Windows Help Basics

This documented was started by MVP Pete Lees.

Which Help Format?

The WinHelp (.hlp) format has been around since the very early 1990s and is now superseded by HTML Help 1.x (.chm). Infact WinHelp no longer ships with Windows Vista and later, although a crippled version of WinHelp (macro disabled) can still be downloaded from the MS web site. Microsoft strongly advise you move away from WinHelp.

If you don't mind the dependence on the Windows Operating system, HTML Help is the best choice. The runtime ships with Windows 95 and greater. Microsoft have created other help systems since WinHelp (.hlp) and HTML Help (.chm) but they are tied to various systems:
  • MS Help 2.0 for Visual Studio 2002/2003/2005/2008 & Office help.
  • AP Help for Windows Vista OS/OEM help (based on MS Help 2)
  • MS Help Viewer 1.0 for Visual Studio 2010 help. 
  • MS Help Viewer 2.0 for Visual Studio 2012 & Windows 8 OS/OEM help. 
We do desperately need a Unicode help platform to replace WinHelp and HTML (both ANSI). Disappointing that none of these help systems (all Unicode based) have been released for general use. Having said that, none are easy systems to author in. 

All these MS help systems are now in "maintenance mode"; no new features are expected, and only critical updates will occur from now on. As far as we know there is no new help systems being developed at Microsoft. 

WinHelp (.HLP)  

WinHelp engine no longer ships with Windows Vista and later. Although when you click a .hlp file in Vista you will be prompted to download the WinHelp engine. 
If you want to create WinHelp files then, as a minimum, you'll need to get Microsoft Help Workshop, which is available from: 
This comes with a Help Author's Guide that provides extensive information on how to build WinHelp files. You may also find this site useful: 
And it's a good idea to get the WinHelp decompiler from:You can point this at any .hlp file on your system and extract the source files — and then see how the author put the file together. 
All the following books provide detailed information on how to create WinHelp files. 

HTML Help (.CHM)

Microsoft's HTML Help Workshop is available from:

There's a useful tutorial on how to build help files with HTML Help Workshop at:

And there are several books on the subject:

Jeannine Klein's book is the more up-to-date and detailed of the two, but it does not cover certain subjects that Steve Wexler's book describes in some depth (notably context-sensitive help and uncompiled HTML help).

Help Authoring Tools

You can spend a lot of money on "bells and whistles" tools that simplify and streamline the process of creating help files. Before you do so, it is worth trying out a few freeware/shareware tools, available from http://helpmaster.helpmvp.com. Then, if you decide to buy one of the more expensive tools, have a look at these resources:

Help Authoring Tool Comparison Matrix:

For reviews of four popular help authoring tools, see:

Finding Help Information

Besides the Microsoft sites, the best places to look for information on HTML Help are:

Also check out the Helpware HTML Help FAQ:

Support Groups

If you can't find the answer you're looking for, try posting your questions to one of the online support groups.

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