Review of Help & Manual 4

By Matthew Ellison

Help & Manual is a help authoring tool that was first released in 1997 by Austrian-based EC Software. Until version 3 it was based on the RTF file format and heavily designed around the WinHelp paradigm. Moreover it had no support for styles, relying instead on inline formatting.

This has all changed with version 4, which represents a total rewrite of the product using XML as the underlying technology. Help & Manual now supports what it calls "Dynamic Styles", which offer the same benefits as paragraph and character styles in applications such as Microsoft Word and Adobe FrameMaker. Version 4 also introduces full support for Unicode, which means that you can now use Help & Manual to edit and compile help files in all languages supported by Windows, including languages with more than 255 characters that store characters in two bytes instead of one.

Help & Manual, as its name implies, specializes in creating high quality online and print documentation from a single source. However, it takes a different approach to other tools such as WebWorks ePublisher Pro and Doc-to-Help that convert print-oriented documents to online Help. Help & Manual instead uses a topic-based paradigm, and has its own proprietary editor for creating and editing a single topic at a time (in the same way as you do in RoboHelp).

Unlike RoboHelp, however, all the content is stored in a single proprietary database (with a .hmx extension) instead of in loose .html files. The only content stored outside of the database is the image files. The database gives you powerful ways of tracking and managing your content—for example, Help & Manual is able to highlight dead (broken) links within topics, and to provide a full list of referring topics for any given topic. One of the other advantages of its database approach is that (in common with AuthorIT which also uses a database) it supports embedded topics. These enable you to create a chunk of information as a topic, and then to insert it within other topics—very useful if you need to repeat the exact same piece of information (such as a warning) within many topics and want to avoid maintaining the information in multiple locations.

A potential drawback of the database is that, unlike RoboHelp, individual topics are not saved as you move from one to another—if your computer were to crash, you could potentially lose all the work you had completed since last saving the database.

Help & Manual provides good support for a range of output formats, including HTML Help 1.x, browser-based Help, Microsoft Help 2, and PDF. Its single-sourcing credentials are enhanced by very rich conditions that enable you to include or exclude specific content at text or topic level when you compile your output. For its PDF output, Help & Manual boasts a special tool called the Print Manual Designer—this gives you total control over the layout and presentation of your PDF document, including custom cover, front-matter, and back-matter pages. Although it is clearly very powerful and useful, I found this tool the most complex and challenging aspects of Help & Manual to get to grips with. On a final note about PDF output, a nice touch is that it can be tuned either for onscreen viewing (with live hyperlinks) or for print output (where page numbers are included with cross-references).

I've already mentioned that version 4 of Help & Manual adds support for "Dynamic Styles". These enable authors to control formatting across multiple topics for the first time, and are a welcome (if overdue) addition to the product. Although the Help & Manual user interface avoids referring to CSS terminology (it appears to be designed to appeal to authors who would rather avoid grappling with the detail of the underlying code), these dynamic styles are actually implemented "under the hood" as CSS classes when you output to HTML-based formats. You can define styles differently for print and online formats—which is comparable to defining media-specific style sheets for a web page.

This product has clearly been designed with ease of use as a priority—it has an intuitive interface and very comprehensive online Help. Its creator Alexander Halser has a good track-record of innovation and of exploiting the full range of online Help's capabilities—for example, he was responsible for one of the only true implementations of WinHelp's Training Card feature in Help & Manual's sister product TNT Screen Capture (described in Review of Screen Capture Tools).

Help & Manual is missing some of the more advanced features of competing tools, such as built-in support for creating DHTML drop-downs (although EC Software tells me that these will be available in the upcoming version 4.2). However, it is solid in fundamental areas such as indexing: you can easily and intuitively add index keywords and sub-keywords to topics by simply typing them into the Topic Options tab. There is also a way of adding keywords directly into the merged index, and to associate them with one or more specific topics simultaneously (similar to the way you can work with the Index Designer in RoboHelp).

Another of this product's strengths is that it provides the most complete and usable support for merging Help systems of any tool that I have experienced. For example, it enables you to choose whether Help files are merged statically (at compile time) or dynamically (at run time). For HTML Help, it even enables you to choose whether a sub-CHM will display its own table of contents or that of its master CHM.

Finally, one of the features that many help authoring tools (including Flare, Doc-to-Help, and HelpStudio) have recently added is support for importing RoboHelp projects. Help & Manual is no exception to this trend and allows you either to create a new Help & Manual project from an existing RoboHelp project or to import content from a RoboHelp project into an existing Help & Manual project. The conversion is performed quickly, and you receive a report on the results—however, the migration of RoboHelp features into Help & Manual is not quite as complete as that provided by some of the other tools. For example, you lose browse sequences, glossary terms, DHTML drop-downs and expanding text. The online help for Help & Manual states that "you may have to do some minor editing and tweaking after importing".

Overall, Help & Manual is a well-designed tool that is easy to learn and that does a good job of addressing the needs of today's online help authors. It provides robust support for a range of online and print output formats and represents good value at $459 USD for the Professional Version (which includes all the features mentioned in this review).

Matthew Ellison

Matthew EllisonExternal link has 20 years of experience as a user assistance professional in the software industry. He has been a popular speaker at WritersUA events throughout the world since 1997, and now runs his own independent UK-based training and consulting company specializing in online Help design and technology. Matthew holds a B.Sc. in Electronic Engineering and a Post-Graduate Certificate of Education from Bristol University in the UK. He is also a certified instructor for a range of Help Authoring Tools.