Review : Bento

An easy to use database application for Leopard users.

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Product Manufacturer: FileMaker

Price: $45 US, $99 Family Pack

The Good

  • Relatively easy to use. Very customizable. A relational database. Reasonably priced. Works nicely with other Apple programs. Good documentation. Demo on FileMakerís website.

The Bad

  • Can be very confusing to a new database user. Text areas have no scroll bars. You canít paste a graphic or text to a master form. Cannot customize fonts, font colors, or size. Templates can be frustrating to edit. Requires Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) and above.
In Japan, a bento or bento box is a lacquered box with a number of compartments inside for rice, fish or meat, and vegetables. Commonly used as lunch boxes, Bento are also sold at convenient stores and train stations. FileMaker named its new database product for home users and small businesses Bento, because it is much like its namesake. In Bento, you choose customizable forms and a number of containers, each with a specific use. Bento veers away from the more technical database jargon and refers to its databases as Collections in a library and compares them with iTunes playlists. Text entry boxes still use the term fields, like its big brother FileMaker, but Bento includes templates so that you can skip the frustrating design process completely. You can import or export information to or from applications that create comma-separated value lists just like FileMaker Pro and Numbers, as well as spread sheets like Excel. Initially, Bento opens its Home dialog in which you choose from four options as shown in the figure below. It's recommended that you read the Learn about Bento area to acclimate yourself to the program.

Bento screen

Bento Home Dialog

The second button, Address Book and iCal lets you set up Bento's additional functions to Leopard's iCal and Address book. A new Address Book entry is automatically entered into your Bento Address Book collection. Put an event in iCal and it appears in your Bento iCal Events collection. If you put your birthday list into one of Bento's iCal event collections, the information appears in iCal along with any notes you enter. You can turn this feature off in the Preferences dialog if you do not want Bento updating your Address Book or iCal events. The third button, Create a library to store data, opens the New Library dialog, in which you choose from one of the 24 pre-designed templates. The form displayed in a theme is where you add data into input boxes called fields. Template databases include Projects, Contacts, To Do List, Inventory, Event Planning, Time Billing, Home Inventory, Expenses, Exercise Log, Car Maintenance, Class Schedule, Digital Media and more. You can also start with a blank form and add fields, as you need. Formatted fields can handle text, numbers, check box, media, time, date, duration, calculation, currency, automatic counter, rating, address, phone, email, URL, and IM account.

Bento screen

Bento Template Dialog

The fourth button opens a previously created Library. Your Library opens in the Form View and the window is divided into three sections. The Source List contains your Collections and Libraries. The large area in the middle is the Records entry form in which you enter data. The Fields List appears on the right. The Source column includes your Address Book, iCal Events and Tasks, and other collections you create. This is where you choose the data file with which you want to work.

Bento screen

Bento Form View

The Field List column contains a list of all of the fields in your present theme as well as additional choices. This is one Bento feature that makes editing your database wonderfully simple. You just drag and drop fields onto your form and place them as needed. The list of suggested fields is very helpful and you can delete fields you don't want to use. Switch to the edit view and an easy to use dialog lets you add fields quickly and easily.

Bento screen

Bento Create a Field Dialog

You can view your entered data in a table or form view. The table view is much like what you see in a spreadsheet. The information, displayed in columns and rows, can be sorted and searched. This is valuable when you want to view all your data at once or in a list.

Bento screen

Bento Table View

Bento also includes relational features. To make a collection relational, just drag one collection into another. For example, if you have a contact list and a list for donations for a local charity. The donation list indicates John Smith donated $50. The contact list shows John Smith's address, phone number, email address, and additional information. By dragging the donation collection into the contact collection, you can see how many of your contacts have given donations. You can sort the information to see what areas had the largest amounts of contributions along with additional information for next year. Using the same procedure, you can create a thank you form letter to send to contributors. The best part is that you don't have to retype everything several times, which reduces typographical errors.

My view

Although Bento is easy to use, a new user may still find it confusing. The User Guide is very helpful and I recommend everyone read it first. Bento is powerful enough to take care of personal and small business needs, such as a home inventory, budget, and Christmas card list, or you could track invoices, inventories, a sales journal, and expenses. The Form View is great for data entry and the Table View for analyzing your data. You can add a graphic or photo, movie or sound clip on forms, but you can't put your logo or graphic on every page. There is also no provision for headers or footers, but lots of choices for data entry.

Victor Marks and Ilene Hoffman also worked with Bento and their comments on using Bento in the real world appear in Bento Part 2.