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Windows 95 help contents
Day 4: The Sophisticated Windows 95 Help Feature

Originally encoded on August 30th, 2015 and published the same day

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Taking a Break

Well, production of this segment started on August 24th, right on Windows 95's 20th anniversary, but knowing fully well I wouldn't be able to meet the "one video every day for a week" schedule, I just kicked back for a while after releasing the third segment. It wouldn't be until the 30th that I'd pick up where I left off.

Quality Crisis

So, WinHelp was the next subject at hand... well, in order for a function like HELP to be at its strongest, you have to be able to CLEARLY read the text, and doing just that ended up being a lot more difficult than I hoped given I was lacking good capture equipment.

Even though I had a computer with a Core i7 3930K and 24GB of RAM to do pretty much anything as fast as possible on the side of capturing, editing, and encoding videos, I was still stuck in the dark ages when it came to capturing display output clearly using any method. Many attempts to go high definition consistently have been made in the past, but all of them were unsatisfactory.

The first time I tried anything related to high definition was way back in 2009, when I bought an Insignia camera from Best Buy to make the jump to 720p. The camera itself was okay. It had acceptable quality and I recorded quite a bit on there, but the format it produced seemed to be of the weird kind... it may have been in an AVI container, but I recall I was not able to use it with any of my Macs in iMovie or Final Cut. According to one unboxing video of the next camcorder I got, I said this thing needed a "driver" (an outlandish codec I guess) in order to even play back any clips, and Macs were out of the question.

I had no choice but to use someone else's computer running Windows in order to get somewhere, as I didn't really think to use FFmpeg to simply convert the recordings at the time. So began a nightmare of tossups on which camcorders to use for each job... I ended up favoring my Panasonic PV-GS120 MiniDV camcorder in the end, as I preferred to have something that could make recordings which my Macs could use natively.

Top of box for Panasonic SDR-H80 camcorder

Even so, I picked up a Panasonic SDR-H80 on January 31st, 2010. That camcorder wasn't even high definition, but I figured at least trying to go tapeless had to do me some kind of favor. Right? Well, I ended up with the same punishments for being a hippie Mac user. I ended up using ffmpegX, an old GUI encapsulation of FFmpeg and other tools to convert every clip from some strange format (I forget what) to MOV or MP4. It worked, but left me with redundant clips in the end. The other issue is that I never figured out how to convert all clips in a folder in a batch process, if that was even available there. Should I really settle for tedious manual work of converting each and every clip myself? Fuck that shit, back to MiniDV again!

Eventually I started using a PV-GS80, a lesser MiniDV camcorder model compared to what I had before selling it off, but with widescreen recording, 'cuz ooh gotta be widescreen it the new! Even though the iPod Touch and iPad I respectively got in 2011 and 2012 both had pretty good cameras, it was still a pain in the ass to deal with them, because they were "devices" and couldn't just use plain old storage media. For many years, I would continue to stick to MiniDV as my preferred recording format.

That's only on the camera side of things. When it comes to recording computer screens, often one would want to capture them with the same level of quality as a screen recorder like CamStudio, Fraps, or OBS Studio. (HyperCam and Bandicam don't count here because they're shit)

um COMPUTERS though...........

But PC emulation was hardly anything like it is now, and it's not really as exciting as the real thing, anyway. The best option was to try to find a device which could directly capture VGA output so all of it could be stored in clips very close to the quality of screen recordings. Finding the perfect solution turned out to be much more of a clusterfuck than I expected.

On December 14th, 2014, I got myself all the equipment I needed for a very cumbersome video capture solution. It was comprised of a Blackmagic Intensity Shuttle I think I got the year before, and a Sewell Manta VGA to HDMI upscaler. I had high hopes of pulling far ahead of the curve with this setup, so that 2015 could be full of many more great videos about old computers. The converter was able to display video output from my 486 computer to an HDMI monitor... though I'm not sure if it was actually capable of doing so with 70Hz text output. It didn't matter, because the Intensity Shuttle simply would not take any of the output. With much regret, I returned the upscaler and sold off the capture device.

