20.4 The Visual Studio help files

As well as special types, Windows MFC programming uses a lot of special classes, all of whose names start with uppercase C. There are scores of these classes, and they own perhaps thousands of function methods, and every time Windows is upgraded more of them are born.

A quick way to find help on some particular Windows expression such as a class or function name is to click on it in your code and then press F1. Another way is to select Help | Index and type it in. If you use Help | Search you will often get a lot more references than are practical to sift through, but if you need some really obscure kind of information, this is the way to go.

We should mention that, unless you have installed the documentation from your distribution CD onto your hard drive, you will only be able to access these reference books if the compiler package's distribution CD is in your CD ROM drive. If you have a lot of hard disk space and don't want to keep the CD in your drive, it's really worthwhile to install the help, also known as the 'Developer Library,' to your hard drive.

Visual Studio.NET comes with a nice help browser called Document Explorer. You'll find a shortcut to Document Explorer in the main Windows popup Start | Programs | Visual Studio.NET. The shortcut is a round blue circle with a question mark and is labelled Microsoft Visual Studio.NET Documentation. It's useful to drag or copy the shortcut to your desktop for easy access.

You can still open the help inside Visual Studio with the Help selection, but being able to access the help with a separate application is more convenient in terms of screen-space usage. Another issue is that (at least in early releases) the help system seems somewhat prone to crashing, so if you are running the help off in a separate application, you are less likely to drag down your session of Visual Studio as well.

Never try to do serious programming without having the help available.

Windows is so big and shaggy that nobody can possibly know it all. Get in the habit of using the help a lot. Every time you use it, you're likely to find out something you didn't know.

If you are on a network, the online help is only going to be available if your sysop has installed it on the server and has correctly tweaked your compiler's directory configuration. If the online help doesn't work, keep nagging your local authorities until it does work. Let's repeat it again:

It's a brutal waste of time to try and program without having help available.

As mentioned above, the easiest way to find help on some particular class or function name is to highlight it and press F1 or to type it into the Help | Index dialog. One word of caution here. When you do Help | Search for a function name, the bottom of the dialog will show several possible places to look for help. If you search for 'ellipse', for instance, you'll see two entries like this.

CDC::Ellipse    Microsoft Foundation Class Library and Templates 
Ellipse    GDI : Platform SDK 

And for some other keywords you'll see more kinds of entries. The various Microsoft Foundation Class entries are the ones we'll be interested in here.

    Part I: Software Engineering and Computer Games
    Part II: Software Engineering and Computer Games Reference