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Oct

08

DIY: Build Your Own Screen Savers With Stardust

 Desktop Enhancement

There are hundreds of screen savers you can download from FindApp. What if you want something that nobody has already created? For instance, suppose you want to create a custom screen saver to promote a new product you're releasing. Or you might like your screen saver to show the smiling faces of your family, or perhaps your stock portfolio with current pricing.

To create a screen saver, you could hire a professional programmer, or you could use one of the many excellent tools available on FindApp. These tools let anyone create custom screen savers quickly and easily. I selected Stardust Screen Saver Toolkit 2004to review because it is extremely powerful and easy to learn and use.

Screen Saver Toolkit uses a simple wizard interface. There are two types of screen saver you can create: media-based “Classic” or web-based “WebSaver”:

Classic projects can combine all types of media, including bitmap images, movie files, and audio clips. Flash animations are also supported.

I am a fan of old cartoons, so for this blog I will create a screen saver that uses short clips from classic animation. I used Auto Movie Creator's automatic scene detection to create short clips from some cartoons, then added them to Stardust.

The next screen of the wizard sets options for the program's distribution and setup:

 

You can select from many options to have the screen saver behave exactly the way you want. Using these features doesn't just let you create a professional-quality screensaver, it lets you add touches like the readme file, limited-time trials, and built-in support for user payments and unlocking. For this example, which is free, I won't bother with any of these things. The Add-ons are free programs from Stardust which you can optionally add to your screensaver if you choose.

Click Next here and pick from the Settings. This section shows the real power of the Screen Saver Toolkit.

You can control the behavior of the screen saver completely here, everything from the delay between each media file to how the mouse should work when the screen saver is playing. You can also control how the much control the user has. For instance, you can allow users to turn the audio off, or even change the order in which the files are played.

The next screen of the wizard shows that this program has been around for a while: one setup option lets you put your screen saver on 1.44 mb floppy disks! With this program you have lots of options, including creation of a single EXE file, which is what most people will use. You also get to design your setup window, including the text that appears and the background color.

Click Next, and the program builds your screen saver. Stardust creates a standard Windows installer.

The whole process, including making the video clips, took me less than half an hour. If you already have photos, movies, and/or Flash animations to use, you could create a professional-quality screen saver in only a few minutes.

The other type of screen saver you can create is a WebSaver. This very simply loads a web page if your system remains idle for too long. This can be interesting if you pick a site that is attractive and fun to look at. I created a simple screen saver that loads the NASA Astronomy Image of the Day to test this feature

Stardust Screen Saver Toolkit 2004 is a simple, powerful tool to create slick screen savers with a professional feel. You can find it, along with other fine alternatives, in the Desktop Enhancementcategory of FindApp.com.

Aug

02

Three Powerful Help Authoring Tools

 Development

Providing help is a vital part of software development. A well-written help file makes a huge difference in how a user feels about your software.  Good help makes you look professional and user-focused.  Poor help files can make your program seem amateurish.  Of course, a good user guide or manual makes learning anything easier.

In this article I'm going to compare three help authoring tools: Help & Manual, HelpNDoc, and WinCHM. All three share the same basic features.  All three have an HTML editor that can create tables of contents and indexes. Each can compile standalone help files and web help. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The differences between the programs are fascinating and show that their developers started their projects with very different ideas.

Help & Manual is a "big gun" in the help authoring business.  The developers have tried hard to include every feature that will be useful to any documentation author.  It creates your final documentation in almost any form you might want:  HTML Help (CHM file), Web Help, PDF files, Microsoft Word, and a proprietary ebook format.  The built-in editor makes it quite easy to generate the content of your user documents.  The user interface uses the new "Ribbon"design from the latest Microsoft Office, instead of having the familiar pull-down menus at the top of the window.

Figure 1: Help & Manual User Interface

I found Help & Manual to be quite easy to learn and use, and very fast on both Windows XP and Windows Vista systems.  There is extensive support for templates, making it easy to standardize the look of documentation.  One very useful feature is built-in support for translation, allowing you to generate multi-lingual documentation easily.  Support for command-line operation also lets you script the process of creating documents in the required formats.

Help & Manual can import help files created by other programs, which makes it easy to switch from another product to this one.  However, an experienced help author will notice a few features missing.  Because this product stores projects as XML rather than HTML files, there is no support for CSS. If you have been using a stylesheet to control the appearance of your documents, you will have to recreate the same look using the Help & Manual templates.  Also, if you have been using HTML tags like <H2> and <H3> you will need to redefine these in Help & Manual after importing your Help files, then reformat them all to use these tags.  If you're willing to invest a bit of effort in learning its features and converting existing projects, this is a powerful and very useful program.

HelpNDoc is a very well-designed program.  It's a fine choice for someone who is starting as a Help author for the first time.  The Table of Contents editor is extremely intuitive and easy to use. HelpNDoc includes a complete word processor/HTML editor that makes it simple to create content pages. A single HelpNDoc project can be compiled to a Windows Help file (CHM), a PDF, a Word document, and an HTML web help document in a single operation.  A very useful feature is the ability to link external documents to your Help project.  For instance, you can say that the topic "Frequently Asked Questions" is a Word document stored on your file server. This makes it easy to collaborate with other people on a Help project. Each person can work on their own documents, and HelpNDoc automatically combines them all into the final documentation.  Like Help & Manual, it has a powerful command-line interface.  This is the only product I reviewed that has code generators for development environments like C++ and Delphi, making it easier for developers to incorporate help files into their own final products.

