Bento 2: closer to its potential

Matthew JC. Powell
31 October, 2008
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When I first saw FileMaker’s database “for the rest of us” — namely Bento — last year, I immediately thought what a lot of other people thought: this is the database that’s missing from iWork. A lot of customers who’ve been clinging to AppleWorks for years longer than they should have are yet to accept iWork as the “successor” to AppleWorks until it can replace the database function.
On closer examination, Bento was somewhat less than that. For one thing there was no easy way to bring AppleWorks databases over to Bento without a very fiddly process of export and import.

On the other hand, Bento was rather more than that, thanks to its very tight integration with Mac OS X (something even FileMaker Pro cannot match because of its need to be cross-platform). With Bento you finally have a unified interface for combining your contact and calendar information in one place. Modify an Address Book entry in Bento and it’s changed in Address Book — there’s no syncing, they’re looking at and modifying exactly the same store of data. And with Bento you can add fields and links that are not possible in Address Book — I would not be surprised to find many users abandoning the Address Book application completely because Bento is such a much more flexible way to work with the same data.

However, as with many good things, the promise of even better seemed so close — now that we have a unified Address Book and Calendar, where’s the integration with Mail? Keeping track of contacts and dates is great, but how do you actually make use of your contacts? That’s right: by contacting them. With no means to link Mail messages to contacts or events, Bento seemed limited, even within its great power.

The answer. Sort of. Bento 2 addresses both of those “limitations” of the original, to limited degrees. You can now link to Mail messages within Bento, but you have to do so manually. My guess is that the ability to write rules that automatically link messages to Bento entries will require an update to Mail. When such integration arrives (and I’m betting it will) Bento will become a unified messaging, contact and calendar application for Mac OS X — Apple’s answer to Entourage, if you will. (FileMaker is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Apple.)

As for the AppleWorks crowd, a step has been removed from the import process in that Bento can now directly import tab-delimited data, which AppleWorks can directly export. It’s not quite a drag-and-drop operation, but it’s a great deal easier than it used to be. If you’re prepared to do a bit of rebuilding, it might just be time to let go of AppleWorks (which hasn’t been updated in, what, six years?).

Other improvements. There were criticisms of Bento’s report-generation and printing in version 1, and these have been markedly improved in version 2. You also have the ability to drag-and-drop spreadsheets from Numbers or Excel and quickly convert them to Bento databases. What’s more, you can export them back again.

There’s also built-in support for linking to Google Maps, which enhances the Address Book even further, and you can store iChats right there in the database (you could always store iChats, but having a convenient way to retrieve them makes that a useful function finally).

And the user interface has also undergone some nice tweaks, most of them quite subtle, that make it feel more like a real part of the iWork suite. Integration has obviously been a key goal for the development team.

More to do? Of course there are still places it could improve. While automatic integration with Mail would be great, the lack of even manual integration with any other mail application seems an odd oversight. A lot of Mac users use Entourage for instance, but prefer OS X’s own Address Book to Microsoft’s.

I’ve also noticed a few stability hiccups in my fairly limited poking around with the application — not crashes, but occasions where the spinning beachball hung around longer than I would have liked.

FileMaker also sees Bento’s competition as coming from spreadsheets, not from other databases (including its own) so while bringing your data over from Numbers or Excel is very easy, bringing it in from FileMaker Pro is much harder (the file formats are entirely different) and essentially involves rebuilding your databases from scratch. That’s a problem for a lot of people who have invested in FileMaker Pro despite needing only about ten percent of its power, who might be now looking at Bento as a much better fit but no easy way to get there. If a FileMaker Pro doesn’t involve a lot of scripting and relational features (FileMaker Pro’s great strengths) is there any good reason it couldn’t be translatable to Bento? Surely Filemaker has sufficient understanding of both formats to answer that.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice. Where the original Bento seemed like a really good idea, Bento 2 is a good idea put into practice. It has matured into a genuinely useful database for people whose data-management needs aren’t in the FileMaker Pro league. Certainly it’s an improvement on a spreadsheet.
While it might not tick all the boxes yet, it’s very clear that Apple and FileMaker are paying attention to what users want, and it’s heading in the right direction.

Bento 2

Publisher Filemaker Asia-Pacific 1800 028 316
Price $79 for single user, $129 for five-user "family pack"
OS X 10.5
Processor Universal
Cons No easy migration for low-end FileMaker Pro users, no integration with any e-mail app other than Apple Mail
Rating 4
Pros Inexpensive and simple, unified Address Book and iCal under one interface, answers criticisms of the first version while also offering significant improvements
Type Simple database application

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