a lot of people keep mentioning it. I've been a Linux (i.e. Ubuntu) fan for many years and always have at least one of my machines running a somewhat current version. But for compatibility and ease of use out of the box, nothing beats Windows. If you are comfortable using Linux - go for it. But it's not ready for the average user. For it to get more mainstream they need to loose the obscure nomenclature, the copy/paste of lines of code (lines of code? are you serious?), hours of homework just to get some of the simplest things to work, etc.

lee.layton.10 (author)2015-01-07

I agree with the others recommending Linux. Steam In-Home streaming will stream from your Windows gaming rig to Linux just fine. Once your gaming needs are covered, there's no more need for Windows. Save yourself the $100, and use that license elsewhere.

JeffS2 (author)2014-12-23

very cool! I was actually thinking of taking my old asus p8p67 and converting it into a HTPC. Although I would have to get a graphics card because it does not have any HDMI out ports. I'll have to find something fan less. The goal is ti keep it whisper quiet like yours. I love the design and the mounting on the wall (I know my wife might give me a problem with that...But I think it's sick!) I also like the fact that you didn't have to use a traditional power supply as they are definitely noisy. Very cool brah!

Alderin (author)JeffS22014-12-23

It doesn't necessarily need to be fanless to be quiet. Often using a larger or better built fan will reduce the noise to almost nothing. Having a mostly open case like this allows for more airflow than a standard computer case that acts in some ways like an oven. In my experience, most desktop computer noise comes from the (typically cheap) power supply fan. I've only had one noisy graphics card fan, and that was because it was dying. I replaced the little thing (40mm) with a slot-mounted fan next to the graphics card that was 80mm, and no more noticeable noise. (and I didn't have to shell out $100+ for a replacement videocard!)

JeffS2 (author)Alderin2014-12-23

I have a desktop PC that I use for my CAD and gaming and I use an open case and routinely blow it clean with compressed air. I just like the look of the components. I have a couple 120mm fans to just circulate air over the MB and a couple 80mm fans to cool that mechanical HD's. I have the BIOS set to run the fans at a low rpm and stop under a certain temperature. It's almost silent but I still here the Graphics card fans and the CPU fan. I wish I could get it to be completely silent but I also don't want to risk frying anything. Any ideas?

Alderin (author)JeffS22014-12-24

Going for actual "complete silence" is hard for a high performance desktop. The 120mm fans do a great job of reducing noise, especially if they are good quality. You can replace the CPU heatsink/fan combo with a larger one, and if you are skilled or brave, you can rig replacements for the GPU heatsink/fan, either the whole combination or just the fan. This still won't be complete silence, but a step in the right direction.

Though once you've got this noise down, the noise from the mechanical hard drives might start to annoy you :-) .
A studio trick is to use long video, mouse, keyboard, and audio cables,
and leave the computer in a separate room. This works great for not hearing the fans or drives, and HDMI helps a ton with clear signals, but not all of us have a
separate room to use. A "soundproof" box can work, if you have the space to build it, but you can get an oven effect if you aren't careful.

The next level is to move to liquid cooling, which allows for a huge radiator and large slow-moving fan to cool all of the larger heat producers. Not for the faint of heart or short of money, I've only built one of these, but it was NICE. There are "water cooling" kits available now, and some cases are available with water cooling features built in, but I don't think silence is a big focus for those (I could be wrong, though).

The highest level, both for complexity and silence, is mineral oil submersion cooling with a "silent" pump. Mineral oil is non-conductive, holds more heat than air, so the thermal dissipation is better than the components expect, and it is viscous so it will dampen all the system fan noises. Since you like to see your components, a clear plastic waterproof case (or a 5 gallon fish tank) for the motherboard, power supply and GPU, filled with mineral oil. The fans will keep working if you leave them in, but slower. Higher quality fans will probably work better, but no computer fans were built to push mineral oil. Do not submerge mechanical hard drives, they have vents and air pressure requirements and will likely die if filled with mineral oil. I've seen this method done twice, one with a pump and radiator, and one without a pump (relied on the fans), neither had issues but I think the pump and radiator is a better idea.

Hope this helps!

milegrin (author)Alderin2014-12-28

We have a old PC running in Mineral Oil at the office in a fish tank; looks great and is major discussion point for visitors who initially think it is running in water ;)

JeffS2 (author)Alderin2014-12-24

Yeah, seen the mineral oil...looks to messy and not the solution I'm looking for. I have seen liquid cooling but the radiators require fans so what's the point. I really want to build my system in a desk under a viewing window and house the components inside with vent tubes for an inlet and outlet and pump air across the area. One day I will make my desk....one day!!! 3 kids and my own business don't allow for that amount of free time yet.

