Microsoft has finished work on its updated version of Windows for the rest of us, but it won't hit shelves until September. After nine months of beta testing, Microsoft on Monday released to systems vendors the final version of Windows Millennium Edition, the new consumer edition of its Windows operating system. Some vendors may preload it on systems that ship this summer, but you won't see the packaged edition on shelves until September 14. Microsoft says it wants to give PC vendors plenty of time to implement the new Windows to take advantage of power-management and quick-boot features. The successor to Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows ME promises multimedia bells and whistles for home users as well as home networking tools and technology to protect and restore your system. Despite early plans to build ME on the more stable NT kernel used in Windows 2000, Windows ME still sits atop the DOS foundation of Windows 95. And if you're not ready to upgrade just yet, some Windows ME features are already available separately. You can download Windows Media Player 7 and Internet Explorer 5.5, though the Millennium version of the Media Player has some custom and visualization features. Windows ME raises system requirements from Windows 98 SE, especially if you want to use multimedia. Its minimal requirements are a 150MHz processor, 32MB of memory, and 295MB of hard disk space. To use the Windows Media Player, you need a 166MHz processor, 64MB of memory, and 4MB for each stored song. Windows Movie Maker requires a 300MHz processor (400MHz with a digital camera). You'll need home networking hardware to take advantage of the home networking features. Windows ME includes Windows Media Player 7 for audio and video playback and storage, as well as Movie Maker, a basic video editing program. Windows Media Player 7 adds a jukebox, interface skins, and music database controls. It integrates with the Windows Media Guide Web site so you can find and play Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, and you can even record your CDs as digital files. While you can play MP3 files, the program records only WMA format. Windows Movie Maker doesn't have the full features of Premiere, but it offers basic video editing on your PC. You can compile digital and analog clips with audio tracks into short movies saved in a Microsoft video compression format. This format "supports 300 to 1 compression ratio," says David Ursino, a Windows product manager. "You can fit 23 hours of VHS footage at medium quality into 1GB." If still images are your forte, Microsoft introduces a new software/hardware image standard, Windows Image Acquisition (WIA). It lets you view on your PC images that are in your scanner or digital camera before you download them, Ursino says. And WIA offers easy transfer and organization of images into folders. Of course, your camera or scanner must support WIA format; Microsoft says many digital cameras will be WIA-compatible by the time Windows ME ships. Windows ME also includes a final version of Internet Explorer 5.5, currently available for download in beta. The browser update improves reliability and Internet printing, Ursino says. New online games support includes DirectPlay Voice Chat, which lets players talk across the Internet during a game. Windows ME bundles PC Health services as kind of a PC HMO. Microsoft calls this a more reliable operating environment because its System File Protection tool prevents the accidental overwriting of core Windows system files by third party applications. System File Protection lets Windows play system traffic cop in the background, Ursino says. If you have problems, Windows ME has a help center with problem-solving tools. The AutoUpdate function will check online for file updates, such as drivers, and for applications from Microsoft and others. "You can configure it to download updates when you're online," Ursino says. "It then tells you what update is available and asks if you want to install it." The automated help scans your system but doesn't look at any personal files, and you can deny authorization, Ursino says. The system restore feature lets you roll back your PC to a previous configuration if you accidentally install or reconfigure something that disrupts your PC's settings. "System restore only rolls back the registry and other associated files," Ursino adds. "Personal files don't back up." Millennium Edition performs automated backups periodically, and also when you do an installation. "And Windows ME will only use 12 percent of the hard drive for restore points," he says. It does not keep more than the past few configurations. Windows ME promises streamlined setup and smart menus, and eases desktop clutter by showing icons for the features and applications you use most. The OS also supports hardware improvements like fast boot and better hibernate/resume. Dell has committed to delivering a PC this year that boots in less than 30 seconds, Ursino says. Unlike the Windows 2000 update released earlier this year, Windows ME is designed for the home user. It features setup tours and mouse instruction for novices, and the Home Networking Wizard can help even the more savvy user set up a network among home PCs and peripherals. Improved Internet connection-sharing gives the primary PC a Master IP address. All the networked PCs still need IP addresses, but the master masks the others. Windows ME borrows the TCP/IP stack from Windows 2000. The OS does not include a firewall, but Microsoft may add it later, Ursino says. Improved USB networking support means Windows ME works with additional USB networking products, and the OS promises the first implementation of Microsoft's long-discussed Universal Plug and Play.