Review: Macromedia RoboHelp X5

First the application was born. Then, as no-one knew how to use it, the help file was born... Robohelp is one of many products available that allow you to create the type of help file you find with most applications. Some years back help files went over from the .hlp format to the html-based .chm format. I'd used Robohelp in a previous incarnation, so was interested to see how the new version might differ since being acquired by Macromedia, authors of the market- leading Dreamweaver product.

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Robohelp table of contents viewIn use Robohelp X5 is virtually identical to previous versions - in fact on initially firing up the program I was hard-pushed to see any differences. Once you start using the product, however, the tweaks start appearing. I had hoped to see much of Dreamweaver's HTML source editing features ported over, so was initially disappointed that, when switching to code view none of the hardcore HTML programming features I know and love were not there. Also, although Robohelp claims to support JavaScript, it's a little patchy - be prepared to hack around with any code you want to use. In truth this is only going to affect a minority of users looking to add high-level web functionality into a help file.

Robohelp right clickUsing Robohelp is very easy and requires very little in the way of a learning curve. The left pane is tabbed, giving you quick access to Project info, Table of Contents (TOC), Index, Glossary and Tools. Initially you'll spend most of your time in the first two sections - tweaking the look and feel of your output and creating your content. You create the help system as you would navigate it - through a hierarchical tree. Right click over an empty space in the left pane and select new, followed by the content you want to create. Once you have a collection of pages you can drag and drop them into the position you want them to appear in. Style sheets can be applied to one or multiple pages instantly - useful for those upgrading older projects.

The right-hand pane is also tabbed, providing quick access to WYSIWYG display, True code (HTML), Link View and Topics. A cursory glance at the code view shows comments and embedded styles throughout the page - not the leanest code, however it does have the option to generate both W3C and Section 508 compliant output, so while web-based help systems may take a couple of seconds extra to download, they should display correctly in any web browser. Ironically one of the new features strips out the bloated code that is normally associated with imported Microsoft Word files.

Conditional build tags are a new addition. These allow you to specify elements of pages that can be included/excluded for a build. For example, if you want to build a help file for an end user, plus a help file that has additional content for a dealer/distributor, conditional build tags will allow you to do this. Just specify what elements are for which release and they will be added or excluded accordingly when you generate your file.

Version rollback is one of many new collaborative features that will be a welcome inclusion for anyone who has had that sinking feeling when they've just overwritten a lengthy piece of content only to find that they shouldn't have. File history, time/date stamping and comparisons are also included. Some features common to Dreamweaver/Contribute have made their way across to RoboHelp, including the 'Check in/Check out' facility and access rights management. Other notable additions include better PDF and XML input/output and a global spell checker (rather than simply page-based).

As you would expect from a product of this ilk, most of Robohelp's help is in electronic format, although it does come with a 124 page authoring guide. The in-built help also has about a dozen short video tutorials which cover the basics.

Robohelp single source layoutsThe biggest plus in this version is the type of content that can be generated. In addition to the standard Microsoft HTML Help (CHM files), RoboHelp supports Webhelp and Webhelp Pro, Flash Help, Printed and XML formats. Coupled with a batch generator and the conditional build functions this provides a powerful way to generate multiple formats with a single command - very impressive! So, for example, you could produce a standard Windows .CHM help file, a Flash-help file for a CD-ROM, webHelp for your website/Intranet and a printed version - all with specific content depending on the conditional build settings. I would suggest however, that if you wanted to use RoboHelp to produce printed documentation you may have to do some additional formatting to the end document to get it in your desired format, as the structure is dictated by your table of contents.

Conclusion
At over £500 for a single license (£269 for upgrades), Robohelp is not cheap, especially when there are help file building applications out there for less than half the price. But then again Robohelp is not aimed at the lower end of the market. If you need to build a comprehensive resource of information in multiple formats then there is little available that can compete with RoboHelp's breadth of features. Creating help files is quite a niche requirement, hence the 3-star rating, but don't let that dissuade you from what is the market leading product in its field.

 
Supplier's web site: www.macromedia.com - 15 day trial available.

Rating
3 star award

Pro's: Powerful tool for creating high quality multi-help formats. Improved stylesheet handling. Cross browser/cross platform output.

Con's: Hasn't benefited much from Dreamweaver. Expensive for basic projects. Limited Javascript support. Bloated HTML code.