The team at MadCap Software has been working on the next version of Flare for several months now, and I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the beta testers who has had an early sneak-peak at what Flare 4 has to offer. Finally, after months of testing, I’m ready to share some of the latest and greatest features that will shortly be available in Flare 4. (I share this information with MadCap’s permission, of course, since I signed a NDA when I agreed to be a Flare beta tester.)
In today’s post, I’ll give you a brief rundown of several new features and changes in Flare 4. In the next several days, I’ll flesh out each topic with more detailed information about how it works, and what you can expect. After Flare 4 is released (soon, I’m told; very soon….) I’ll blog with some tips and tricks for migrating from Flare 3 to Flare 4. So, here we go with ten things to love about Flare 4.
1. Direct to PDF Output
This feature, alone, is worth the price of the Flare upgrade; it is by far, my favorite feature in Flare 4. When you are creating a target, you can select PDF Output as your target type. When you build your target, Flare creates a PDF file directly. You don’t need Word, Acrobat, or Framemaker installed. When you have a PDF target as your primary target, even document previews build in a small, single-topic PDF file so you can see how your document will render in the PDF output.
When I heard Flare would include PDF Output, I was worried that it wouldn’t be helpful; after all, in Flare 3, when I built a Word target, there was a lot of post-processing that I had to do to my Word output file before I could consider it “finished.” (In fact, I did this so often, I kept a list pinned to my cubical wall. Since switching to Flare 4, I’ve removed the list from sight because I don’t need it anymore.)
PDF Output in Flare 4 utilizes the new Page Layout functionality that I’ll discuss later in this article. However, simply put, PDF output with page layouts creates beautiful outputs that are ready for distribution or press. It is that good.
2. Built-in Review Functionality
The latest generation of MadCap products (including Flare 4, Blaze, and I assume we’ll see the same thing in Press when it is available) includes integration with MadCap X-Edit, a product that at the simplest level (read “FREE to download”) allows you to send your documents out for review. The reviewer installs X-Edit Review, and can open your documents, make annotations, and can submit the document back to you. (Currently this works via email.)
X-Edit includes two additional levels of functionality: at the medium level (called X-Edit Contribute), you can create topics that will be used in a Flare or Blaze project. This is a fantastic option for a company where all the project-level work is done by a single user, with many people creating content. You might, for example, have three writers and one publications manager. The publications manager can manage the entire project in Flare (or Blaze), which includes creating and modifying the style sheet, creating and editing targets, and building the project. The individual writers can simply install X-Edit Contribute and they can contribute to the project by creating new topics in the project without requiring a full Flare license. (I don’t know how this will be priced, in comparison to Flare. It will be interesting to see how that comes out.)
At the advanced level, X-Edit becomes a word-processor where you can create content independent of a Flare or Blaze project. Documents created in X-Edit can be saved in the native X-Edit format, as a Flare/Blaze contribution file, as anXHTML document (.htm extension), or as an XPS file.
Integration with X-Edit will probably be most useful to you at either the Review level or at the Contribute level. The ability to send out files to SME’s for review is fantastic, and for the most part this feature works pretty well. One gripe is that you can’t send multiple topics at the same time; you have to open each topic to send it out for review. On one level, I can see why this is frustrating, but on another level, this will encourage writers to send topics for review AS THE TOPICS ARE COMPLETED, rather than waiting for the project to be completed. Consider your SME’s as well, and you can see how this will be a benefit: it’s much easier to find time to review a single topic and send it back; it takes much longer to find time to review a hundred pages of topics.
If you are looking for a way to review content in your Flare project, then this is another reason why Flare 4 is an essential upgrade.
3. Page Layouts
Flare 4 includes a new feature called page layouts. If you’ve used programs like QuarkXPress, Adobe InDesign, or Adobe FrameMaker, you’ll be familiar with the concept of designing page layouts with frames for different types of content.
In Flare 3 and earlier, you were limited in how you could lay out content on a page. You could use headers and footers, and you could modify your content using CSS and divs, but divs didn’t translate properly into Word, and so you were pretty much stuck with a bland page layout. Not in Flare 4, which integrates page layouts for several print-based output types (like XPS and PDF).
Here’s how it works: you define your page size, and then you add blocks to your page where you want content displayed. You can draw a block for where you want an image to always appear, or you can draw a block for a header, footer, or content. You can create all kinds of interesting page layouts with columns, colors (including gradients), and all kinds of eye-pleasing options.
