updated 09:25 am EDT, Wed May 6, 2009
First Look: Bento iPhone
With its tiny keyboard, the iPhone might not seem like the best platform for building a database. But FileMaker says it has found a way to exploit the iPhone's interface, multi-touch gestures and Wi-Fi capabilities to make Bento for the iPhone as useful as its desktop counterpart. The result is an app that has many, but not all of the capabilities of its full-sized sibling.
Users of Bento 2 for Mac will recognize the basic elements of the database, which was first introduced last year as a consumer-level alternative to FileMaker Pro. The iPhone app comes with the same 25 templates as the desktop version, including ones for event planning, time billing, recipes and home inventory. iPhone contacts are loaded into the app automatically, but unlike the Bento 2 desktop client, iCal events and tasks are not supported.
Since FileMaker is owned by Apple, it's no surprise that the mobile Bento interface borrows from other apps included by default on an iPhone. Users will recognize several multi-touch tropes, such as the slot machine-style scroll wheels from Calendar, used to select dates. There is a touch of iTunes as well, in the form of Cover Flow-style menus. The app also makes use of touch-dialing commands.
Bento for the iPhone works with or without the desktop version, but the ability to sync with Bento 2 allows users to enter long strings of data on their Macs instead of using the more cumbersome iPhone keypad. Syncing also extends the reach of the desktop software, since iPhones can be used to take pictures or enter data in the field.
Some data can be synced to the iPhone to view, but not edited. This includes calculation fields, certain related records fields, and movie or sound files under 10MB in size. Some types of Bento content do not work at all with the app, including iCal material, file list fields, automatic counter fields, message list fields and smart collections. FileMaker mentions that the app includes an "iTunes-style search field," but it does not sport an Advanced Find feature, like the desktop version.
The company has released an updated version of Bento 2 to support mobile sync. If you've ever synced an Apple TV with iTunes, you already know what's involved in the sync process. Users enter a code number supplied by the phone, after which a small icon appears when the device is connected, along with a control panel that allows users to select which libraries to sync. Sync works through Wi-Fi, but ironically, not through the iPhone's USB sync cable. Based on a number of tests with different kinds of data, the transfer process generally takes just a few seconds. Larger files can of course bog down speed.
The iPhone's built-in camera allows users to take photos and immediately add them to a database; alternately, existing images can be uploaded. The feature is especially useful for the home inventory template, which creates a photo database of a user's valuables for insurance purposes.
There are some competing iPhone database apps including DDH Software's HanDBase and Facdatum's StoreIt, but FileMaker claims that Bento is the only app with a full desktop counterpart. The company adds that the upcoming iPhone 3.0 firmware could bring new features, such as support for cut and paste and audio notes.
Bento for iPhone is available at the App Store for $5. Bento 2.0v4 for Mac requires OS X 10.5.4 or higher, and costs $50.