Review: Bento 4 for iPad

FileMaker updates the iPad version of Bento with key changes. (June 30th, 2012)

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Product Manufacturer: FileMaker

Price: $9.99

The Good

  • Flexible, portable database creation
  • Now allows custom form creation
  • New fields expand uses
  • Table view makes sorting and searching easy
  • Sharing with non-Bento users

The Bad

  • Limited in scope
  • Too little help in navigating design tools

A confession up front before we get into the review: I have never handled a personal database app before, much less Bento for iPad specifically. I've used database software in the past, of course, but always something designed for the office world. My own life is simple enough that I can keep track of things with lists and notes; a database, however streamlined, typically feels like extra work. Bento has always had a strange appeal though, so after some coaxing, I decided to try the latest update for the iPad, Bento 4.

Every database begins with picking out a Template. While you can choose a blank one, it's usually easier to start out with one tailored to a given task -- contacts, time billing, inventory, recipes, and so forth. One addition to v4 is direct access to an iPad section at the Bento Template Exchange, where you can download free templates created by FileMaker and other users. This just pops up a webpage, rather than a native interface, but the good news is that downloads are also somehow direct. It's slightly disconcerting, since iOS doesn't normally let you download via web links.

If you're happy with FileMaker's design choices, the app becomes extremely simple: you just tap each field to enter the appropriate data, then hit buttons at the bottom to add or remove records, or flip through them. One convenient touch is the ability to switch to a new Table view, which shows all of the entries in a database in spreadsheet form, making it easier to jump to a given record. A Split mode shows forms and tables simultaneously, while a Full Screen mode hides the Libraries list, whether or not you're looking at a form or a table.

The simplest way of customizing a database is picking from one of the 40 new themes available. These are purely cosmetic -- only changing color schemes and textures -- but still helpful for making forms a little more appealing. The real meat of the Bento 4 update is the ability to design completely new forms, using drag-and-drop commands. Users can add static objects in the form of images, text, spacers, and separators, or they can add any number of fields, ranging from text to dates, URLs, IM addresses, and even audio or video. Lever points let you control the size and position of onscreen items.

It can be a little tricky to position things exactly the way you want them, not to mention time-consuming, but it's a kind of flexibility every database app should have. I'm surprised that Bento didn't offer it earlier. A bigger problem is that there is virtually no in-app guidance on how a lot of interface elements work; I actually found more information through the app's marketing website than the quick tour. Trial and error should, eventually, get you to a point where you can tweak each object just the way you like it.

A few smaller changes also classify as things that should've already been in place. These include simple lists, encrypted fields, and calculation fields, the latter of which generate dynamic figures based on other data. People can also finally email libraries off in CSV format, which means they can be opened without having to own some edition of Bento. Syncing to the Mac software, by the way, requires a computer to be updated to Bento 4.1.

Another new field type is GPS Location, which is largely self-explanatory. I should note incidentally that the Table view can make filtering through content much easier; manual keyword searches are highlighted, and records can be sorted according to multiple criteria, such as location and last name in the case of a contact database.

Bento 4 ultimately comes across as a niche product. I suspect that most people are like me and don't particularly need database software, unless they have large collections, insurance demands, or a small business. Other apps are probably better for things like contacts, say, or personal finances. At the same time, Bento's personal focus and simplicity means it won't be replacing corporate databases anytime soon. For its intended purposes though, Bento is admittedly a very functional product, and easy to recommend. Think of it more as a Swiss army knife -- it may not always be exactly what you need, but it makes up for that by being flexible.

by Roger Fingas


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