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Germanium-doped silicon oxide thin films were deposited at low temperature by using an improved helicon plasma assisted reactive evaporation technique. The origins of hydrogen contamination in the film were investigated, and were found to be H incorporation during deposition and postdeposition water absorption. The H incorporation during deposition was avoided by using an effective method to eliminate the residual hydrogen present in the deposition system. The microstructure, chemical bonds, chemical etch rate, and optical index of the films were studied as a function of the deposition conditions. Granular microstructures were observed in low-density films, and were found to be the cause of postdeposition water absorption. The granular microstructure was eliminated and the film was densified by increasing the helicon plasma power and substrate bias during deposition. A high-density film was shown to have no postdeposition water absorption and no OH detected by using a Fourier-transform infrared spectrometer. © 2003 American Vacuum Society.