Announcing Microsoft Help Viewer 2.0 Developer Preview

UPDATE: This post describes features introduced in the Microsoft Help Viewer 2.0 Developer Preview. Additional features were delivered in Help Viewer 2.0 Beta and in Help Viewer 2.0 RTM.

The Microsoft Help Viewer 2.0 Developer Preview is now available as part of the Visual Studio 11 Developer Preview. Get the bits at:

Here’s a quick tour of some of the key changes we’ve made from release 1.1 to 2.0 of the Help Viewer.

Setup and Configuration

The first thing you’ll notice is that we’ve removed the “Install Documentation” button from the Visual Studio Setup Finish Page. Too many developers (and Microsoft executives) were missing the “big blue button” during Visual Studio setup. Instead, you’ll be offered the chance to download local help content at Visual Studio first run or when you first set your Help Preference to “Use Local Help.” (Online Help is still the Visual Studio default.)

In addition, you can now set your Help Preference directly from the Visual Studio Help menu.


Content Management

The capabilities of the Help Library Manager have been incorporated into the newly added Help Viewer “Manage” tab. The standalone Help Library Manager is gone. One of the key new features is the ability to relocate your local content store.


If a download is interrupted (for any reason) and restarted by the user at a later time, the Help Viewer won’t re-download any content that has already been transferred. This can save you a lot of time and is especially useful on poor Internet connections. An estimated download size is now displayed before you kick off a transfer to help you better manage bandwidth costs.

Content is downloaded in the background using the Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS). You can continue to use the Help Viewer, close the Help Viewer application or even reboot your system once a download has been initiated. When the transfer is complete, the help system automatically updates all help system artifacts (table of contents, search index, keyword index, etc.) without requiring a restart of the Help Viewer.

One other change you’ll see in the viewer is that we’ve added support for dockable windows (something I’ll discuss more in a future post).

Search Filters

The search box now provides search filters. Two filters are supported in the CTP – Title and Code. If you enter “title:foo” in the search box, your search results will be limited to topics that contain the string “foo” in the topic title. If you enter “code:bar”, you’ll get search results limited to topics with the string “bar” in a code example. You can use multiple filters per query and they can be used in combination, for example: “topic:datetime code:datetime code:tryparseexact”.


The Code filter also has a set of sub-filters that enable language-specific searches:

Long Name Short Name
csharp c#
cpp c++
fsharp f#
javascript <none>
visualbasic vb

If you want to look for topics that contain the string “foo” in a C# code example, you can search on “code:c#:foo” or “code:csharp:foo”. For example:


New Help Runtime

I’ve saved the best for last. If you look closely, you’ll see that we no longer install the Help Library Agent! The new help runtime has a COM API and the same lifecycle as the Help Viewer. It won’t clutter up your taskbar and it provides improved performance and memory footprint.

But there’s more. Windows 8 incorporates the Visual Studio 11 help runtime API. The Windows 8 “Windows Help and Support” viewer uses the same local help API for content retrieval and the same file and content formats as Visual Studio 11. Because Visual Studio has a need to support down-level operating systems, the help API ships as two different binaries. In Windows 8 it ships as Windows.Help.Runtime.dll and in Visual Studio 11 it ships as Microsoft.VisualStudio.Help.Runtime.dll. The same source code is used to build both DLLs.

In Closing

We spent a lot of time during this release incorporating the runtime into Windows so we didn’t get all of our Help Viewer features done in time for the Developer Preview. In particular, the work we’ve done to incorporate additional filtering features into the Help Viewer won’t be ready until our Beta release.

Please let us know what you think about the Help Viewer 2.0 Developer Preview. As always, you can:

  1. Leave a comment at the bottom of this blog post
  2. Send us an email at
  3. Share your thoughts on the Developer Documentation and Help System Forum

(Continue reading about features in the Microsoft Help Viewer 2.0 Beta release.)

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  1. Markus
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    You change help systems way too often! First HLP, then CHM, then HH2 and now Help Viewer 2.0.

    Please decide for one and: STICK TO IT! (for a longer period of time)

    • Tom Yates
      Posted September 16, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink


      I’d add that in the process of continued switching from one help system to another, you are losing features and breaking things that used to work (like finding a topic in the table of contents, this used to work great, but you have broken it in VS2010 and still haven’t fixed it for a great deal of topics). You did add a couple of features like examples in multiple languages, but, to be absolutely honest, it looks like you have broken far more things than you have added or improved.

  2. Posted September 16, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    “we no longer install the Help Library Agent”

    Thank you for this. It’s the little but constant annoyances that often have the biggest impact, and this was a constant little annoyance.

  3. Posted September 17, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I just wonder: who is the genius, introducing all those “improvements” that make our lives more miserable each time they are released.

  4. Ktc
    Posted September 23, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    As a long time developer who uses Microsoft tools, I learned that every time there is a new version of Visual Studio, there will also be a new version of Help. Every time the Microsoft people will say that the previous version was bad, that a lot of users have been asking to replace it with something else, that the new version is much much better, much faster, much cleaner, much whatever, and is overall so amazing that it will serve as “the Help system” for a long long time. Of course when the next version of Visual Studio hits, there will be yet another version of Help, and we will hear that the previous would-be-foundation-for-eternities version of Help was ultimately not good enough. In addition to this, every next version of Help will lose a couple of useful features from previous versions (really, the best Microsoft can do here is fluctuate, eg, between having and not having a “Help Library Agent”, having and not having Index, etc, the search and many other features that do need improvements continue to stay inept).

    This is nuts. But this is what really happens.

  5. Tom Spilman
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink


    So how about a positive comment… it looks like a great update to me.

    All i want to know is can we redistribute the 2.0 help viewer with our own applications? Will it be backwards compatible and run on Vista and Windows 7? This would make it a true replacement for CHM help which is now like 15 years old.

  6. Posted October 4, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I love Help Viewer 2.0!… Keep up the good work 🙂

  7. Posted October 4, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    To justify the above 🙂 The new Help Viewer was reason enough for to switch back to VS’s help system after ~3 years of using IE’s tabs and MSDN online… Nice!!!

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