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RoboHelp 10 Review

By Tony Self

RoboHelp has been around for a long time; in fact, for 21 years. Adobe's latest release of RoboHelp is badged as version 10, but this is actually the 18th version to have appeared under the banners of BlueSky, eHelp, Macromedia, and Adobe since 1991. (See The Definitive Guide to RoboHelp Version Numbers by Column McAndrew.)

It is probably fair to say there are three categories of buyers for RoboHelp 10: existing users (upgraders), users of other HATs changing to RoboHelp (migrators), and new HAT users. For upgraders, RoboHelp 10 has a warm and comfortable vibe, because it retains the look-and-feel of versions since RoboHelp 8. For migrators, RoboHelp 10 has many similarities with most other HATs. Apart from getting used to a different nomenclature, migrators will have little difficulty in transitioning to RoboHelp. New users, however, may well be dismayed at the ageing interface that looks like it came from the last century.

Balance is hard to achieve. One of the complaints about Microsoft Word is that existing users have to re-learn the product each time a major interface changes is made, and learn a whole new vocabulary of ribbons, quick parts, etc. But new users seem to have less trouble, and Word 2010 is, for example, far easier for a novice to use than Word 97.

Screen shot showing top left of Adobe RoboHelp 10 user interface

RoboHelp 10 interface - comfortably familiar yet dated

A product review of RoboHelp 10 presents the reviewer with the question of what audience to write for. A review explaining how version 10 is different from version 9 doesn't provide any illumination for a potential new user. And describing the perennial features of RoboHelp doesn't help an experienced user decide whether to upgrade. This review attempts to satisfy both audiences by describing the new version in a broader context, but the Adobe Web site provides a What's New page that current RoboHelp users will find to be a useful addendum to this review.

Staying Relevant in the Mobile Revolution

The Adobe team must be used to these sort of dilemmas in working out how to keep a successful but ageing product relevant and vital. When you think about it, the basics of topic-based Help authoring haven't really changed since the dawn of hypertext. All hypertext systems are made up of two building blocks: topics and links. An authoring tool has to provide easy and efficient ways to create topics, and to manage links (including specialised linking devices such as tables of contents and indices). While there are different architectural approaches, once a tool has chosen a particular architecture, it only takes a few versions before the topic and link authoring is pretty much optimal. And RoboHelp has had optimal topic and link authoring for many years.

So, why are there new versions at all? The reason is that while topic and link authoring hasn't changed, the rest of the "ecosystem" has. The operating system keeps changing. User expectations change. The need for content re-use and single-sourcing grow. The size, resolution and number of desktop monitors are all increasing. The underlying Web technologies change. Flash is giving way to HTML5. But most importantly, the delivery platforms have changed dramatically. A delivery platform is a fancy term for the way in which you distribute your documents to your audience.

And let's not overlook that HATs are no longer just Help Authoring Tools. They are single-source authoring and publishing tools. You can use RoboHelp to create a printed manual, a Web site, an eBook, and a Help system suitable for display on a mobile phone from the one single set of source topics and links.

Output Formats

As expected, the changes in RoboHelp 10 mainly concern document delivery. Creating user assistance for mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets is a new challenge for technical communicators. RoboHelp now provides the following "single source layouts" as standard:

  • Multi-screen HTML5 (for multiple mobile and desktop devices)
  • eBook
  • HTML-based WebHelp and WebHelp Pro
  • FlashHelp and FlashHelp Pro
  • Microsoft HTML Help
  • JavaHelp
  • Oracle Help
  • Eclipse Help
  • Adobe AIR Help
  • Printed documentation (Word and PDF)

The new output that opens new horizons is multi-screen HTML5. The name is a bit confusing, but it means that in the one single source layout (SSL) you can define how HTML5 output will appear on many different device screens. If you are writing content for publishing to Apple iPads and Samsung Galaxy tablets, for example, you can configure the multi-screen HTML5 SSL so that it has instructions for display on iPad, and instructions for display on Galaxy. (This is a simple example... your multi-screen SSL could have separate definitions for a dozen different device screens, if needed.) These different screen variants within an SSL are called "screen profiles".

Typical screen profile configuration for Multi-screen HTML5 output

Typical screen profile configuration for Multi-screen HTML5 output

The particular mobile devices that we may need to publish for, in mid 2012, include Kindle Fire, eBook readers, iPhone and iPad, and Android phones and tablets. You can be sure that in 12 months time, or six or three months time, there will be a new set of devices, such as pico-projectors. Consequently, RoboHelp allows for you to define your own "screen profiles": the characteristics that define a device's screen. For example, if you need to deliver documents to users with Android-based smart TV units (those that can display mobile phone apps on a TV screen) with a resolution of 1920 x 1080, you can create a new screen profile based on the Android phone profile to suit.

Adding a new screen profile in RH10

Adding a new screen profile in RoboHelp 10

You would then need to nominate an accompanying "screen layout" from the collection of 18 provided with RoboHelp (at least 20 more can be downloaded if required!), or create your own to define how the content and navigation blocks are displayed within the profile. Finally, you would need to modify the cascading style sheet, or CSS (more on that later).

