Using a Windows computer can still be a tricky and treacherous affair. This was the inspiration for the Easy PC Initiative, which Microsoft and Intel hatched at last year's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference.

But at this year's WinHEC, the two firms acknowledge that they still have a long way to go.

"We're really happy with what we've accomplished. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us," says Steve Whalley, Ease of Use Initiative manager for Intel.

The upcoming Windows ME operating system represents a huge step toward delivering on the Easy PC Initiative, adds Dave Alles, product unit manager for Microsoft's Consumer Windows Group.

The Easy PC initiative targets five main trouble spots.

The first is improving the "out of box experience." The company is aiming for a 15 minute setup time. Microsoft says it has removed the number of time-consuming setup screens and licensing agreements from the initial startup process and PC manufacturers can do their part by having systems pre-configured with an Internet service provider that the user selects at the time of purchase.

Second is ease of expansion, through the use of Universal Serial Bus or IEEE 1394 FireWire connections to add devices. Microsoft says Windows ME has expanded support for USB devices and comes preloaded with most of the drivers needed for peripherals.

Third, Microsoft urges vendors to make a push toward legacy-free systems, by replacing serial and parallel ports with USB. New PCs should help bury older technology, such as ISA slots.

Fourth on the list is ease of use. Windows ME will offer faster recovery from hibernation (as little as 18 seconds) and fast 25-second boot-up times, as well as PC health improvements, such as "self-healing" technology. If a needed Windows file is missing or damaged, for example, Windows ME will reinstall the file instead of displaying a cryptic error message.

Fifth is the perceived ease of use and entertainment value. These concerns are addressed in sleekly styled PCs such as Gateway's Astro PC, Compaq's EZ2000, and Dell's WebPC. Intel's Whalley says consumers are turned off by towering beige PC boxes that remind them of the nasty old problem PCs of yesteryear. "We want to extend PCs into rooms we want people to use them in," he says. "And people don't want big boxy towers."