Windows NT User Manager for Windows 95 showing info for user boring: Card Cage Boy - A boring user account with average delegation

I tried once again to find a good video capture solution, and bought some kind of StarTech capture card which I tested on April 9th, 2015. This one used a PCI Express interface and had a DVI port, but I could just plug in a simple VGA adapter and carry on. Well, it solved half of the problem, as captures in 1024x768 looked good enough. But... whadaya know... it still missed the mark on text mode output! It may have not been such a big deal for some others, but it was to me. I wanted to capture the full, seamless process of a bootup.

I saw getting a good capture device as futile at that point, so I gave up, returned that card, and settled for either native S-Video output or a cheapo PC to TV adapter that would feed into my Canopus ADVC-110. I don't know why I did that in retrospect, as the cheapo adapter also sucked at capturing text mode output properly. It regularly offshot the output out of the frame a bit, which is why I had to use a camcorder alongside the direct capture until the GUI setup program was reached.


Windows 95 help tooltip in Network Control Panel

So that brings us to this point, where I was now stuck with all I had. It really sucked, but what could I do? Buy another better capture device again and run into the exact same problems? I ended up doing something a bit crafty to get some key text to be readable: I used the Print Screen key to get a screenshot of every "What's This?" tooltip I needed, cropped them to the relevant area, and did a thing in Premiere where I upscaled the tips. Hey, it helps. Those tooltip screenshots were taken on August 30th when I finally finished up the video.

It wasn't a very practical approach, though. I ended up making a screen recording of a VMware virtual machine outright when I got around to recording other bits of the help system! I sure wasn't happy to resort to that, but at least it gave me the perfect clarity I wanted.

Help Crisis

Enough about my recording troubles, let's talk about how much of a mess Windows Help became after Windows 95.

Everyone has to know how much of a success Windows 95 was, and it's not unreasonable to believe its advanced help system played a major role in that. After all, we were dealing with an entirely new interface, and for it to work on as large of a scale as possible, there had to be integral instructions on how to use it. Sure, a manual exists, but integrating these instructions and explanations right into the user interface must've done wonders to help ensure its widespread acceptance. Other subtle things in the Windows 95 interface made it work for everyone, of course, which led to it replacing the Macintosh Finder as the defining standard for what a GUI should be.

Even so, the WinHelp format used by Windows 95 is really just a major evolution of the one used by Windows 3.0, which is compiled with an RTF file following a certain syntax. I myself have some familiarity with building WinHelp files, having written the extended help documentation for Windows 95D Lite. It's a good format, as it gives me everything I could ask for in some "on-line" interactive help documentation.

When Windows 98 came about, a new help format was introduced to replace the old WinHelp kind. Now, let me be clear here: HTML is not a bad format for creating help documentation at all. It comes with some essential formatting features and a built-in function that lets you create links to other pages and anchor points. Simple HTML is an ideal format for ensuring documentation can be as accessible as possible, and many web browsers support a wider variety of image formats like GIF, JPEG, and PNG, all which are leaner than the BMP format WinHelp uses. I know that WinHelp files have compression of their own, I just figure it's worth pointing this out.

So, that has its merits, but I still find Microsoft's approach to implementing HTML Help very questionable. For one, the new Compiled HTML Help format is tied in with Internet Explorer 4.0, meaning users can't even read it unless they have that installed. But what if you'd rather use another browser? Tough luck!

HTML Help is supposed to replace the old format, of course, yet it can't. WinHelp continued to exist behind its back, but only for those "What's This?" tooltips; the WinHelp files could not be browsed. When WinHelp was killed off some time before Windows Vista's release, so too did that very neat little instant context feature die. Actually, a few programs still implement such a thing, but they basically have to do it themselves.

From what I'm hearing, local help documentation doesn't even seem to be much of a thing in Windows anymore. Even for the excessive growth in gigabytes which later versions of Windows take up, it's just not there. Everything's too internet-centric now. I mean, what gives? Everyone only ever does an internet search to get their computing problems solved these days...

Compare how the radical new interface of Windows 95 was accompanied by an extensive documentation to what Windows 8 was paired with... there was next to no explanation on how to do anything even with prior familiarity with a touchscreen telephone. I cannot tell you how infuriating the Windows 8 beta was when I tried that.