Thanks for the input and suggestions....I did have one question that I actually think I already know the answer to. Why need fans in mineral oil setup? Is that because you still need to circulate the oil thus moving the warmer oil away from the components and cooler oil into them? I always thought that was kind of silly but I guess the oil could heat in the genera area and still hold a higher temp then the ambient temp of the oil. Thanks and have a merry Christmas and happy new year!

asdadeel (author)2014-12-28

thank you

hrojas3 (author)2014-12-25

Muchas gracias Saludos desde México, < thanks from México>

mgkbull (author)2014-12-25

Yes, that metal grill will hinder wireless signals

nerocon (author)2014-12-23

If you like xbmc you should check out Plex, its a commercial (sorta) version of xbmc. It has all the same functions as XBMC and more. The only part that costs is the android/ios apps for mobile streaming. There is also a premium sub called plex pass that gets you even more features. Ive bounced around many of the different media server solutions out there (xbmc, plex, MSMC, playon, to name a few) and Plex has won hands down imo, with xbmc a close runner up.

ironsmiter (author)2014-12-20

Looks quite good!
And great choices on the hardware!

If adding tuner for dvr function... silicon dust dual tuner. Cant recommend it enough. BUT, make sure to wire it directly to the htpc. Using a router inbetween gave me weekly headaches, as win7(pro, wmc) would constantly lose contact with one of the tuners. After going direct connect, I lost network access to the tuners from other computers, but the dvr pc never again failed to record.
Using network storage can be glitchy, if not using gigabit ethernet(and since network tuner is wired directly, you may/will need a second ethernet connection or reliable 802.11 n. I use a mini usb wifi stick) Fix for that issue is, record to local drive, and backup recordings to betwork storage daily/weekly with a script. Then set recordings on local drive to be deleted when space is 'low'.

sspeed (author)ironsmiter2014-12-23

Would you put the second Ethernet on a different subnet or how would you manage the routing table for this suggestion?

ironsmiter (author)sspeed2014-12-23

The first ethernet is used as a direct link to the tuner. When I set mine up, after using a standard ethernet cable(crosstalk cable not required. The tuners are "smart") to connect them, the tuner software detected it, and away you go.
When the second wifi or ethernet connection is made, it does not intefere. I suppose on a rare occasion, with fixed ip addresses and custom routing tables, you may have conflicts to resolve, but for me it was just plug n play.
There IS a delay in detecting the tuner of around 1 or 2 min. You can eliminate that by setting the computers ethernet port to a static ip of 169.254.0.x range and a subnet of 255.255.0.0 with no gateway setting needed.

ironsmiter (author)ironsmiter2014-12-23

Sorry, those static settings are for the ethernet port connected to the tuner. Hope that clears it up.

fishpotpete (author)ironsmiter2014-12-20

Thanks for the suggestions! That's exactly why that's something I'll try later :-) I'll come back and review your thoughts here when I get to that point...

Alderin (author)2014-12-23

Great project! The grill look is very cool there on the wall, and the curve keeps it from looking like it sticks out very far. I love your lamp piece standoffs and your use of heat shrink. I winced HARD at the part where you drilled out the holes on the motherboard! I'm honestly a little surprised it still works after that.

I'm sure the grill did have an effect on your keyboard range, but I think that is a good thing, as it means the grill is also dampening the radio frequencies coming off your processor and memory. Less unwanted interference with other wireless devices.

As for the mention of the Raspberry Pi in step 10: the "problem" with the Pi isn't
that it is Linux only, but that it is not nearly as powerful as a currently available
desktop machine, even a low-level ITX like the one you got. The default, non-overclocked processor speed is 700mhz,
and it only has 512mb ram. Even if it could run Windows 7 (wrong architecture), Windows would crawl at a speed near useless.

Linux is only limiting in what commercial
games are available. For everything else you'd want to do on a computer,
Linux is the complete opposite of limiting: it is open and free.

Again, great work on the project!

sspeed (author)2014-12-23

Very cool idea to mount it on the wall, had never thought of doing that.

sgsax (author)2014-12-23

Really nice Instructable. Good detail and description of your process. End product looks really nice and obviously functional, too. Might I suggest that if you're using XBMC and Steam, ditch Windows and go for Linux instead. I think you'll find the performance and stability superior. Both of these have native Linux versions that run quite nicely.

sspeed (author)sgsax2014-12-23

I've found XBMC and Steam on Windows to be extremely responsive and stable.

wrsexton (author)2014-12-23

A tip for your next router use. On the outside of boards, move the router around the edge counter clockwise. On the inside edges of cuts, move the router around CLOCKWISE. Makes life much easier as the router is easier to control.

Great looking htpc!!

juan232 (author)2014-12-23

I see what my next project is going to be. Thank you for sharing.

nangulo de ugarte (author)2014-12-23

Good project! If you use a Pi, I recomend this VESA mount cover (like this: https://www.adafruit.com/product/986), it is better than the velcro. Congrats for the well done project!

rpotts2 (author)2014-12-19

that is one clean looking PC...

JosePablo (author)2014-12-19

This is awesome!!!

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Bio: I'm just a compulsive DIYer that plays guitar and tries to fix just about everything around the house and garage. Sometimes I even succeed!
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