Microsoft is set to release Monday a beta version of an update to its Windows CE operating system for handheld devices, set-top boxes and other limited-function computing devices.

The Technology Preview Kit for Windows CE 5.0, formerly code-named Macallan, will be provided to developers attending the Embedded Systems Conference in San Francisco. Microsoft plans to make it available for download later in the week through its Microsoft Developer Network site for embedded developers.

Windows CE is a stripped-down version of the Windows operating system intended for use on computing devices other than PCs and servers. It's the basis for the Windows Mobile software used in handheld computers and runs an array of special-purpose devices, from automotive systems to sewing machines.

Enhancements in the new version of the OS include an array of prebuilt drivers covering common hardware components and configurations, said John Starkweather, group product manager for Microsoft's Windows Embedded group. That means developers can concentrate on features rather than hardware tweaking, he said.

"We looked at, 'what are our top scenarios?'...and (decided) let's put some of those drivers in the box," Starkweather said. "We are saving a significant amount of time for developers."

Windows CE 5.0 also includes several security enhancements intended to guard against potential threats such as viruses or data theft.

"Our customers have said, 'What can we do to lock these things down better?'" Starkweather said. "We're showing you how to build a device in the most secure way possible. We've done as much as we can on our end to turn on the security features by default."

The new Windows CE will also include an automated error-reporting system similar to the Dr. Watson tool used in desktop versions of Windows. Microsoft is also adding Direct3D Mobile, a mobile-friendly version of its DirectX graphics library for PC games.

"We continue to see a lot of interest in multimedia and mobile gaming, and we want to make it easier to implement that," Starkweather said.

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