I love page layouts in Flare 4. They aren’t perfect yet, but dog-gonnit, they are cool, and they are evidence that Flare is moving in the right direction as it seeks to compete with some of the more established tools. You’ll be amazed at how good your Flare output can look, right out of the target builder.
4. Enhanced Reports
I’m an active member of the MadCap forums, and when MadCap released Analyzer, the response for Analyzer was great; it’s a nifty tool, but the biggest complaint seemed to be: “Why aren’t these reports available directly in Flare?”
Now they are. Or many of them are. Flare 4 will generate reports on the following conditions (and more):
- Absolute links
- Assigned CSH IDs
- Broken Bookmarks
- Broken Links
- Concept Links
- Duplicate Map IDs
- Duplicate Styles
- Duplicate TOC Items
- External links
- Topics not in Index
- Topics not in any TOC
- Topics not linked
- Undefined condition tags
- Undefined glossary terms
- Undefined styles
- Undefined variables
- Unused conditions
- Unused images
- Unused styles
- Unused variables
- Used Images
- Used Style Sheets
- Used Variables
- Variable suggestions
- …. and more
The reports selected for inclusion in Flare are useful and will help you better manage your content and project. MadCap walked a fine line: you aren’t going to get all the features that are in Analyzer in Flare 4, but you will get some of the most useful reports to help you identify the problems in your Flare 4 project, but of course MadCap is hoping that you’ll want to buy Analyzer as an add-on to help you automate the process of solving the problems you encounter.
5. Global Project Linking
Here we have yet another feature that, in my opinion, makes the upgrade to Flare 4 an absolute must-have: global project linking. Flare has been encouraging writers to single-source content from the very beginning, and provided several tools to do so (snippets, conditions, etc.). Those tools worked great for re-using content within a single project. (I even did a series on content reuse in Flare on this blog.)
Now Flare 4 takes this to the next level by allowing you to re-use content across projects. This means you can have a single style sheet for all your Flare projects, and you can have a single skin file and a single glossary file and a single set of master pages and page layouts…. really any file you can have in a Flare project can be added to the globally-linked project and it can be imported into any other Flare project.
Basically you create a new Flare project, and copy the “master” content into the new project. You will then import the “master” project into all the projects you want to have the shared content. There is a setting where you can re-import the content before a target is built, so you can always have the most recent changes to the master project in your linked project.
Now you can reuse content from every file type used by Flare across as many projects as you want. Finally!
6. Enhanced Help (Guides)
Flare 4 includes several (nine, actually) new user guides to help you with various aspects in using Flare. Located in the Help menu, the following PDF guides are ready for printing:
- Quick Guide
- Getting Started Guide
- What’s New Guide
- Key Features Guide
- Transition from RoboHelp Guide
- Transition from FrameMaker Guide
- Styles Guide
- Printed Output Guide
I’m a print-it-out, read-it-in-print kind of person. I really like these guides, because they give me something to read that helps me understand the application better. For me, a printed guide is a friendly way to become acquainted with a product, and for that reason I think that these guides will help novice and advanced users alike explore what Flare has to offer. At least, I’m enjoying them.
7. Other Output types
I already talked about the PDF output. Really, PDF output deserved its own section because it is so cool, but there are several other new output types that you also get when you upgrade to Flare 4. These other output types are:
- WebHelp AIR (requires Adobe AIR on client machines)
- XHTML Book
You don’t even need to have Adobe AIR installed to create WebHelp AIR output. The AIR output includes all the skin settings for your WebHelp skin, so whether you publish in AIR, WebHelp, or WebHelp Plus, you get a similar looking output.
XHTML Book output allows you to create a pure XHTML output, which might be useful if you are using your content in a home-grown help system for your product.
XPS output works basically like PDF output, and looks pretty much the same. If your deliverable is a Microsoft product, XPS might be the best tool for you. If you are trying to reach a more general audience, you probably should stick with PDF output. XPS is cool, and it has some nifty features for turning pages (like a book) but I haven’t used it much because PDF meets my needs. (Plus, I’m working in a Win-XP environment that doesn’t have support, by default, for XPS.)
8. Cut and Paste
Back when I was new to Flare, when I created my first Flare project I had to decide between importing a FrameMaker file, and creating the project from scratch. I decided that the best way to learn Flare was to create the project from scratch. I soon learned, however, that pasting content into Flare (versions 3 and earlier) wasn’t pleasant. No matter what line breaks existed in the source content, it all pasted into Flare as one long paragraph with no line breaks. I spent a lot of time re-entering paragraph breaks into all my copied content.
