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Three Powerful Help Authoring Tools


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!



Join the FindApp Community!


FindApp plans to be the best source of downloadable Windows software.  I'm proud to announce the launch of FindApp Personal Accounts.  We designed the Personal Accounts to make FindApp easier for you to use, and to solve some of the most common problems people have with downloaded software.

I use a lot of software, and I love it.  One thing I like is that programs tend have new releases pretty often.  Of course, when you have to update each of your programs manually, it's easy to forget to check for updates.  Your FindApp Personal Account ends this problem.  If you add a program to your FindApp Watch List, we will notify you by email whenever it gets updated.  Your Watch List keeps you up-to-date, it's just one click to download the new version.

I don't have a perfect memory, so I have often had this thought:  "I'd really like to use that software I downloaded last month.  What was it called again?"  It's not a problem any more, because a FindApp Personal Account includes a My Downloads page.  With a complete record of all the software I have downloaded, I will always be able to find the one I liked. 

We've made it even easier to post a review.  Just visit your My Downloads page.  Every program you download will be listed there. Click the Post a Review link and you're ready to rate and review.  By rating the software, you will be helping everyone else who uses FindApp. You'll also be helping the software publishers. Good reviews reward the developers of good software. Even a bad review helps the developers, by telling them where they need to improve.

Personal Accounts work on any PC, so you can log on from your home, your office, or your neighbor's house to find the software you need.  There is no cost, and we will not share or sell your email address.  Please go ahead and create a FindApp Personal Account, then rate and review the programs you download.



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.



Fixing PC Problems: Your Software Toolkit

 PC Utilities

What do you do when your computer starts acting up?  You could pay a professional technician to examine it, but that can be expensive and it may take days to even find out what's wrong.  Before doing that, it pays to try a few software tools that can identify and solve problems for you for far less money, without the wait. Tool Kit

One of the most likely reasons for a system slowdown is infestation by spyware.  Please read my earlier article for advice on handling this type of problem.

If you don't know what the problem is, install a tool like CompDoctor.  This program provides you with a comprehensive database of PC problems.  You can search for the exact problem your computer is having, and CompDoctor will tell you what the most probable reasons for that symptom are.  The publisher constantly updates the PC problem database, so it's always current and comprehensive.

If you (or CompDoctor) suspect a hard drive problem, you should consider using DiskCheckup.  Many hard disks include SMART monitoring sensors that can tell you about heat problems, bad sectors,and other potential failures before a catastrophe happens.  DiskCheckup constantly monitors the SMART readings, and will notify you when they reach danger levels, allowing you to replace the drive before it fails.

The Windows Registry stores information about installed programs, data files, and Windows settings.  As you use your system, the Registry gets bigger and more complicated.  Incorrect settings here can cause crashes, startup and shutdown failures, and slowness.  Luckily it's easy to fix Registry problems with software like Free Window Registry Repair.  In only a few minutes, it analyzes the Registry and fixes problems, improving both performance and stability.  It's completely safe, because you can reverse any changes the program makes by clicking Restore.

If you're experiencing a lot of problems—crashes, freezes, slowdowns—many people will advise you to install a new copy of Windows and start from scratch.  Before trying that, you may want to run System Sentry.  A host of functions in System Sentry can rejuvenate your computer, and make it as fast and healthy as when it was new.

With a few software tools, anyone can repair most computer problems in a few minutes.  Remember, though, that it is always good to have a current backup

John M.



Image Makeover: Bitmap File Converters

 Graphic Design

As I write this, it's February.  Lots of people took hundreds of digital pictures in December, and millions of others got new digital cameras for the holiday and now they have even more pictures on their memory cards and hard drives.

To use image files, you often have to convert them into the proper format.  Most image editors will let you open a picture, then save it in a different format.  However, if you have many files to convert, you should consider using a dedicated conversion program to save yourself hours of boring work.

Probably the single most commonly used image file format is JPEG, the standard defined by the Joint Photographic Experts Group.  Both most cameras and most web pages use JPEG images.  AnyToJpeg from PhotoActions converts dozens of photos in a single operation.  While converting, you can also rotate, stretch, crop, and perform other operations.  Process all your photos with only a few minutes of effort!

