Scott Hanselman

Visual Studio 2010 - Help Viewer Power Tool BETA - Help Index and Standalone Help

May 05, 2010 Comment on this post [30] Posted in MSDN | VS2010
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The help system changed in Visual Studio 2010. I totally had a "Who Moved My Cheese" moment, as did many folks.

  • Where's my "as I type" Help Index?
  • Where's my separate Help Viewer? I don't want help in my browsers, it clutters my tabs.

If you don't install the Help Documentation at the end of the Visual Studio 2010 setup, you help will be online and shown in your default browser. Personally, I like the idea of an external help viewer. I just saw on the Help Team's blog that they released the Help Viewer Power Tool today. It's an unsupported local content Help Viewer.

First, make sure your Help Content is installed locally, rather than served from the web.

  1. Click Help | Manage Help Settings.
  2. Click Choose Online or Local. Select Local, a path, then OK.
  3. Click Install Content from Online (or from Disk)
  4. Select your content by clicking Add on each topic you want, click OK.

When you've got local help content setup, go install the Help Viewer Power Tool. So what do you get?

The Help Viewer Power Tool supports two modes: in-browser and standalone.

  1. The Power Tool defaults to an in-browser experience that adds two additional tabs – Index and Search – to the left pane using a Silverlight control. In addition, the left pane is now fully resizable.
  2. The Power Tool can be configured to provide a standalone experience with three tabs for navigating content: Contents, Search Results, and Index. This mode provides some additional features over the in-browser experience:
    • The help window has its own icon and is easily located in the task bar.· The help window can be pinned to the Win7 Taskbar.
    • F1 queries overlay the previous help topic (eliminates tab proliferation).
    • The standalone window is resizable and can be positioned independently without affecting browser settings.

Here's what your in-browser Help will look like. Notes the Contents, Search Results and Index on the left:

in-browser help

Here's the standalone Help Viewer. Once you've run it, you can also pin it to Explorer in Windows 7.

Standalone Help Brower 

How do I switch to standalone mode?

  1. From your system drive, run the following from an elevated command prompt
    (note you might be in \Program files (x86))
    cd \program files\microsoft help viewer\v1.0
    hlpvwpt.exe standaloneviewer=true
  2. Shut down any instances of the Help Library Agent. Right-click on the Help Library Agent icon in the taskbar and select ‘Exit.

How do I switch back to in-browser mode?

  1. From your system drive, run the following from an elevated command prompt:
    cd \program files\microsoft help viewer\v1.0
    hlpvwpt.exe standaloneviewer=false
  2. Shut down any instances of the Help Library Agent. Right-click on the Help Library Agent icon in the taskbar and select ‘Exit.

If you're installing on a non-English system, make sure you read the Readme to make sure your localized help is shown. Also, if you only have IE6, you'll need IE8.

Another way to find the Help Viewer Power Tool

Start Page - Microsoft Visual Studio

As an aside, you can also just go to the Tools | Extension Manager inside VS2010, and query something like "help viewer power" and you can get to the download page from inside VS.

Extension Manager (2)

Related Links

  • How To: Updating multiple VS 2010 installations' Help content with a single download - This technique will show you how to share help between multiple developers via a Shared Drive. This is helpful in constrained bandwidth environments.
    • A comment from my blog: "Also, while the updating feature is great, the downloads appear quite large and if you have a number of machines to update then this can be a slow and bandwidth consuming task, is there any way to download and share the help system updates between multiple installations?
  • Community Created H3Viewer.exe - Alternative VS 2010 help viewer in the style of DExplore. Features a full TOC, full Index, Search and favorites.
  • Keyword Index for Visual Studio 2010 Help Documentation - An unsupported inside-the-IDE Help Client with keyword index.
  • Developer Documentation and Help Forum - Ryan, the developer of this tool, will be watching the forums for your feedback.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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May 05, 2010 2:39
It is faster than Google?
May 05, 2010 2:49
LOL. Depends on what you're searching for! ;) Use what's fastest for YOU.
May 05, 2010 3:32

Thanks Scott - I've been looking forward to seeing this since you mentioned it last week. I really appreciate your following up on this and kudos to the Help Team for the effort to give some of use our "cheese" back. This will get installed just as soon as I can download it.
May 05, 2010 3:39
This is a step in the right direction, but the index still needs to be the old-style VS2008 help index (full collapsible tree view), rather than the one-level blinders view.... IMO of course :)
May 05, 2010 5:11
I have been using H3Viewer and I think it's great. Unfortunately the damned help server is still so slow.
May 05, 2010 5:19
Josh - where are you located? Give me a tracert. You should be seeing sub-second times.

Brock - Doesn't the content tab give you the multi-layered view?
May 05, 2010 5:51
Awesome post.

Next step is how to add silverlight 4 help contents to the visual studio help ?

May 05, 2010 6:37
Fantastic, thanks a bunch, Scott!

I had resigned myself to think VS 2010 was the "Windows Vista" of Visual Studio releases and I had simply reverted to using Visual Studio 2008's MSDN Library for everything except .NET 4.0-specific features/additions.

