Back in the old days, Help was not trivial but possible: generate some funky .rtf file with special tags, run it through a compiler, and you got a WinHelp file (.hlp) that actually works really well.

Then, Microsoft decided that WinHelp was not hip and cool anymore and switched to CHM, up to the point they actually axed WinHelp from Vista.

Now, CHM maybe nice, but everyone that tried to open a .chm file on the Network will know the nice "Navigation to the webpage was canceled" screen that is caused by security restrictions.

While there are ways to make CHM work off the network, this is hardly a good choice, because when a user presses the Help Button he wants help and not have to make some funky settings.

Bottom Line: I find CHM absolutely unusable. But with WinHelp not being an option anymore either, I wonder what the alternatives are, especially when it comes to integrate with my Application (i.e. for WinHelp and CHM there are functions that allow you to directly jump to a topic)?

PDF has the disadvantage of requiring the Adobe Reader (or one of the more lightweight ones that not many people use). I could live with that seeing as this is kind of standard nowadays, but can you tell it reliably to jump to a given page/anchor?

HTML files seem to be the best choice, you then just have to deal with different browsers (CSS and stuff).

Edit: Thanks so far. I am looking to create my own Help Files. As I am a fan of the "No Setup, Just Extract and Run" Philosophy, i had that problem many times in the past because many of my users will run it off the network, which causes exactly this problem.

So i am looking for a more robust and future-proof way to provide help to my users without having to code a different help system for each application i make.

CHM is a really nice format, but that Security Stuff makes it unusable, as a Help system is supposed to provide help to the user, not to generate even more problems.

+6  A: 

HTML would be the next best choice, ONLY IF you would serve them from a public web server. If you tried to bundle it with your app, all the files (and images (and stylesheets (and ...) ) ) would make CHM look like a gift from gods.

That said, when actually bundled in the installation package, (instead of being served over the network), I found the CHM files to work nicely.

OTOH, another pitfall about CHM files: Even if you try to open a CHM file on a local disk, you may bump into the security block if you initially downloaded it from somewhere, because the file could be marked as "came from external source" when it was obtained.

yes, this happens all the time. trips up even experienced developers.
After considering pretty much everything else, it seems that HTML Files are indeed my only choice, because every single other alternative is severely broken sadly.
Michael Stum

Is the question how to generate your own help files, or what is the best help file format?

Personally, I find CHM to be excellent. One of the first things I do when setting up a machine is to download the PHP Manual in CHM format ( and add a hotkey to it in Crimson Editor. So when I press F1 it loads the CHM and performs a search for the word my cursor is on (great for quick function reference).

+2  A: 

Our software is both distributed locally to the clients and served from a network share. We opted for generating both a CHM file and a set of HTML files for serving from the network. Users starting the program locally use the CHM file, and users getting their program served from a network share has to use the HTML files.

We use Help and Manual and can thus easily produce both types of output from the same source project. The HTML files also contain searching capabilities and doesn't require a web server, so though it isn't an optimal solution, works fine.

So far all the single-file types for Windows seems broken in one way or another:

  • WinHelp - obsoleted
  • HtmlHelp (CHM) - obsoleted on Vista, doesn't work from network share, other than that works really nice
  • Microsoft Help 2 (HXS) - this seems to work right up until the point when it doesn't, corrupted indexes or similar, this is used by Visual Studio 2005 and above, as an example
Lasse V. Karlsen
I didn't know CHM was obsoleted on Vista. Is it official? Any link?
+1  A: 

If you are doing "just extract and run", you are going to run in security issues. This is especially true if you are users are running Vista (or later). is there a reason why you wanted to avoid packaging your applications inside an installer? Using an installer would alleviate the "external source" problem. You would be able to use .chm files without any problems.

We use InstallAware to create our install packages. It's not cheap, but is very good. If cost is your concern, WIX is open source and pretty robust. WIX does have a learning curve, but it's easy to work with.

