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Thin ZnO and ZnO:Al films have been prepared by reactive dc magnetron sputtering, using both metallic and ceramic targets. The influence of oxygen flow and total pressure on film stress, structure, texture, and surface roughness has been examined. The properties of the films strongly depend on the deposition conditions, in particular the total pressure. Increasing the pressure from 0.5 to 2 Pa resulted in rougher, and less strained films. Increasing the oxygen flow at a constant total pressure led to a slight increase in stress, but had no visible effect on the surface roughness. Structural investigations by x-ray diffraction (XRD) showed that polycrystalline films with pronounced preferential orientation were formed. Most XRD-spectra showed a coexistence of strained and unstrained ZnO in wurtzite structure. The relative abundance of the relaxed phase is a function of the intrinsic stress only, and does not directly depend on deposition parameters. However, the deposition parameters determine the stress within the film, and thus influence the amount of the relaxed grains. © 2002 American Vacuum Society.