Review: Bento 2

William Porter
17 October, 2008
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The debut version of FileMaker’s Bento offered users an interesting product, but reviewers and users complained about the program’s limitations. FileMaker listened to that feedback, as the newly released consumer-oriented database application boasts a number of significant improvements, including better data import and export, enhancements to the spreadsheet-like table view, on-the-fly customisation of forms, and the ability to share libraries. In short, Bento 2 is a much more mature product. With this update, Bento is more than just interesting—it might actually be useful.

What is Bento? At first glance, it looks like a tool for tying together otherwise disparate digital “stuff” on your hard disk, like an e-mail message in Mail, a couple of contact records in Address Book, some expense receipts, a to-do list, some deadlines in iCal, and a couple of word processing or spreadsheet documents. But at a more basic— and in my opinion, more useful— level, Bento is a very slick, very easy-to-use database management system for individual users, whether you’re at home or in your office

If it ain’t broke, just try to make it better. When you first open Bento, you land in a screen that shows you a variety of default “libraries” on the left, and a user-interface for accessing data in those libraries in the center. In Bento’s terms, a library is a database, and Bento’s default libraries include several of the databases that are part of Mac OS X, including Address Book and iCal.

Using Bento you can view and edit data from Address Book and iCal, without opening those apps. That in itself is not such a big deal, but Bento also makes it possible to customise the way you access those databases and even to add to the kinds of data that those databases can track. For example, in Bento, you can add fields to your contacts data structure that can’t be added directly in Address Book—say, a list of the times that you’ve been in contact with someone.

Given Bento’s target audience of non-programmers with the do-it-yourself impulse, this is a terrific idea. Apple provides a number of great database applications, and a few of them are the kinds of things that tend to get involved in lots of other kinds of database projects. Even a database for storing recipes, for example, might become more useful if it included links to the contact record of people who sent you the recipes or your iCal meal-planning calendar. With Bento, you can collect all that scattered data and house it under one roof.

Other kinds of data aren’t accessed in Bento directly, but the application can store links to that info. For instance, the new version can store links to messages in Mail. You can also store a link to almost any kind of file, including photographs, PDFs, and word processing documents. Say you want to associate a particular invoice PDF with a client’s record in Address Book. Using Bento, you could create a list of related invoices and add to it simply by dragging the PDF into that little list on the contact record. If you click the PDF in Bento, it will open in Preview.

Ins and outs. Bento’s creators realise that many people have been using Numbers and Excel to create simple lists. Bento 2 makes it easier to import list data from a spreadsheet, so you can take advantage of Bento’s database features to format, manipulate, search and summarise that data. And it’s now possible to export data to a spreadsheet in Numbers or Excel format, for example, so that you can graph numeric data. The original Bento supported comma-separated value (.csv) import and export, but version 2 also supports import and export of tab-delimited text files, so you can now move the data from your old AppleWorks databases into Bento.

If Bento’s interface feels familiar, that’s because it’s supposed to—Bento’s panes are also found in Mail, iPhoto, iTunes and the Mac OS X Finder. Libraries and collections (saved searches) are shown on the left. On the right, Bento 2 is displayed in its new split-view, with a table or list above, and details on a single record below. Notice the summary field in the table. The photo was simply dragged here from iPhoto.

The database you thought FileMaker already was. Never mind that FileMaker Pro is 50 times more powerful than Bento. Most casual users of FileMaker Pro don’t have any idea what to do with most of that power. And while certain very basic tasks like defining tables and fields are easy in FileMaker, more advanced tasks—like scripting and defining and managing complex relationships—are not.

This is where Bento fits in. FileMaker Pro has for some time been better suited to the needs of professional database developers than do-it-yourselfers. In fact, Bento 2 may actually be the database that many people thought FileMaker Pro was, the do-it-yourselfer’s dream.

Just as you wouldn’t start building an office building without a very detailed architectural plan, you wouldn’t—or at least shouldn’t—start building a mission-critical business database without a detailed analysis of data types, relational structures, business rules, and other scary stuff. But designing a Bento database isn’t like building an office building. It’s more like building a log cabin or pitching your tent by the dam.

Get rid of electrical wiring and plumbing (scripting and complex data structures, in this case), and the process gets a lot easier. While a bit of forethought is a good idea even with Bento, the application won’t object if you to launch it and start throwing stuff at it without any planning at all. And amazingly, this approach may actually work.