Flare 4 includes dramatic improvements for copy and paste. Now when you paste content into Flare, you get a dialog with several options; you can paste content as:
- Blocks of paragraphs (for example, in a <div> tag)
- Inline text (the Flare 3 method)
- Tables (to paste tabular content into a new Flare table)
- Lists (either numbered or bulleted)
- HTML (which retains HTML formatting; this is a good option if you are pasting from Word or another word processing tool)
This is a MAJOR improvement, and works really well. Some might complain about an extra step when pasting content in Flare, but I’d much rather have the option to determine how I want Flare to handle my pasted content. Give me a choice any day!
This is a simple thing, but it makes editing in Flare much easier and more enjoyable.
9. Floating Styles Picker
Of all the things I’ve discussed so far in this article, this next feature is the one I use every day. Multiple times. To select a style from the style sheet in Flare 3, I had to take my right hand off the keyboard, reach for the mouse, drag the cursor to the styles panel, find the style I wanted, and click on it. I got used it it, but I didn’t realize how annoying it was until I discovered a small feature in Flare 4 that is a major usability enhancement: the floating styles picker.
In Flare 4, when you are editing a topic, if you want to select a style, you can press Ctrl + Shift + H (who knows why the letter H, but I’m not arguing), and a floating style panel is displayed. Now you can either reach for your mouse to find your style, or—get this—you can just keep typing, and the style will be selected for you! Is that cool or what?
Say for example, you’re typing along, and you want to change the current paragraph to the h3 style with the class “example”. Your styles panel has an entry for h3.example. As you are typing, all you do is press Ctrl + Shift + H, then type h3.ex and the style is selected. You press Enter, and the style is applied, and you can keep typing. No need to pull your hands off the keyboard.
Again, this is a simple thing, but it really improves the user experience. You will wonder how you created content without it.
10. Mini TOCs for Print-Based Output
If you’ve created Mini-TOCs for online output, you know how it works. You may have a topic at the beginning of a section that gives an overview of that section. Then you could add a mini-TOC that gives a list of links to the child topics to that section (based on the TOC location of that section). In Flare 3, this only worked in online output. Flare 4 allows you to create mini TOCs for both online and print output. So, for example, now your printed outputs can include mini TOCs at the beginning of each chapter or section of content. This makes your output look more professional, and replaces a feature I miss from Framemaker.
I’ve only covered ten of my favorite features in Flare 4, but there are tons of others. The MadCap publication “What’s New Guide” (see item 6, above) is more than seventy pages long, and describes all the new features and enhancements in Flare 4. Some of these enhancements include:
- Context Sensitive Cross References. If the cross reference is to the previous page, instead of saying “page x” the cross reference says “on previous page”, or if its on a facing page, the cross reference says “on facing page”. These smart cross references are a great enhancement.
- Glossary Headings. You can now customize the headings in your glossary, and you can break up your glossary entries by letter. I think it looks a lot nicer, as well.
- Hyphenation. Flare 4 includes an option to automatically hyphenate at the end of lines for print-based output. This is another simple, but nifty feature that improves the professional feel of the output.
- Indexing page ranges. Now when your indexed content spans multiple pages, the page ranges are shown as a range (11-13) rather than a list (11, 12, 13).
- Heading Level Variables. Heading levels in Flare 4 can now be used as variables; this allows you to show the first H1, or h2 on a page (perfect for headers and footers).
- Additional Image Formats. Flare now supports more image formats, including vector-based formats. Flare now supports the following image types:BMP, EMF, EXPS, GIF, HDP, JPG, JPEG, PNG, SWF, TIF, TIFF, WDP, WMF, XAML, XPS.
- Disable Styles. If you don’t use all your styles very often, you can disable the styles that you don’t want to display in the style editor. This doesn’t remove them; it just hides them so your style sheet is less overwhelming.
- Zoom. People have been clamoring for a zoom feature for a long time. Flare 4 includes an option to “zoom” by scaling the font size that is displayed in the XML editor.
Version 4 is a great improvement to the Flare product. There are a ton of new features that will help you become more productive and make your workflow better and faster.
Watch this blog in the coming days for more detailed information about the new features that I love, and advice for how to make use of these features in the best way. I’ll also be including topics on how to migrate from Flare 3 to Flare 4, so I hope you’ll find that useful as well.
See you soon!