At a Glance
- Feature-rich; multiple output targets
- Very complex; some interface and performance issues
This high-end tool for technical documents hits high bars for power and complexity.
MadCap Flare occupies rarified territory near the top of the
desktop publishing mountain. It’s intended for those who need to
author, edit, and produce very long and very complex documents:
technical manuals, instruction books, help systems, and anything
else in which structuring and organizing content is key.
While a typical word
processing program is often focused on ease of use, and a desktop publishing program on
design of output, Flare’s strengths are in content management and
is driven by a “write once, publish anywhere” paradigm. Documents
in Flare are composed of Topics, which can be of any size. Topics
are organized in the Content Explorer, using a typical hierarchical
folder system. The output of the topics is determined not by the
Content Explorer, though, but by Tables of Contents–of which you
can have several for a single project, depending on your output
needs. Thus, you can group all Topics on a single subject (or
perhaps all those written by a single author, as Flare supports
collaborative work) in one folder or tree in the Content Explorer,
and then output them in many different places in the final
document. (As an example, you might be writing a guide to an API.
In the Content Explorer, you might want to group all “String
Functions” into a single folder. In the published document, though,
Chapter 3 might contain the string-manipulation functions and
Chapter 5 might contain string-conversion functions.) A single
topic can appear in multiple places in a document.
Further, Flare allows for, and expects, publication in multiple
formats. Flare encourages users to use styles (“Header 1,” “Body
Text,” “Example Code”) instead of specifying the font or color of
text directly–though you can do that if you need to. When
publishing, text in one style (“Header 1”, say) can be given one
set of characteristics for PDF publishing and one for HTML. You can
have multiple outputs in the same format as well–you might want to
use different fonts for PDFs intended for different markets.
Furthermore, Flare supports conditional text–text which is
output in some formats but not in others. This can be used in many
ways–a textbook that has a “Teacher’s Copy” with answers or notes,
or a report intended for several divisions in a company that has
sections of interest to one division but not the others.
It’s also good to discuss what Flare doesn’t do. Although it
does allow a lot of control over the look of the output, it’s not
intended for documents with complex and artistic graphical design
with pixel-by-pixel control over each page. Flare can be used to
create content directly–and if you’re dealing with hundreds or
even thousands of small topics, this might work well–but it’s not
a word processor and shouldn’t be used in place of one. Because of
how it handles content, it helps to have a good idea where you’re
going before you start.
I also encountered some bugs. At one point, I had some issues
with file paths getting out of sync, and this caused some serious
problems. Another bug, which has been acknowledged by MadCap, is
that detaching windows from the main frame caused the text editing
toolbar to fail to activate.
If you’re in an environment that often produces complex
documents, and especially if you need output that looks good in
many formats (and don’t want to hand-edit it time after time),
Flare is worth a look. It is by no means cheap, but it is
comparable in price to the leading tool in its category, Adobe
FrameMaker. The thirty-day trial version gives you most of the
functionality, but the output text will be garbled with random
characters. This is enough to judge if it meets your needs,
however, and the support staff is very responsive.
Note: This link takes you to the vendor’s site,
where you must register to download the software.