Examples of different output layouts in RoboHelp 10

Examples of different output layouts now possible

If a new pico projector becomes popular enough, Adobe will release new screen profiles and layouts with characteristics. Links in the profile and layout dialog boxes allow you to quickly check online for new Adobe additions.

"Screen layouts" are to the multi-screen HTML5 SSL as "Skins" are to the legacy WebHelp SSL. However, while skins allow you to control the look-and-feel of the navigation elements of the tri-pane design, screen layouts allow you to define precisely how every different block will be displayed on the screen. This means you can define columns, have tables of contents in different locations, choose where the search panel and search results will display, etc. The result of this is profound flexibility and control. The "Desktop Social" sample screen layout (below) provided with RoboHelp, although not pretty, shows the extent to which the layout and design can be controlled. A lot of thought has obviously gone into profile and layout configuration.

            Sample Screen Layout in RoboHelp 10

Sample Screen Layout in RoboHelp 10

The term "HTML5" crops up a lot in RoboHelp 10. HTML5 is a new version of the HTML standard with extremely rich multimedia support, and was developed to provide a better environment for mobile device apps. At the risk of over-simplifying, HTML5 lets you have Flash-like features in Web pages without using Flash. Features that used to be implemented with embedded objects, JavaScript and DHTML can now be created in HTML. From the RoboHelp perspective, this means that frames, expanding/collapsing tables of contents and navigation toolbars can be generated as HTML5 during the publishing process. The downside at present is that not all desktop browsers fully support HTML5 (although most mobile browsers do).

The proliferation of screen resolutions and sizes has also elevated the importance of the "media" feature built into CSS many years ago. RoboHelp 10 now provides good support for the media rules and media queries. In short, media rules allow different formatting to be defined for different reading media (such as print media, TV media, screen media, etc). Media queries allow rules to be set based on the user's current screen resolution, along the lines of " if the width of the screen is less than 640 pixels, use this 11pt text size, otherwise use 14pt ".

While this talk of single source layouts, screen profiles, screen layouts, and CSS media types might sound awfully complicated and unwieldy, these settings are typically only made once, and for the entire life of your project are selected by name in a dialog box.

eBooks and Mobile Apps

The multi-screen output opens up many opportunities for publishing to configurations beyond the old tri-pane design, for some authors two other outputs will be even more important. Version 10 introduces the ability to publish content as native mobile apps (for Android or iOS), and further develops eBook output options to include Kindle (.mobi) and ePUB 2.1 and 3 standards. Generating these types of output is as trivial as any of the single-source layouts, which is as it should be. The work in developing single-sourced documents should be in the writing, not in the generation.

PDF Review

Although introduced in an earlier version, the PDF Review feature has slipped under the radar of some RoboHelp users. It allows the Help author to produce a PDF version of the project suitable to send to reviewers and subject matter experts. The reviewing features in the free Adobe Reader (not just the fully-fledged Adobe Acrobat) allow comments to be added, and deletions, insertions and edits to be marked up. The reviewed PDF document can then be re-imported into RoboHelp, with callouts, insertions, deletions, replacements and sticky notes all converted into tracked changes in RoboHelp. This very slick feature seems impossible, but uses metadata in the generated PDF to provide the association between the words and paragraphs in the PDF with their source in the RoboHelp project.

Screen capture showing the PDF review menu items in RoboHelp 10

PDF Review export and import menu items in RoboHelp 10

If reviewers are also RoboHelp users, the Track Changes feature in RoboHelp can also be used. This operates in a similar way to Microsoft Word's Track Changes feature. Track Changes works better in a source-control environment such as that offered by RoboSource (which is still bundled as part of the standard RoboHelp product).

Screen capture showing Track Changes feature in RoboHelp 10

Tracked changes in RoboHelp

An addition to the PDF Review functionality, version 10 has two status settings, Sent for Review and Review, which make it easier to track which topics have been generated into PDF Review documents. Another PDF Review change in version 10 is support for conditional text and dropdown text.


One of the strengths of RoboHelp is the authoring interface itself. While there are some aspects that new users take a while to get used to, an experienced user can work very quickly and efficiently. Provided you use the features the way they are intended to be used, RoboHelp lets you concentrate on the task of writing by separating the formatting into separate presentation layer files. These presentation layer components include master pages (once known as templates), CSS files, skins, and the aforementioned screen layouts and profiles. The "bread and butter" work remains crafting words, sentences and paragraphs, which you accomplish using a refreshingly simple editor.

While there are no spectacular new features in RoboHelp 10, there are scores of improvements across the entire breadth of the product.

  • The multi-file find and replace utility has been improved and better integrated into RoboHelp.
  • Improved search engine optimisation compatibility.
  • The CSS editor now supports for some CSS3 features.
  • The scripting (to allow automation of bulk tasks) now supports event-based triggers.
  • Authoring and publishing from network drives is now possible.
  • Authoring using multiple monitors is now possible.
  • HTML-based content can now be tested locally with Google Chrome, in addition to other browsers.
  • Context-sensitive Help APIs for Android and iOS mobile apps are now included.
  • When authoring, you can preview the current topic in a multi-framed window with different screen outputs in each frame. (This is very cool!)
  • A topic can be previewed with different CSS media types set.
  • Baggage files, such as PDF and DOC support files, can be excluded from (or included in) the full-text search for HTML5 output.
  • Microsoft HTML Help (CHM) output can be generated using a WebHelp skin, instead of the now dated standard CHM rendition.

