Help: You Need It More Than You Think

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You see it staring back at you from the menu bar every day, but do you actually use the Help menu–the Finder's door into the sprawling Mac Help Center and its hundreds of articles on the Mac OS, QuickTime, AppleScript, and other Mac technologies? If you're like most hard-core Mac devotees, you tend to avoid the Mac Help command (or the Mac OS Help command, as it was known before Mac OS 9). After all, isn't all that Help stuff for beginners–the folks who still don't know how to create new folders or where to put their fonts?

True, a lot of Mac Help is devoted to the basics, but within that network of hyperlinked pages are also some valuable reference tools, little-known shortcuts, and even scripts and commands that you can't find anywhere else. Here are some secrets to help you mine Mac Help, whether you're an absolute beginner or an expert user.

Ever try copying a particularly valuable Mac Help entry in order to paste it into another document so you can refer to it later? You can't do it. You can print a Mac Help screen, but it's impossible to select or copy text or graphics displayed in Apple Help Viewer.

Not to worry. Those Help entries are nothing more than HTML pages, and Apple Help Viewer (the small application that displays the files) is really just a very simple, stripped-down Web browser. This means you can open any Mac Help entry using a real Web browser, such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, then select, copy, and paste to your heart's content.

Simply launch your browser, choose either the Open File command from the File menu in Explorer or the Open Page In Navigator command in Netscape, and go to the Help files. (You'll find them in the Help folder inside the System Folder.) Open the Help Center file to display the Mac Help start page. Now you can click on any link in the Mac Help table of contents to open a specific article. (Unfortunately, you can't search for articles, as you can when using Apple Help Viewer.) You can now select text and paste it into other applications, or save a Help file in text format for future reference.

Using a Web browser to view Help files offers a few extra advantages. Your browser's Find command can search for the occurrence of a specific word or phrase in an article. And you can create bookmarks or favorites that link directly to particular Help files so that in future they open instantly.

Imagine being able to create a customized help system for all the users in your office, offering online help tailored to your workflow and procedures. You can do so easily–by modifying the Mac Help files. Because the Help files are HTML documents, you can add, delete, and modify their content by simply editing the files using a Web-authoring program such as Adobe GoLive or Macromedia Dreamweaver (or any text editor if you want to edit raw HTML code). You can, for example, embed your company's tech-support telephone number in the Help articles, letting users know whom to call if they have a problem (see "Help Yourself"). Or you can delete suggestions you'd rather not have users try on their own.

Help Yourself   To customize a Help file, open it in an authoring program such as Adobe GoLive (top) . Your modifications integrate seamlessly into the Help entry that Apple Help Viewer displays (bottom) .

The challenge in performing such customization is finding the specific article you want to edit–the Help articles all have cryptic names such as msAdjst.htm and sgFmSet.htm . To find the one you want, open Mac Help using a Web browser, as outlined previously. Open the article you want to edit, then take a look at the Location bar in your Web browser. The file path displayed there will end with the name of the file you need to edit. Make a note of it; then open that file with your editing application, and you can put your own spin on Apple's help.

The Mac Help system offers more than information. Embedded within some Help pages are scripts that perform tasks otherwise unavailable on your Mac. You activate these scripts by clicking on them within Apple Help Viewer. (To run embedded scripts from within Mac Help, you have to view pages from Apple Help Viewer, not via your Web browser.) For example, the help article "Switching between Open Programs" contains scripts that anchor the Finder's Application Switcher palette to the bottom of your screen–a trick you can't perform from within the Finder. The same article contains another script that allows you to change the default keyboard shortcut (command-tab) used to switch between active programs. To find this article quickly, search for the phrase switching applications .

In Mac OS 9, the AppleScript that automatically adds an alias of a selected item to the Apple menu is available through Mac Help (not from the Apple menu, as in previous versions). Just go to the Apple menu's Help page and click on the link under Adding And Removing Items In The Apple Menu.

Also see: "Improve Your Mac Help Search Results"

When you perform a search using Mac Help, you may see a Broaden My Search link at the bottom of the results page. If you click on it, Apple Help Viewer will repeat your search, generally returning more results.

Just how does Mac Help broaden your search criteria? With a normal search, the search engine first looks for relevant articles only in the specific area of Help you happen to be using–QuickTime Help, AppleScript Help, and so on. When you activate Broaden My Search mode, the engine searches across all of the Mac Help areas simultaneously, often providing a wider range of articles on your topic.

March 2000 page: 95

Watch out–you can't use plain-English Boolean operators, such as AND or NOT, to search Mac Help. Instead, you must use Mac Help's own search characters. You have to type the plus sign (+) rather than AND and the vertical bar character (|) in place of OR. To exclude a particular word from a search, you must type an exclamation point (!) instead of NOT.

The Right Words   Improve the accuracy of your searches by using the correct Boolean search characters.

For example, suppose you want to get details about using Mac OS 9's Voiceprint Password feature. If you search Mac Help for voice AND password , you'll end up with five pages of search results, including irrelevant articles such as "Hearing Spoken Alerts" and "Changing the Volume." But type voice + password, and you'll get just one page of results, with four relevant articles explaining this feature.

One more tip: You can further refine your searches by using parentheses to group search expressions. For example, typing (folder + icons) ! AppleScript searches for Help files that contain the words folder and icons but not the word AppleScript .

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