Chris Miller
Yeah, the reason I want to avoid an installer is because they are not needed. I hate installing stuff because there is always so much mess associated with it (Registry Keys, Uninstall items), so as long as I do not have any external dependencies, start menu entries, etc., I don't want to use an installer, especially not if it's only needed to sort out unnecessary security issues with the Help system :(
Michael Stum
+2  A: 

If you don't want to use an installer and you don't want the user to perform any extra steps to allow CHM files over the network, why not fall back to WinHelp? Vista does not include WinHlp32.exe out of the box, but it is freely available as a download for both Vista and Server 2008.

Chris Miller
Because then the user has to perform extra steps to allow HLP files, even locally?
Roger Lipscombe
Exactly. The problem is that Help is something that is needed mostly in situations where the user has a problem with the app. Any extra step between the user and the help file is just not user friendly :-( Otherwise i'd gladly fall back to WinHelp
Michael Stum
+1  A: 

PDF has the disadvantage of requiring the Adobe Reader

I use Foxit Reader on Windows at home and at work. A lot smaller and very quick to open. Very handy when you are wondering what exactly a80000326.pdf is and why it is clogging up your documents folder.

I use sumatrapdf - even smaller than foxit Reader!!! :) It can be found here a standalone executable...useful! ;)

I use a commercial package called AuthorIT that can generate a number of different formats, such as chm, html, pdf, word, windows help, xml, xhtml, and some others I have never heard of (does dita ring a bell?). It is a content management system oriented towards the needs of technical documentation writers. The advantage is that you can use and re-use the same content to build a set of guides, and then generate them in different formats.

So the bottom line relative to the question of choosing chm or html or whatever is that if you are using this you are not locked into a given format, but you can provide several among which the user can choose, and you can even add more formats as you go along, at no extra cost.

If you just have one guide to create it won't be worth your while, but if you have a documentation set to manage then it is the best to my knowledge. Their support is very helpful also.

+1  A: 

It depends on how import the online documentation is to your product, a good documentation infrastructure can be complex to establish but once done it pays off. Here is how we do it -

  • Help source DITA compilant XML, stored in SCC (ClearCase).
  • Help editing XMetal
  • Help compilation, customized Open DITA Toolkit, with custom Perl/Java preprocessing
  • Help source cross references applications resources at compile time, .RC files etc
  • Help deliverables from single source, PDF, CHM, Eclipse Help, HTML.
  • Single source repository produces help for multiple products 10+ with thousands of shared topics.

From what you describe I would look at Eclipse Help, its not simple to integrate into .NET or MFC applications, you basically have to do the help mapping to resolve the request to a URL then fire the URL to Eclipse Help wrapper or a browser.

+1  A: 

I think the solution we're going to end up going with for our application is hosting the help files ourselves. This gives us immediate access to the files and the ability to keep them up to date.

What I plan is to have the content loaded into a huge series of XML files, each one containing help for a specific item. This XML would contain links to other XML files. We would use XSLT to display the contents as necessary.

Depending on the licensing, we may build a client-specific XSLT file in order to tailor the look and feel to what they need. We may need to be able to only show help for particular versions of our product as well and that can be done by filtering out stuff in the XSLT.

Michael Beck

I don't like the html option, and actually moved from plain html to CHM by compressing and indexing them. Even use them on a handful of non-Windows customers even.

It simply solved the constant little breakage of people putting it on network (nesting depth limited, strange locking effects), antivirusses that died in directories with 30000 html files, and 20 minutes decompression time while installing on an older system, browser safety zones and features, miscalculations of needed space in the installer etc.

And then I don't even include the people that start "correcting" them, 3rd party product with faulty "integration" attempts etc, complaints about slowliness (browser startup)

We all had waited years for the problems to go away as OSes and hardware improved, but the problems kept recurring in a bedazzling number of varieties and enough was enough. We found chmlib, and decided we could forever use something based on this as escape with a simple external reader, if the OS provided ones stopped working and switched.

Marco van de Voort