The thought hadn't really occurred to me to go looking for an alternative help viewer, which is pretty bad, come to think of it, especially since I have just watched Kathy Sierra's presentation at the Business Of Software 2009 conference where she specifically mentioned upgrades causing users to feel like they suck. That was me: feeling helpless (pun intended) after an "upgrade" because the fabulous documentation viewer was replaced with a sucky documentation viewer and neither option in the "Help settings" menu would bring the fabulous documentation viewer back.

Anyway, thanks again for posting about this newfound cheese. :)

- Oli
May 05, 2010 8:48
Thanks Scott. I even complained to you about this via your contact page. Thanks for listening to our prayers!
Help Viewer Power tool looks good though not perfect. It's a step in right direction. Keep up the great work.
May 05, 2010 10:59
Thanks for a very helpful post.
May 05, 2010 11:14
Cool. Keep the feedback coming and I'll make sure the team gets it so they can improve upcoming Help Viewer versions.
May 05, 2010 12:07
I don't have a problem that the help now is webbased. I *DO* have a problem with the fact that each computer has to download exactly the same content. We have 100 workstations and now we have to install local MSDN 100 times. Why can't it be served by IIS so that all 100 workstation can use one IIS instance? Where's the synergy between the Microsoft products now?

As VS2010 don't bring that much new features , we stay with VS2008. And the new help system is much to blame. Serious, what idiot thought that a help index is not important.
H3Viewer solved some of the problems. And I still haven't heard from Microsoft the reason WHY the help system is changed. What issues are now solved that justify this horrible help system?
May 05, 2010 12:32
I agree that the downloading 100 times is lame. However, you can download it once and share it with this trick. You can also install the help from your installation disk (or a disk you make) and then only download the changes occasionally.

I will try to get the answer as to WHY it changed, because *I* don't know.
May 05, 2010 14:01
Great! I was missing the index feature so much. Thanks Scott!
May 05, 2010 23:33
I'm still not very impressed. My first test: I want to find some Info for the List<T> class:
it does not exist in the index?
neither "list" not "List<T>" does produce a result in the Index.
I can find "List<T>" in the index, if I enter "list" and then scroll manually down until I find it.
May 06, 2010 3:01
I'm really liking VS 2010... but why is it when I have something like:

linq expression

indented a few tabs in, and I insert a #region between the datatable and the where my tabbing gets all messed up.
May 07, 2010 0:09
Thank you for this gem!

I was fond of DEXPLORE.EXE after getting used to it. So when I first opened the VS2010 local help I cringed at the lack of an index. Ah well, these things happen, at least search was still there.

I'm going to download the Help Viewer Power Tool ASAP.

BTW, MSDN online ScriptFree view absolutely, positively rocks. It's so fast that I've started using online help again. It occasionally misplaces an image but if I really need to see the image in position then I can switch to Classic. The gods of content delivery clearly favor ScriptFree because it's probably the fastest text site I've ever accessed (at least in recent memory).
May 07, 2010 21:19
Thanks for the interesting post, I missed the index feature as well.
May 07, 2010 21:45
Nice work scott, it really helped me.
May 07, 2010 23:08
Thanks Scott! (and to the rest of the people at Microsoft who pushed this out) It's really great to see how responsive you have been to feedback. (and it's great to have my help back!)
May 08, 2010 9:24
I downloaded and setup the tool per your directions. One problem I'm seeing is duplication of index entries. e.g. I look under XPathNavigator.InsertBefore method and there are two XpathNavigaotr.InsertBefore... entries under it. The same is applying all over the index.

Is this a known issue?
May 08, 2010 23:52
we stay with VS2008. And the new help system is much to blame. Serious, what idiot thought that a help index is not important.
May 09, 2010 9:21
Ecki - I filed that bug. It's an encoding problem.

Brian - I'm not seeing that. Uninstall/reinstall? I'll get the author to join us in the comments here, or you can report it in the forums.

RR - You're preaching to the choir.
May 09, 2010 15:08
Very nice, sadly I still tend to use Google search to find MSDN info.
May 10, 2010 10:59
Wow, a help viewer that isn't your web browser -- what a marvellous innovative NEW idea! Oh, hey, waitaminnit...

Do the words "Windows Help" mean anything to anyone?
May 10, 2010 22:22
@Eduardo Molteni : Bing > Google > Local_MSDN.
May 12, 2010 22:09
How do you get this to work in Visual Studio 2010 Express?
May 25, 2010 17:47
"Brock - Doesn't the content tab give you the multi-layered view?"

Nope -- it only show the ancestors and the immediate children. The VS2008 help viewer contents tree view allowed you to expand the nodes in the tree without changing the topic you were viewing. You could then get an idea of how deep the child nodes were and see the siblings as well.
June 25, 2010 6:08
Hi there,

I have a problem with my local MSDN help in VS 2010. Each time I want to install local help from HelpContentSetup.msha I get the error message:

Tag:Help library manger-Microsoft Help Viewer 1.

Message: An exception has occurred. See the event log for details.

I don't know what is the problem.
please hep me with this.


August 26, 2010 13:50
When I press F1 from VS, I always get a new browser tab, which is annoying. Also, when the standalone viewer is running, it doesn't respond to the F1 key so I still get help in the browser. Is this a bug or is something amiss with my system?

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.