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“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

It’s a tired saw, quoted in articles on topics from interviewing for jobs to designing websites. But it concisely conveys a basic truth of human nature: we draw conclusions about new experiences, new people, and new things very quickly. My first encounter with Microsoft’s new Windows Vista was no exception.

Last week, I installed the “RC1” version of Vista–officially post-beta but still not yet ready for prime time–on two computers. My experiences on the two machines were quite different, but my overall impression was the same: Microsoft has a long way to go in the next three months if it hopes Vista will revive its image the way that Mac OS X revitalized Apple’s.

Installing Vista on two computers might seem a bit excessive, but the Windows operating system is made for two different kinds of processors: 32-bit and 64-bit. By working with bigger chunks of data, the newer 64-bit processors can better handle intensive tasks such as video editing and playing advanced games. But most desktop and laptop computers in use–and plenty of those on store shelves–have older 32-bit processors, so Microsoft built two versions of Vista.

I started by installing the 32-bit version of Vista on an older Dell Latitude laptop. While it’s possible to upgrade from Windows XP to 32-bit Vista–leaving all of your programs and data intact–I elected to do a clean install. Downloading Vista and burning a bootable DVD was simple, and the installation went smoothly.

My first reaction: Vista looks slick. The old squared-off windows now have rounded corners. The rectangular “start” button in the lower-left corner of the screen has been supplanted by a spiffy circle with the Windows logo. A transparent rectangle, called the Sidebar, runs down the right side of the screen. The Sidebar holds “gadgets,” mini-applications that provide quick access to frequently needed information and tools. Vista comes with 11 such gadgets, 3 of which load the first time you start up: an analog-style clock, a slideshow viewer, and a newsreader with a collection of headlines from and Microsoft. It’s all unquestionably reminiscent of the Dashboard and Widgets in Apple’s Mac OS X Tiger.

Of all the Sidebar applications, the Feed Headlines gadget–which can be customized with your favorite RSS feeds–stands out. Although Apple and the Mac community have created more than 2,300 Widgets to date, I have yet to find an RSS newsreader as flexible as Vista’s.

The new Instant Search feature is also handy but, again, reminiscent of OS X. As with Apple’s Spotlight, search boxes appear at the top of every window, making it easy to hunt down the file you’re seeking. And searching with Instant Search is both faster and more effective than searching in Windows XP. After copying files from my personal PC to the test laptop, I typed “DNA sequencing” into the search box.

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