Review of three European Help Tools

By Matthew Ellison, Matthew Ellison Consulting


This article features short reviews of three European help tools. Although none of the tools is particularly well known within the global user assistance community, each has some interesting and unique features. Each of the tools is designed to address a different set of requirements, and this article is not intended to provide a feature-by-feature comparison of the products.

The products are as follows:

  • Fast-Help International (DevHost Ltd, UK) - An easy-to-use help authoring tool that provides comprehensive translation support
  • chm2web Pro (A!K Research Labs, Russia) - A highly configurable utility that converts compiled HTML Help (.chm) files into web sites
  • E.S.T. Help Author Pro (MaxComponents, Hungary) - A low-budget help authoring tool that includes some features usually only found in top-of-the-range tools

Fast-Help InternationalLink to the review contents

Fast-Help International is a help authoring tool that is based on its own proprietary database and integrated editor. Its user interface, although fairly extensive and complex, is well organized and clearly presented. As a result, I have found it to be an extremely easy product to learn.

Screenshot of main Fast-Help Internation window

Figure 1: Fast-Help International user interface

Fast-Help International's single-sourcing credentials are quite impressive. The product is able to compile to a variety of output formats including HTML Help (.chm), RTF document, PDF, and Pocket PC, and there is a rich set of options for customizing each of these outputs. Figure 2 shows the options that are available for configuring the documentation outputs, including the ability to add custom headers and footers. Fast-Help International also provides effective support for conditions at the page and character level.

Screenshot of Documentation Options dialog showing Header/Footer tab

Figure 2: Documentation Options dialog

It is Fast-Help International's support for multiple languages and translation, however, that is its key strength. In addition to providing full Unicode support , it provides a set of tools for translating and managing all the different language versions of a help system within its own interface. It displays the original text in the base language (for example English) alongside the translated version (see figure 3). Furthermore, it only allows translatable text to be changed, and protects elements such as hyperlinks from being accidentally deleted or corrupted.

Screenshot of Translation tab showing side-by-side layout

Figure 3: Translation side-by-side with original version

After translating from a base language into a target language (e.g. from English into French), any subsequent changes to the base language version can be easily isolated for translation into the target language. This reduces translation costs by ensuring that only new or changed content is translated.

Fast-Help International also provides the option of exporting all the base language text for translation by an external translator using a freely downloadable tool called the Translation Assistant. This tool presents exactly the same side-by-side interface for translating as Fast-Help International itself. After translation, the text can then be exported from the Translation Assistant and imported back into Fast-Help International to create a new version of the translation into the target language.

Other interesting features of this product include:

  • Restore points, which enable you automatically to store up to 999 previous versions of each topic and restore back to a previous version at any time
  • Licensing for multiple users, which enables concurrent editing of projects, and automatically handles the locking of topics to prevent two authors from making conflicting changes to the same content
  • Support for non-scrolling regions (usually found only in WinHelp files) for HTML Help topics
  • Ability to merge HTML Help (.chm) files, though the procedure for setting up the merging is a little complex and technical
  • Support for the creation of "expandable paragraphs" (more commonly known in other helps tools as "DHTML drop-downs") for HTML-based outputs

My main concern with this tool is its approach to text formatting. Fast-Help International's integrated editor provides most of the usual character and paragraph formatting options, but has a rather unconventional way of saving combinations of formatting options as named styles. Its Style Gallery includes two distinct sets of styles:

  • character styles (which can only be used to apply character-based formatting such as font size, color, and weight)
  • paragraph styles (which are restricted to applying block-level formatting such as alignment, line-spacing, and indent)

Thus, if you want to fully define the formatting for an element such as a warning, you have to create two styles, one containing its character formatting and the other containing its paragraph formatting. When you subsequently format an element as a warning, you will need to apply both of these styles.

Strangely, the formatting properties of a style are stored within the topic itself. This means that if you change the properties of a style within one topic, Fast-Help has to open every other topic and make the corresponding change if you wish your formatting to remain consistent across all topics (it calls this "cascading the style changes"). Because this may take some time for large projects, Fast-Help gives you the option of cascading the style changes or not (see figure 4).

Screenshot of Cascade Style Changes dialog showing options to cascade or cancel

Figure 4: Cascade Style Changes dialog

Finally, the user assistance and support for Fast-Help-International is comprehensive and of a generally high quality. The Help system is well written, easy to navigate, and contains innovative and useful features including a One Minute Challenge (proving that it is possible to create a Help system from scratch in little more than 60 seconds) and a number of video tutorials (see Translating a Simple ProjectExternal link for an example).