            Multi-screen topic preview in RoboHelp 10

Multi-screen topic preview

Different existing RoboHelp users will appreciate different improvements. For me, the best improvements have been allowing user-defined variables (such as product names) to be used in topic titles and index entries, and the addition of a code-based CSS editor to supplement the existing visual editor. (The new code CSS editor has colour-coded text with "smart auto-completion" and validation.

The ease of use of the basic features of RoboHelp is such that it can lull new users into thinking that training is not necessary. This is almost always a mistake, because some enormously time-saving features (such as variables and snippets, or the reporting options) may be overlooked.

SharePoint Support

For authors working in a SharePoint environment, the new integration in version 10 will be a godsend. Firstly, SharePoint can now be used for version control of RoboHelp content. (You can alternatively continue to use the RoboSource product, still shipped with RoboHelp 10, for source control, or any other Microsoft SCC-compliant version control system.) Content can also be reviewed using the SharePoint workspace. If you use the Resource Manager to re-use content across different RoboHelp projects, that content too can be controlled with SharePoint. Finally, Web-based output can be generated and published natively to SharePoint, with a .aspx file extension.

Screen capture showing RoboHelp 10 SharePoint configuration

SharePoint publishing features in RoboHelp 10

If you haven't used RoboHelp before, a single source layout is a delivery format; you work in the source format of XHTML, but output into one or many delivery formats as required. Due to the greater complexity in document delivery options, single source layouts can now be nuanced through "screen profiles" and "screen layouts".

DITA Support

DITA support is poor, but when you think about the emphasis on delivery formats, this is not unexpected. DITA is about the separation of content and form, whereas RoboHelp's new feature all relate around form, not content. FM is central to Adobe's DITA strategy, so DITA authors wanting an Adobe solution should look to Technical Communication Suite 4, which includes FrameMaker 11, which is a powerful DITA editor and layout tool.


Although it can be purchased separately, RoboHelp 10 is part of Technical Communication Suite 4 (TCS 4). This suite of products comprises RoboHelp, FrameMaker, Illustrator, Acrobat, Captivate, Presenter, and Bridge. The biggest change over the previous TCS 3 is that Illustrator is now in the suite, instead of Photoshop. The suite is very cost-effective; as a rough rule of thumb, if you need two or more of the products in the suite, buying the suite will save money.

Adobe Hurdles and Help

While many of the broader Adobe approaches may be well-meaning, they do provide hurdles that need to be jumped before using (or even installing) RoboHelp. For example, to install RoboHelp you will need an Adobe ID. Some people concerned with data privacy may greet this requirement with suspicion and genuine concern.

It would be logical to assume that a market-leading Help Authoring Tool would have excellent Help, but getting the Help running for the first time requires lots of settings, downloads, and granting of permissions. RoboHelp 10, along with other TCS 4 products, uses Adobe Help Manager (an AIR-based content installation utility), which runs in the system tray to check for new or updated content. This seems to complicate the Help invocation. On the bright side, though, there have been welcome improvements, however, in the Help system in RoboHelp 10. And there is a splendid array of online tutorials on the Adobe TV site.


For existing RoboHelp users, upgrading to version 10 will enable them to produce many different output formats to many different devices, and with very little new to learn. The multi-screen HTML5 output in particular is amazing, and will make it possible for Help authors to produce quality output for the whole spectrum of new and emerging reading devices. But even the venerable WebHelp output has been tuned up, with better search functionality. Nearly all of the benefits of upgrading relate to the output, although the scores of minor interface enhancements will no doubt improve productivity (and in some cases eliminate niggling annoyances). None of the interface changes are individually spectacular, but that should be expected in such a mature product.

If you are a user of another product thinking of migrating, RoboHelp does much the same thing as other HATs, so you should make sure that the benefits provided by RoboHelp outweigh the cost of learning a different tool. Unfortunately, I have seen people switch tools because they were frustrated by the apparent difficulty of using another tool, when unrealistic expectations, or lack of training, were the root cause. Those people are invariably disappointed when they find the new tool also needs investment in training before it becomes familiar. (I have encountered people who use only the Word import function of a HAT, and develop complicated authoring workflows to suit, without understanding that content can be edited inside the HAT!)

If your existing tool cannot produce output to the types of devices you need to publish to, then you should consider migrating to RoboHelp.

For users fresh to Help authoring, RoboHelp is a low-risk choice; it is widely used, is robust, can produce the types of output typically (and even atypically) needed, is easy for a "lone writer" to use, and has a relatively small learning curve. For organisations who already use other Adobe products, it is an even easier choice.

  • What's New in Adobe RoboHelp 10
  • Multiscreen HTML5 in RoboHelp 10
  • RoboHelp 10 Reviewer's Guide
  • Technical Communication Suite 4

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