First look: Bento for iPhone

Anthony Caruana
5 May, 2009
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Filemaker has announced the release of the Bento app for iPhone, offering users a whole new way to organise their lives with an app that can be used in isolation but which is also designed to sync with Bento Desktop.

The app promises unprecedented levels of customisability for an organisational app for iPhone, while giving its owner the ability to practically write their own iPhone app. Macworld reviewer Anthony Caruana, himself a keen user of Filemaker’s consumer-grade database software Bento, is among the first to try the iPhone app. With a well-worn business organisation app of his own design ready to put the iPhone app to the test, here’s what he had to say.

Bento app – Macworld’s first look. When FileMaker initally released Bento, a lot of hardcore database developers and users wondered why they’d bothered. What those power users had missed was that not everyone had the time or inclination to get into building sophisticated databases.

Bento, now at version 2.0v4, is the latest incarnation of the “database for the rest of us” and it supports a killer feature – an iPhone app that delivers functionality and power in spades for the same price as a coffee and a muffin.The Bento iPhone app can be purchased either over 3G or the iTunes Store.

Weighing in at just 3.2MB, it takes just a few seconds from when you purchase it until it’s usable. The app launches quickly on the iPhone and is ready almost instantly. Rather than just provide syncing between your iPhone and a desktop installation of Bento, the iPhone app delivers almost all of Bento’s power. Using one of the 25 supplied templates, you can build an application for a specific task on the fly.

In fact, you never need spend the $79 for the desktop version of Bento to get the full benefit of all Bento’s functionality. For $5.99, Bento has the potential to make redundant hundreds of other iPhone apps. Think of it – all those to-do lists, note managers, recipe books, log books and other flat, non-relational databases can be developed and customised to suit your specific workflow and preferences without having to compromise on what some other developer thinks you need.

To create a new library, all we needed to do was choose a template from the nice CoverFlow-enabled template chooser and hit the Create button. We could then add or remove fields directly on the iPhone, customising the application to suit our needs. There’s no need to ever own the desktop version of Bento – the iPhone app is 100 per cent self sufficient.

However, if you’re planning to do some heavy-duty customisation then the desktop version will make that task easier. In addition to the supplied templates there is a blank slate so you can create your own application from scratch. All the same data types available on the desktop version are there to use.

This isn’t some pared back version of Bento – it’s a full version of the software that’s been customised to fit the iPhone user interface. Syncing between the iPhone and desktop versions was a snap to set up. As long as the desktop installation and your iPhone are on the same network, they see each other.

There’s a sync assistant that prompts for a short passcode that’s generated on the iPhone. Once that’s tapped in, everything’s ready to go. We doubt that it took more than a minute to do and was completely trouble free.

All that’s stopping us from giving Bento a top rating are a couple of small deficiencies. In the Bento library on our desktop, we have a number of smart collections. These are subsets of our master data that are generated dynamically using selection criteria. Smart collections don’t sync so we needed to use some creative sorting to find what we were looking for.

Searching within a library also didn’t work as we’d expected. For example, our personal workflow application has a field called “Status”. Trying to find all the records with a status of “in progress” just didn’t work unless we changed the display to have the “Status” field as one of the two fields we could display in the list of records. In other words, you can’t search for information within a record – you can only search for information that’s on the screen.

If you’re looking for powerful information management on your iPhone then it’s a no-brainer – buy Bento for iPhone. For $5.99, it can replace several other iPhone apps. Sure, there are a couple of rough edges but we’re sure these will be sorted in the fullness of time.

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