How to run legacy help files in Windows 7

Add legacy support for the older Windows Help format to Microsoft Windows 7.

In a recent blog post, Migrate 3D Pinball for Windows Space Cadet from XP to Windows 7, I showed you how to make Windows XP's 3D Pinball for Windows - Space Cadet game run in Windows 7. Fortunately, the Pinball game was essentially a stand-alone program in that it didn't require an installation routine — you just copied the executable and all the associated files to a folder on your Windows 7 systems hard disk. Once the files are present, you can just run the program's executable file.

However, that's not the case with most software applications, which require that you run an installation routine that integrates the program and all its associated files into the operating system. And, as you may know from firsthand experience in the past, this type of operation is often fraught with problems. Fortunately, this is not so much of a problem with Windows 7 due to all the backward compatibility features built into the operating system, such as Windows XP Mode and the Program Compatibility Assistant.

I covered Windows XP Mode in the articles Get the Most Out of Windows XP Mode with These Tips and Get Access to Windows XP Mode via Windows Anytime Upgrade. I also covered the Program Compatibility Assistant in the article Troubleshoot Problem Applications with Windows 7 Program Compatibility Tools.

However, even though the Program Compatibility Assistant will help you to get an older application to run in Windows 7, that older application's Help system may not run. When I went to run the Pinball game's Help (pinball.chm), while it is usable, some things didn't work. I was then reminded that there is a lack of built-in support for the older Windows Help format and decided to investigate. Fortunately, Microsoft made it easy to add support for the older Windows Help format. However, it is easy to overlook. So in this edition of the Windows Desktop Report, I'll show you how to add support for the older Windows Help format to Windows 7.

What you will encounter

If you attempt to access an older Windows Help file in Windows 7, chances are that you'll see a Windows Help and Support dialog box, like the one shown in Figure A. As you can see, the information displayed here tells you that you can download a program called WinHlp32.exe that will allow you to view Help files created in the older Windows Help format.

Figure A

This window informs you that to view Help files created in the older Windows Help format, you have to download an additional program.

When you click on that link, you will be taken to a Microsoft Support article that explains the problem in more detail and then provides you with link to download the program for Windows 7 from the Download Center. There are actually two files to choose from — one for 32-bit versions of Windows 7 and one for 64-bit versions. Make sure that you download the appropriate version.

Downloading the file

Before the download begins, you may be prompted to install and run the Genuine Windows Validation Component, as shown in Figure B. Just follow the online instructions. Once you work through the User Account control dialog box, you'll be returned to the Download Center and can proceed with the download, as shown in Figure C.

Figure B

You may be prompted to install and run the Genuine Windows Validation Component.

Figure C

You can click Open to immediately launch the installation procedure.
Since this is coming directly from Microsoft, I'll just click the Open button to start the download and immediately launch the installation procedure. Because this is considered an update to Windows 7, you'll see the Windows Update Standalone Installer and be prompted to install the program, which is identified as Update for Windows (KB917607), as shown in Figure D. Just click Yes to continue. You'll then be prompted to accept the license agreement.

Figure D

The Windows Update Standalone Installer will appear and prompt you to install the program.
The installation, as shown in Figure E, will take a few moments to complete.

Figure E

The installation will take a few moments to complete.

Opening a Windows-Help-format Help file

Once you have the WinHlp32.exe program installed, you will be able to view any older Help file (.hlp) in Windows Help format in Windows 7. Keep in mind that this program will not help you get a better view of a Microsoft Compiled HTML Help file. HTML Help is a different animal altogether and depends on other files built into the Windows XP Help system.

While having the WinHlp32.exe installed in Windows 7 allowed me to open the pinball.hlp file, see the Help shell, and access all the menu options, such as the Annotate command, this file doesn't actually contain any detailed information, as you can see in Figure F.

Figure F

While there isn't any information in the pinball.hlp file, I can now open it, see the Help shell, and access the menus.

As I mentioned, the Windows XP HTML Help file pinball.chm won't work better after installing WinHlp32.exe.

To further the test, I went back to a Windows XP and found the Help file for Program Manager and copied it over to my Windows 7 system. As you can see in Figure G, this Help file (progman.hlp and its support file, progman.cnt) now works perfectly in Windows 7.

Figure G

The Program Manager Help file now works perfectly in Windows 7.

What's your take?

Have you encountered an older Help file that won't work in Windows 7? Will you install the WinHlp32.exe program? As always, if you have comments or information to share about this topic, please take a moment to drop by the TechRepublic Community Forums and let us hear from you.

Also read:


Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

Editor's Picks