For more information about Fast-Help International, see the Fast-Help websiteExternal link.

chm2web ProLink to the review contents

Chm2web Pro is not an authoring tool, but a utility that converts compiled HTML Help (.chm) files to a "bi-frame" website with tables of contents, index, and search in the left-hand frame. It comes with a set of customizable templates that enable you to configure the content and appearance of the pages by adding headers and footers, and applying new CSS rules.

Why would you require such a tool, when many help authoring tools (such as the two other products reviewed in this article) enable you to generate both HTML Help and web pages from the same source? Well, I can think of three possible reasons:

  1. The most likely and compelling reason is that you want to convert a CHM for which you don't have the source files. This may be because you want to share information from the CHM on your organisation's Intranet.
  2. You are using an HTML Help authoring tool (such as Microsoft's HTML Help Workshop) that does not enable you to generate a browser-based output.
  3. You don't wish to use the browser-based output of your help authoring tool either because of technology dependencies such as Java, or because you are not able to configure its look-and-feel to the way you want it.

chm2web Pro has a simple tabbed interface (see figure 5) that enables you to select various options and settings for the conversion. You can easily apply a theme to the generated website by selecting one of the supplied templates on the Template tab. If you are willing to immerse yourself in some fairly straightforward code, you can even configure these templates to your own requirements, or create your own new templates.

Screenshot of chm2web tabbed interface

Figure 5: Tabbed interface of chm2web Pro

To test out chm2web Pro, I decided to use it to convert the help for Windows Media Player 9 (wmplayer.chm). The original Help file looks like this:

Screenshot of Windows Media Player .chm file

Figure 6: Original Windows Media Player .chm file

For my first conversion I used the Default Blue template and chose the option to leave the formatting of the text within the pages unchanged. It was extremely quick and easy to set up the project, and after clicking the Build button the following website was generated in less than 20 seconds:

Screenshot of generated website using Default Blue template

Figure 7: Windows Media Player website using Default Blue template

chm2web Pro's Pre-processing tab enables you to make some simple changes to each of the pages in the website. As well as being able to add a header or footer, you can also delete data from each page using "Regular Expression" pattern matching. For example, figure 8 shows the result I obtained by removing the first table (which contains the Windows Media Player logo) from every page. I also added a header of "Sample for WritersUA review", changed the look and feel by applying the Modern Green template, and applied custom CSS styles to change the formatting of the topic text.

Screenshot of generated website using Modern Green template

Figure 8: Windows Media Player website using Modern Green template

One other thing worth mentioning is that the search facility within the websites generated by chm2web Pro supports partial matching. For example, if a user types "win" into the Search box, the search will find any words (such as "window" or "winning") that begin with these three letters.

For more information about chm2webPro, see the chm2web websiteExternal link.

E.S.T. Help Author ProLink to the review contents

E.S.T. Help Author Pro is a help authoring tool that generates a wide range of output formats including HTML Help (.chm), Rich Text Format manual, and browser-based Help. Its interface (see figure 9) looks professional and incorporates some contemporary designs and controls such as accordion tabs within the left-hand pane, and a Task Pane on the right-hand side.

Screenshot of E.S.T. Help Author Pro interface

Figure 9: E.S.T. Help Author Pro interface

However, there are a few usability issues in parts of the product, and the Help system is not as clear and well organized as I would have liked. For example, I had some problems understanding how to implement Embedded Topics (a very interesting feature similar in principle to the Snippets feature found in Adobe RoboHelp and MadCap Flare).

For me, the other most interesting and innovative features of the product are:

  • Its support for system and user-defined variables
  • The automatic syntax highlighter for formatting code displayed within topics
  • The Status Viewer (displayed within the Task Pane), which shows a color-coded visual indication of the status of the project

Text formatting is a disappointment since there is no support at all for styles.

A simple screen capture tool is bundled with E.S.T. Help Author Pro, and the overall package might represent an attractive option to help authors who are on a tight budget since a single-user license currently costs only 99 Euro.

For more information about E.S.T. Help Author Pro, see the E.S.T. Help Author Pro websiteExternal link.

Matthew Ellison is an independent user assistance consultant and trainer with more than 20 years of experience in the software industry. Based in the UK, he organizes the annual UA Conference - Europe.