Tips and Tricks for Finding Information in the MSDN Library (Mary Lee)

Tips and Tricks for Finding Information in the MSDN Library (Mary Lee)

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When you have a question about how an API works, most of you will look in the MSDN Library.  There are some tips and tricks to finding what you need in this vast resource.  First of all, there are two main ways you can read the content in the MSDN Library.

  • The offline version that you can install on your development computer. 
  • The online version that you can access via your Web browser.

You can also use the MTPS Web service at http://services.msdn.microsoft.com/ContentServices/ContentService.asmx to access MSDN and TechNet content.  For two examples on how to use this Web service, see How to: Bind to a Web Service and Walkthrough: Binding to Data from a Service in an Application-Level Project.

The offline and online versions have their benefits and disadvantages. The offline version has various filters that you can use to limit your search to a certain language. For example, you can limit your search criteria by language (Visual Basic, Visual C++, or Visual C#) or development focus (Office Development or Smart Device Development). The online version is updated on a regular basis, but you don't have to use gigabytes of hard drive space for documentation about technologies or languages that you don't use.

Search engines tend to return results for the most frequently visited topics in the MSDN Library. Unfortunately, this means that the oldest topics are returned first.  If multiple versions of a topic exists, you can find the disambiguator in the upper right hand corner of the topic. This will point you to the Visual Studio 2008 version of the topic.

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You can use the bread crumbs at the top of the topic to change the version of the topic and navigate the table of contents. 

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The MSDN Library content does get updated in response to customer feedback and sometimes completely rewritten for the latest version, so use the disambiguator box or bread crumbs to ensure that you're reading the most recent version of a topic.

You can change the locale information (en-us) in the URL to view the translated version of the topic. Replacing (en-us) with (fr-fr) shows the French version of the topic: http://msdn.microsoft.com/fr-fr/library/we86c8x2.aspx. To view the low bandwidth version of the topic, add (loband) to the URL: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/we86c8x2(loband).aspx

You can use the MSDN Search refinements to narrow down the search results.

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If you want to use a search engine, you can use the site keyword in your search box to apply filters. For example, I can type "site:msdn.microsoft.com vstoinstaller" in the search box to limit my search to the MSDN Library.

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Then, a search returns the right topics in the first two search results.

To avoid searching the MSDN forums, you can add "-social" to the search box.

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If you have more tips and tricks for finding the right content in the MSDN Library, feel free to follow up with a comment.

Mary Lee, Programming Writer.

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  • The disambiguator is helpful - but suggesting that we use any MS search (MSDN search or Live search) tells me that you've either never used Google, or you just like pain.

    Believe me, I've tried.  It seems to make sense to use MSDN search when you've already got an MSDN page up; but if you do, it's an exercise in frustration.

    MS search results, particularly MSDN search results, are of little to no use whatsoever.  

    For that matter, MSDN documentation has taken a major hit in quality since the mid-late '90s.  It's a shame that technical documentation -- the very thing that can keep developers on your platform -- is considered a cost center that should have as little as possible spent on it.

    Ahh, well.  I suppose complaining about it is akin to complaining about the hundreds of millions of lines of VB6 code (and the millions of developers who wrote that code) that MS decided -- a priori -- wasn't worth anyone's time or effort to bring into their current environment.

  • I agree with foo339. It's easier to find in MSDN using google than using live search.

  • hi foo, Marco,

    these search tips can be used with any search engine, not just Live Search.  in fact, the disambiguator comment is most helpful for Google searches because Page Rank returns the most frequently hit topics because by default, the oldest topics have been read more frequently.

    m.

  • MSDN offline is preferred as it is more likely to produce decent results.  MSDN online and MSDN content has reduced quality:

    - Articles being essentially generated from .NET reflection and function comment headers with no sample code (e.g., .NET 2.0 for the first 2 years it was out).

    - Articles for derrived classes are missing and only HTTP redirect you to the base class article which lacks any detail about the derrived class (.net 1.x, 2.x)

    - Articles which direct you to an undocumented collection class (e.g., list of image file format encoding parameters for jpeg and tiff objects found in .net 1.x, 2.0).   The standard settings for these objects should be documented.

    - Articles that have no contend and redirect you to an ISO/Ansi or other standards document (e.g.,  C++ STL classes were not documented until 2007 on MSDN even though they were included in the compiler libraries, XLST standard came out in 1999 and still is barely documented in MSDN 10 years later).  

    - no error handling in code samples even for easy things like open a file fails (promotes lame copy and paste buggy code)

    - multiple duplicate versions of the same article/topic based on different versions of the product (e.g., Office programming interface)

    - removal of still needed articles (e.g., topics from 2003 and earlier especially for SQL Server 6.5 and VB6).  We have a VM setup with the last MSDN from before .NET 1.x for articles on VS 6.0 and SQL Server internals articles which have been removed from MSDN).  At least, keep the old articles and state that they are outdated.

    - replacing an article with an innacurate and rehashed version of an article for a product's most recent release (e.g., Office 2003 articles have been replaced with watered down and innacurate articles from Office 2007)

  • Thank you very much for "loband" from very-narrowband-country.

  • My search order for api level help

    1- .NET usenet groups - microsoft.public.dotnet.languages.csharp

    2- msdn

    3- google web search

    The usenet groups are most useful since they are archived for 20+ years, do not have advertisements, and contain actual question and answers from real world use of a particular programming API.  Code samples provided are usually of much better quality as they typically include error handling (missing from most MSDN samples).

    MSDN is second as most of the questions I have involve either figuring out how to call an API, error handling, finding out why an API call fails or exception handling.  Secondly, msdn topics are missing or often just skeletons of what you get via reflecting over a DLL.

    Web is third due to a) login required, b) parroting of usenet or msdn, c) content removed, d) lack of content

    The positive thing is that MS has improved MSDN content quality lately.  This is most helpful and much more beneficial than focusing in on marginally useful additional search methods (e.g., tags, twitter, facebook, social networking models, etc.).

  • The Library Experience (LEX) team is proud to announce the release of low bandwidth (loband) Beta! Please

  • Thank you for providing quality information to

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