If you are comfortable typing commands, or if you would like to include image conversion and manipulation in a script, you should download and evaluate Neomesh Image Console.  Image Console can convert between many different image formats including GIF, JPEG, TIFF, and TGA, and also adjust brightness, create thumbnail images, and much more, all from the command line.  If you need to automate image processing it can be a lifesaver.

If you use CAD or drawing software, you know that photos and other bitmap graphics must be converted into vector format or traced before you can use them.  Vextractor can trace image files in almost any possible format, including BMP, GIF, JPEG, and TIF, and turn them into easily resized vector graphics in an amazing variety of different file formats, including Adobe Illustrator, EPS, AutoCAD DXF, EMF, WMF, and many others. Anyone who has ever struggled to hand-trace a face, building, or flower understands what a huge advantage it is to have excellent software like this do the work for you.

There are dozens of programs in the Converters and Optimizers section of FindApp.  If you work with images at all, take a moment to look around, and you'll probably find something that will save you time and effort while making your work more fun.



Backup Software: Because Everyone Makes Mistakes

 PC Utilities

If you've used computers for a while, you've had that terrible sinking feeling.  The one you get when you flick the switch to "On" and your computer does nothing, just sits there. 

Whether through your error or a computer failure, iimportant things can be stored on your computer, then gone the next moment.  There's a way to avoid this.  We've all been told to do it, but according to one poll, 1/3 of computer owners have never backed up, and 3/4 don't do it often enough.  Today I'm going to encourage you to back up more often, by showing you some software that makes it easy, maybe even fun. 

There are different types of backup programs.   Active Backup Expert Pro backs up your entire hard disk, or any section of it that you specify.  The backup files can be stored either on your hard disk, on a different hard disk (perhaps over a network) or on a removable medium like recordable DVDs.  If you use smaller discs like DVDs, ABE Pro will automatically split the backup to fit.  You can restore individual files if they are accidentally deleted or you need an older version, or use the backups to restore the entire disc.  You can set it to back up automatically on a schedule.  That's a big advantage for me, because otherwise I tend to forget.

ABF Outlook Backup does one specific job very well: it backs up Microsoft Outlook data.  Use Outlook Backup to save all mail, contacts, calendar entries, accounts, rules, and RSS feeds.  This information can be tricky to retrieve using a general-purpose backup program.  You can also use Outlook Backup to move or copy your Outlook information from one PC to another.

Have you ever had to reinstall software after you got a new hard drive, and you had to search through dusty files to locate the activation codes for your software?  And if you couldn't find your original packaging, the company wanted to charge you full price to get a new activation number?  Never have that problem again: use Recover Keys Single.  Recover Keys scans your hard disk and creates a file listing the activation keys for all your software.  Print a copy of this, or keep it on your USB drive, and you can easily reinstall any of your programs without wasting time, or spending more money. 

You can find many more backup programs, both general-purpose and specialized, in our PC Utilities > Data Backup Software area.

So the next time you get that sinking feeling, when the wrong file got deleted, or your computer is making funny grinding noises, don't panic!  You have a life preserver: a complete set of backups.


John M.



Why buy software online?


In a previous article, I talked about shareware, programs you can try before buying.  When you plan to buy software, one decision you will make is whether to buy boxed software or download it. Obviously, we editors here at FindApp are believers in the idea of getting software online, and I'd like to explain why.

With apologies to David Letterman, here are the top 4 reasons to get your software online:

  1. Try Before Buying: As I explained in the earlier entry, with downloadable software you have the chance to try it for a while before making your buying decision.
  2. Instant Delivery:  Once you decide what software to use, you can pay for it and be using it within minutes
  3. Selection:  FindApp has over 10,000 programs available.  With downloadable software, you will always have a wider range of choices than you can find any bricks-and-mortar store.
  4. Support Directly From the Publisher:  When you buy downloadable software, you are buying directly from the maker.  Because of this, you have a direct relationship with them, and can get support from the experts who publish the program.  Most shareware has at least email support for all registered users.  If you purchase software in a box, you may have to deal with a retailer for support.

How much do we at FindApp believe in downloadable software? I personally have bought exactly one program in a box in the past 10 years.  When I asked around the office, none of us can remember buying boxed software in the past 5. It's no contest: online is the way to go.

I'd like to wish you all a joyous holiday season, and thank you for using FindApp.

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