If you know that you want to organise your bills, you can open Bento, create a library named “Bills”, go into table view, and start entering data like dates and amounts due into the columns, just as you might in Excel or Numbers. As you discover new types of data to store—say you decide to enter the last balance, credits received, and new charges, and show a calculation of the new balance to check against the bill you received—you can work it out as you go in Bento.

Bento has only a fraction of the field-level calculation flexibility that FileMaker Pro has, but calculations in Bento will meet the needs of many users. Summary calculations, on the other hand—showing the total due of all bills this month, say—are actually easier to define in Bento than in FileMaker. You can even create relationships more or less on the fly by dragging library B into library A, and then selecting the particular records in B that you want to link to any given record in A. No, Bento is not really a full-featured relational database management system. But if all you need is a few quick links between two data sets, Bento can’t be beat.

Still, Bento remains a do-it-yourself database program, not a done-it-for-you one like Address Book. If you really want to make your own database—for example, to track your eBay purchases and sales (with bids, web urls, photos of products, dates, and so on)—you’ll do a better job if you first analyze the problem you are trying to solve and understand the structure of the data you are going to store.

Bento does come with a handful of library templates—including 10 new ones in version 2—that address common problems, like tracking receipts, or a wine collection. But one of the very best things about Bento 2 is that it’s now possible to export templates and share them. FileMaker runs a Bento users forum on its Web site; in the near future, there should be a large number of templates built by other users.

And after you’ve got a template, if you want to edit it, it’s a snap. In fact, as a FileMaker developer, I rather envy some of the design features found in Bento, because Bento can do things that FileMaker Pro can’t. Bento’s redesign tools do not require you to switch into a design mode (called “layout mode” in FileMaker Pro). When you place a field on a layout, Bento lets you choose whether to place field labels to the side of the fields or above them; change your mind, and the labels get moved automatically as the form is redesigned. There are times I dearly wish FileMaker Pro could do that!

Bento databases use themes to control things like fonts and colors. Changing the look of your database is as simple as changing from one theme to another.

Nothing’s perfect. Bento 2’s printing options are much improved—you can print more than one record per page in Form view, and a Fit to Width option makes columns automatically fit the width of the page. But the program still does not give you a lot of tools for creating nice printed reports. If you’re using Bento for your home-based business, you may want to clean your data up in Numbers or Excel for printing.

Bento can’t be shared peer-to-peer on a network, the way FileMaker Pro can. (The Bento Family Pack is a good buy for a big family or a small business, but it just gives you five single-computer licenses for Bento.) The inability to share a database might be a disadvantage in some situations. I create a gifts database every Christmas, and my wife and I both access it as we shop for our children and budget our shopping.

It’s the kind of thing Bento would be perfect for, except that we would both have to access the database on the same computer—Bento won’t let me share the database with my wife’s Mac. And since Bento doesn’t provide any special security—no accounts and passwords— there’s no way to hide your data. I trust my daughters, so it’s not a problem for my Christmas gift database; but it might be a problem in a small two-person business where the boss and the employee share the same computer.

The inability to restrict access to libraries is a con that I hope is remedied in a future version of Bento. The lack of networking, on the other hand, seems part of Bento’s keep-it-personal approach. If you need to share a database, it might be worth investing in FileMaker Pro instead.

Macworld’s buying advice. The best thing about the first version of Bento was its price. At $79, it was one-sixth the price of FileMaker Pro — and it still is. But for a large class of users, Bento now competes with FileMaker Pro in other valuable ways as well. If you have the do-it-yourself impulse, like to make lists, and love your Mac’s user-interface, you should give Bento a try. Even if you already feel comfortable with FileMaker Pro, you may find Bento worth having for certain small projects.

[William Porter is a database applications developer and event photographer in Dallas, Texas.]

Product: Bento 2
Rating 4.5
Pros Inexpensive, easy-to-use database program that takes great advantage of Mac OS X technologies; dynamic access to Address Book, iCal and Mail data, and easy import and export of spreadsheet data; on-the-fly customization of forms; saved searches library (d
Cons Somewhat limited design options for printed reports; can’t password protect libraries; no network sharing with users on other computers.
Company FileMaker
Price as rated $79 (Five-license Family Pack: $129)
OS compatibility OS 10.5 (Leopard)
Processor compatibility Universal

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