Introducing Microsoft Help Viewer 2.0

Microsoft Help Viewer 2.0 is now available as part of Visual Studio 2012. With this release of the Help Viewer, our goal was to deliver a fast, simple and highly productive reference experience while making it easier to discover and manage local help content.

  • If you are a current/former Document Explorer user, you’ll find that this new Help Viewer is faster, provides fresher content and eliminates the dreaded first-time F1 penalty.
  • If you currently use Help Viewer 1.x, you’ll benefit from integrated content management and productivity improvements to search, TOC and the keyword index.
  • If you use the online MSDN Library exclusively, I encourage you to try out the Help Viewer. It provides several features not available in the online MSDN Library, notably the keyword index and the TOC filter. Many developers appreciate the productivity benefits of the Help Viewer index when looking up familiar APIs.

Help Viewer screenshot

Before I discuss the new features in Help Viewer 2.0, I should point out that MSDN documentation is not installed by VS 2012. Use the Manage Content tab in Help Viewer to select and download documentation for local use. If your development machine doesn’t have access to the internet, you can create an install disk or order a documentation DVD.

In addition, with this final, RTM release we’ve made some improvements to the behavior of Help Viewer if the content you need is *not* locally available. Read on.

Cool New Feature: Redirect-to-Web

A new feature of Help Viewer that I haven’t discussed previously is “Redirect-to-Web.”

We can’t eliminate hyperlinks between books when we package content for offline use. Unless all MSDN content is installed, developers will inevitably click on a link to a topic that’s not locally available. When that happens, Help Viewer 1.x automatically displays its equivalent of a 404 message: Topic Not Found.

However, when Help Viewer 2.0 hits a link that’s not local, it redirects to the web. The correct MSDN topic will display in the Help Viewer as long as two conditions are met:

  1. You have a live connection to the web.
  2. “Go online to get content and check for updates” is checked in Help Viewer options.  (Unchecking this box disables the Redirect-to-Web feature.)

You can easily tell when content is being displayed from the web because the topic displays a banner with the following message:


Note the “Select a book to download” link on the right-hand side of the message banner.  Click on that link to display a drop-down that helps you discover and download a book that contains the topic you’re viewing. This feature, which works with F1 help as well, really reduces the inconvenience of not having the right help content installed locally.

Help Viewer 2.0 Features

I’ve blogged about many of the new features during the development of Help Viewer 2.0. You can read more about the following features in my post on the Developer Preview:

  • Simpler setup and configuration
  • Local content management integrated into the Help Viewer
  • Search filters
  • Help Runtime incorporated into Windows 8 (Help Library Agent eliminated!)

…and about these features in my post on the Beta release:

  • TOC Filter
  • Keyword Index: “Begins With” vs. “Contains”
  • Docking Windows
  • Color Themes
  • Search Filter UI
  • Improved Performance

Finally, here’s a link to the official Microsoft Help Viewer 2.0 help documentation.

Alternatives to Help Viewer

Those of you who prefer a help experience that’s integrated into the Visual Studio IDE should check out Jason Josephy’s Visual Studio 2012 Integrated Help Extension. This extension, written by a member of the Help Viewer development team, consumes the same API used by Help Viewer 2.0 but displays help within the IDE. (Note that you’ll still need to manage your local content using the Help Viewer application. Click on “Add and Remove Help Content” in the Visual Studio Help menu.)

If you’re interested in building your own help utility or just want to learn more about the help runtime API, check out the Microsoft Help Viewer 2 Runtime API Samples on CodePlex.

Provide Feedback

We welcome your feedback on Help Viewer:

  1. Leave a comment at the bottom of this blog post
  2. Send us an email at, or
  3. Share your thoughts on the Visual Studio General Questions forum (note that the Developer Documentation and Help System forum has recently been retired)

Thank You

In closing, I want to thank the Help Viewer team for their dedication to the needs of developers across several challenging releases. As you can see in The Story of Help in Visual Studio 2010, we put this team through a lot of change and churn and they responded with grace and professionalism. It has been a privilege to work with them.

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  1. Soronel Haetir
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink


    As I said in one of my earlier comments, I am completely blind and so use a keyboard for all operations (most of the time I don’t even have a mouse hooked up because it is too easy to bump one and do something I don’t intend.

    Is there a quick keyboard method to switch focus from the TOC pane to the topic pane? The method I have found is quite cumbersome, involving hitting ctrl+tab until the pane for the topic comes up. Switching back to the toc is equally slow.

    I have looked through the keyboard page under accessibility (,d=hv.2%29.aspx )for the product and while there were a few interesting things nothing to perform these specific tasks is listed.

    I will also add that I continue to find the lack of first letter navigation in the TOC very painful. In dexplore I tended to work with a great deal of the TOC expanded, with most of the third level and even some of the fourth open as a matter of course). Having that structure more or less memorized and being able to type a few letters, hit hit and actually have focus be on the topic page was a far better experience than what your new viewer provides. Another improvement would be an option to turn off loading a topic every time the TOC selection changes, especially when there is no mechanism for skipping around in the TOC having each topic load both slows down operation and messes up the page back and forward sequence someone might be trying to build up.

    A far less surprising sequence would be: find the page you want in the toc, hit enter, the page loads and focus shifts to the topic pane, which honestly is pretty much what dexplore did. It is also what the h3viewer program for the prevision iteration of help viewer content does. Perhaps make a distinction between keyboard and mouse selection of a TOC item, and continue to load the page when it is clicked (or perhaps double clicked) by a mouse user, but not load it until enter is hit for a keyboard user.

    Now, I will admit in dexplore there was no default binding to sync the TOC with the current page, but with the provided options screen it was easy enough to add. And I must agree with the earlier comment about having the content management tab open all the time, that is a rare operation and so should be relegated to something off the main screen. Having it open has made several attempted operations go off track in my attempts to use the program.

    • Jeff Braaten
      Posted February 26, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      The best method in HV 2.0 for moving focus from the Contents pane to a topic pane is to use the Ctrl + Number shortcut key:

      Ctrl + Number Switch to a specific tab where Number is between 1 and 9 (inclusive) corresponding to the topic tab sequence. For example, CTRL + 1 shifts focus to the leftmost topic in the topic pane.

      To switch back to the Contents pane, press Alt + C.

      Unfortunately, this is tab-level navigation and doesn’t address your real need which is to navigate back-and-forth between a topic and its representation in the navigation pane. Based on your feedback, I’ve submitted the following feature suggestions to the engineering team:

      1. “Need a shortcut key to navigate from an item in the navigation pane (Contents, Index, Favorites and Search) to its associated topic and back.”
      2. “Add an option to turn off loading a topic every time the TOC selection changes. In this mode, the user must actively select a topic before the page loads and focus shifts to the topic pane.”

      Your other suggestions, “First letter navigation in the TOC (accessibility issue)” and “Only display the Manage Content tab when selected,” are already in the team’s backlog.

      These types of features benefit both accessibility and productivity. Thanks for taking time to provide this feedback.

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