Figure 2: HelpNDoc


There are some areas where HelpNDoc falls short.  It has no ability to import help files or projects from any other format.  You must completely re-create any existing help files from scratch in HelpNDoc when migrating.  Also, there is no built-in support for templates.  Because of this, there is no way to automatically enforce a standard appearance for all the pages in your project.

WinCHM has a clean, simple interface. I found this the easiest program to learn to use.  Of the three products reviewed, WinCHM has the best support for importing existing help files, which is important if you are thinking of changing editors.  Their page editor is also simple and easy to understand.  Of the three, it is the most like the free HTML Help Editor from Microsoft, so it will seem familiar if you have used that program.

 

Figure 3: WinCHM

After using several programs in this category, I got the distinct feeling that the WinCHM authors deliberately left out some features to keep their product as simple as possible.  This software is a good choice for relatively smaller projects which don't require the advanced features supplied by some other products.  It's also an excellent upgrade for documentation authors who have been using HTML Help Workshop, because the migration will be simple.

Which help authoring tool is right for you?  If you produce help files in multiple languages, you should definitely evaluate Help & Manual.  It is the most expensive of the three, and also extremely powerful and capable. HelpNDoc is a fine tool, especially if you don't have existing help documentation to maintain. WinCHM is definitely the easiest to learn and you can be productive very quickly, and it's a good choice if you are migrating from the HTML Help Workshop.  Of course, the beauty of shareware from FindApp is that you can download all three and see which one is best for you!

Jun

02

Create Animated Demos with TurboDemo

 Business | Graphic Design

Everyone knows that a picture is worth 1000 words.  When you're trying to explain something, a moving picture can be worth 1000 stills.  Animated demos and marketing pieces can explain and persuade. They hold the audience's attention better and are more compelling than just using words and written text for many purposes.

There are several programs that create animated demos, including Flash Demo Builder and Viewlet Builder.  I'm going to review TurboDemo, one of the most popular.

For this review, I tested TurboDemo by creating a short tutorial on using FindApp.  To begin, I recorded myself using the Find feature to locate software on FindApp.

After recording, TurboDemo looked like Figure 1:

TurboDemo Interface

Figure 1: The TurboDemo User Interface 

Notice that TurboDemo calls each captured screen a "Slide". Each slide can have its own graphics, text, and audio added. If you have used Microsoft PowerPoint, you should find the interface for editing slides familiar.

Once you're done recording it's time to turn the simple screen capture into a demo or tutorial.  It's surprisingly easy.

 

 

 
First, I added text to several slides.  I also added a callout, also known as a word balloon, to one slide.  I used rectangles and arrows to emphasize important parts of some screens.  Finaly, I added a "Start" button to the beginning of the tutorial so it wouldn't begin before the viewer was ready. I chose not to use audio for this demonstration. 

After you've completed all the text/audio annotations, it's time to adjust the timing.  You can control how long each slide stays on the screen using the Player controls.

 

Figure 2: TurboDemo Player Controls

The number shown is the duration for the current slide.  Allow enough time for viewers to read the text and/or listen to the audio.

A major strength of TurboDemo is how many ways you can save your demo.  You can create Flash or Java for web pages.  You can also make a self-running Windows program (EXE), PDF and Word documents or an AVI movie.  I created an executable file, which you can download below.

FindOnFindApp.exe (4.15 mb)

TurboDemo is surprisingly easy to use, and has enough depth that experienced users will continue to get better and learn new tricks. You can create buttons, interactive test questions with automated responses to both correct and incorrect answers, and much more.  It does have a few quirks and frustrations, mostly a somewhat out of date user interface.

TurboDemo is a very good choice for a professional who will be creating enough demos and animations to justify the price.  You can find both TurboDemo and other demo builders in the Presentation category of FindApp.

Feb

10

For the Developer: HTML Editors

 Development

The most commonly spoken language in the world is said to be Mandarin Chinese, but I think it's HTML.  For a web developer, there is no tool more important than a good HTML editor.

HTML (HyperText Markup Language) takes the text of a web page and adds "tags" that tell a web browser how to display it.  For instance, this word is bold.  To make that word stand out, I added the tag <em> before it, which means "Everything after this is in boldface", and after it put the tag </em>, which means "Stop boldface here." ("em" comes from "emphasis".)

It's possible to create web pages by manually typing tags into a file, but most people prefer to use a graphical editor that lets you see the formatting (like a word in boldface), instead of having to remember and interpret hundreds of different tags.  A good graphical HTML editor will display the page exactly the way it would look in a web browser.  Most also include additional features, like uploading to your web server when you are finished working.

CoffeeCup VisualSite Designer is a very good visual editor for web pages.  It's simple to position things on the screen and format everything the way you want it.  The included templates let you get started right away creating your own web pages.  An image editor is also included, so you don't need to buy any additional software to add pictures to your site.

MoreMotion Application Studio 's unique strength is its support for the new AJAX system.  AJAX lets you create interactive applications that run in a web browser.

WeBuilder is much more than an HTML layout program.  You can use it to create your page design in HTML, and also to add and edit scripts using VBScript, PHP, ASP, ASP.Net, SSI, Perl, Ruby, and WML.  There is also built-in support for SQL databases, allowing you to easily interface your page with business systems.  Anyone working on a site that uses scripting and/or databases should evaluate WeBulder.

There are dozens of other web site editors available in the WYSIWYG HTML Editor and Text-based HTML Editor categories.  I'm sure you can find the exact one that fits your needs.

Regards,
John M. 

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