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Review RoboHelp 5 Review

Added on 3/9/2004



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Author: MediaMacros (website)

RoboHelp is the fastest, easiest way to create professional Help systems and printed documentation for desktop and web-based applications, including .NET and Rich Internet Applications. Users can generate multiple Help systems in any popular online format, plus press-ready printed documentation in Microsoft Word or PDF format. Users can work in RoboHelp's built-in HTML editor, any popular HTML editor such as Dreamweaver or FrontPage, or Microsoft Word to create Help systems that include Help topics, Table of Contents, Index, Glossary, multimedia, context sensitive Help, and more. RoboHelp Office's content management features facilitate organized workflow by single authors or entire documentation teams.

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Recently we reviewed one of Macromedia's newest acquisitions, RoboDemo, and we recently had the chance to check out its counterpart RoboHelp.  RoboHelp is a help generation system that allows you to quickly and easily build help files to accompany your applications. You can choose your output format from WebHelp, FlashHelp, JavaHelp, Microsoft HTML Help, Printed Documentation, and even XML based output for custom systems. You can import from MS Word, existing help files, or create new help documents from inside its built in editors. If you prefer an editor like Dreamweaver it supports integration with other 3rd party applications for editing as well.

At first glace there are many choices.  What type of content do you want to create?  Flash help or HTML help? If you skip the wizard like I did you may be faced with a slightly overwhelming list of folders when you dive into this application.  While there appear to be a lot of options, don't let this discourage you.  RoboHelp is surprisingly easy to use, and all of the base concepts are handled via easy to follow RoboDemo movies and, of course, a well organized help system.

Start by simply making pages or importing from Word, HTML, FrameMaker, PDF, XML, or even other help file formats.  If you can use MS Word then you can handle RoboHelp.  Simply create a few pages and folders then jump to the TOC editor to arrange them. You can use simple drag and drop to create index lists, and glossary words can be automatically indexed for you. Much of the monotony of making help files is nicely streamlined to make the experience as pleasant as possible.

RoboHelp also takes your projects beyond basic text and links.  You can link out to web documents but you can also bring your media in by embedding Flash movies, images, RoboHelp video, sound, Real Media, Window Media, and more, directly into your help files.  No need to describe complex concepts when you can get the point across better with video.  It can all be integrated seamlessly in RoboHelp. You are limited to what is supported by your chosen output type, but the WebHelp option offers full flexibility for all supported types. For the more advanced user, full scripting via HTML code, ActiveX, VB Script, and JavaScript can extend your pages even further.

As a programmer, one of the most interesting features was the conditional build tags. With this feature you can create multiple outputs from the same source, and customize the content to fit.  For example, a printed manual might have a screen shot, while the digital version might include a video. You can create different wording and instructions in the same page for a full or lite version of your software. Using this feature you can create one master help document then, deploy it for multiple uses without maintaining duplicate copies. Imagine software that could give a user practical help based on their user ability.  A new user might have content that specifies every step and dialog A “pro” user may want to get to the deeper concepts much faster.  With RoboHelp you can actually deploy both by simply hiding certain information between each output version of the help file.

When you are ready to publish you can choose your output options and even customize the user interface.  Skins are included and can be customized to change the colors, button graphics, and more allowing you to build a truly customizable Help system for your application.  You can change your mind on output format at any time or publish multiple formats without changing a thing in your project.  We did run into a few issues when trying to export Flash help.  Some virus scanners like McAfee detected script activity and caused the Flash export to stall.  Other output formats were able to export without issues. Traditional MS Help files will look as expected, but the Flash help option really offers a way to create a striking, and elegant interface to an otherwise less flashy aspect of any software package.

For larger teams RoboHelp comes with an advanced content managements system. Multiple users can work collaboratively on the help system allowing technical writers, copyrighters, and proof readers to interact at the same time without fear of destroying each other's work. In basic tests this appeared to work very well, and had solid version control to avoid many of the common pitfalls that are often present in a multi-developer environment.

One common problem with any large scale help system is making sure the help is complete and running perfectly before shipping.  RoboHelp comes with some very nice reporting tools that really make this chore much easier. You can quickly get a list of any broken links, review the index and glossary, and look for duplicate and unused files. Other tools are accessible via RoboHelp such as RoboDemo, RoboLinker, and other 3rd party tools to make your work flow much easier.

Pricing will vary depending on your needs.  The price for the Office version we reviewed is $999, but price varies from $399 for the word version up to $1999 for the .net version of the software. On the low end it's definitely worth the price, and as your needs grow the price scales quite reasonably with it.

Overall it's a great value for the money. After using some competitors tools RoboHelp really appeared to have the widest set of features and greatest flexibility for the money. With the import options it also is very easy to switch existing project over to RoboHelp making it a powerful contender for online and offline help systems.



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