By Monte FergusonBento by FileMaker is designed to be a database for the organizer buried within us all. This means that the complexity of database design and creation has been eliminated, so as not to intimidate novices.
The program employs two methods to make users feel right at home. First, when you launch Bento, it automatically populates itself with information from other Mac OS X programs that we use, such as Address Book, Mail, and iCal. These collections show you a working solution, and provide an opportunity to display and edit available data. Second, you have access to professionally designed templates already populated with fields in a pleasing display. This is a departure from other database programs, in which you have to create the layout and fields from scratch. Templates help you create your own databases quickly. It neatly avoids that frustrating design process, but there is a Blank template should you wish to set up a database from scratch. Bento comes with 30 library templates from which to choose.
New Library Templates
Bento may feel familiar to you, because it uses interface elements found in programs like Pages and Keynote. The Theme Chooser lets you quickly see every form design. You can easily apply a different theme without worrying about your data, because just the display of the database changes when you choose a new theme. The underlying data is not disturbed.
Themes Available in Form Tools
Bento 3 initially presents a simple interface, yet it has features for those who choose to delve in deeper. A built-in table view allows you to see all records in a library in one view. It should feel familiar to people who want to migrate from a spreadsheet program. Bento also allows you to copy and paste data from Numbers and Excel, or you can use an easy import option to import your data.
New and Updated Features
The new features in Bento 3 include iPhoto integration, addition of a Grid View, library folders, a list field for your forms, the ability to print blank forms, sending group email through Apple Mail, and the ability to share your Bento libraries over a local area network. Image enhancements abound too, because you can now add media files in Related data fields, see mini icons in the table view, add images to the background of a form, and choose new library icons.
Bento 3 automatically creates a library that contains all of your iPhoto albums and they appear in the Bento Libraries pane. You can create collections of similar photos without affecting your iPhoto albums too. Information imported from iPhoto, such as Title, Modified Date, File Type, and Size, cannot be altered, but you can create new fields for information which isnít available in iPhoto. For example, you can add a field with detail on where the picture was shot, the weather that day, or what service you used to post it online. Information added in your Bento library is not shared with iPhoto, so it acts an as an adjunct not a replacement or sync tool. The only problem I had with this feature is that it seemed to updated the records as I updated iPhoto, but didnít finish. I looked for a command to tell Bento to update my iPhoto files, but found none.
The new Grid View provides a thumbnail view of multiple images and forms in one screen. You can mouse over a record, if it contains multiple images, and cycle through them. This feature benefits from libraries that contain many images, such as a CD or record collection, home inventory, or products you sell.
Sharing your Bento 3 database over a local network is by far the most interesting of the new features. You can share your Bento 3 database with up to five Bento 3 users at the same time over a local network, in the same subnet. It automatically finds shared Bento libraries through Bonjour and works similarly to sharing iTunes over your network. This feature is useful for activities such as sharing photos for everyone in the family to use to make cards or scrapbook pages, or to allow multiple employees see the same product inventory across the network.
Bento does provide some security options when you choose to share your data. You can assign a password to individual fields and set restrictions on who can add, delete, or update your Bento database. Other users cannot edit your iCal events though. You can also password protect your whole Bento database from the Bento Preferences Security pane. FileMaker, Inc. has also added Encrypted field for forms, so you can save passwords and other sensitive data.
One new Bento feature I wish Apple would add to iTunes allows you to create folders in which you can store multiple libraries. This prevents the frustrating scroll of long library lists that is a negative feature in iTunes. Folders are a great way to keep related libraries together and reduce screen clutter. The Shared iPhoto Library screen shot above shows a Library folder in the Libraries Pane.
The improved icons for your libraries are nothing to write home about. In order to change an icon, you must control-click a library icon to see the dialog. There are so many great icons available for the Mac from sites like the iconfactory, itís a shame you canít use icons youíve downloaded. Unfortunately, you cannot choose an icon for your folders.
Table View with Media Cell
The media view added to the table view is useful. A Quick Look icon appears next to the mini media icon, so you can check out your photo or video with one click, but you cannot change the size of the icon in the table.
The only grumbles I had are with features that seemed incomplete. For example, I missed an iLife-type media browser to make adding images to my libraries easier. I am also disappointed that custom fields I added to the Address Book library are not synced with the Address Book application. Bento also quit on me when I deleted a library I no longer wanted. It restarted without any problems, but that was not a desired result.
Why You Need Bento
While most database programs tout how powerful they are, Bento focuses on how easy it is to use. The minute you open the program, you can get down to business. There is definitely some power under the hood and the program surprises you with features that belie its simplistic appearance. For example, group emailing, encrypted data fields, and unlimited undo. Let us also not forget the reasonable price.
The learning process is straightforward, but online tutorials ease the process of coming to grips with the program. If the built-in templates do not suit your needs, you can visit FileMakerís Template Exchange. There are many templates posted by other users for you to use. As an added bonus, there is a Bento app for your iPhone or iPod Touch, and it supports the new security options. This means your databases can now travel with you.
Most peopleís idea of a personal database is a spreadsheet style list. Bento really shows the power of a true personal database, with its well thought out interface. It is immediately useful, thanks to built-in templates and a straightforward design. Aside from a few irritations, the program worked as promised. You may have to upgrade your OS to use Bento 3, because it requires Mac OS X 10.5.7 and up. Bento 2 required a minimum of Mac OS X 10.5.4. I have no reservations recommending this program for use in small business or for home projects.
Posted: Thursday, April 1st, 2010