Review: Bento-Part 2

An easy to use database application for Leopard users. (April 24th, 2008)

MacNN Rating:

ratingratingratingratingrating

Product Manufacturer: FileMaker, Inc.

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 FileMaker’s website.

The Bad

  • Can be very confusing to a new database user. Text areas have no scroll bars. You can’t 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.

Bento is a good beginner's entrée into creating useful databases for home and small office work. Yet, it is not without its problems. Victor Marks, MacNN Podcast Guru and Ilene Hoffman, Reviews Editor also tested the program. While most of our results are positive, there are some issues that may make you want to consider other tools to track your growing list of data needs.

Ilene notes, "I have issues with Bento. They claim it has "three unique characteristics that are not available in other personal databases." The first is that "Bento looks, feels and works like other Mac applications." As a long time database user, I appreciate the simplicity of Bento, but think there are some areas in which FileMaker went too far and made it un-Mac like. One of the most basic areas upon which the Macintosh platform was built is its handling of typefaces, font sizes, and colors. From day one, font features were part of the attraction to Macintosh. FileMaker's Bento templates do not give you access to the Font dialog. If you want to change font attributes in a template's field, you are out of luck. You can either change the whole template or remove and add a field, but that's all. To remove an easy to use feature that appears in the rest of the Macintosh OS is frustrating.

The second advertised characteristic, "Bento lets you create comprehensive databases to organize virtually any type of information without needing to understand database concepts or needing to have any experience with database - there is no learning curve," is a little more close to reality. Yet, there is a learning curve for new users. Creating fields and editing templates is a learned skill, albeit, you do not need to learn advanced database concepts. In addition, the concept of libraries and collections seems cumbersome and odd. For example, if you have a library of CDs, you can create new collections if you want to divide them into rock, gospel, folk, etc. Your data can be used in multiple collections, but is stored in one library. In essence, a collection is a saved sort and appears as a separate entity in the Source list. I'm going to take the leap of faith that this is an easier way for a beginner to look at their data, but I'm not convinced.

The third feature is "Bento is beautiful!" Yes, the templates are well done, but a few older users I've talked with express frustration that they cannot change the light brown, tan, green, or gray font color to black or white. Older eyes do better with stronger font colors. To some extent, design took precedence over functionality, which is never a good thing. Another restriction is its ability to import only comma delimited data. It is a mystery as to why tab-delimited text data isn't supported. While this restriction may not be a problem for new users, anyone who has older data they'd like to import into Bento has to convert their data to a CSV file first. Thank goodness for the easy conversion tools in BBEdit. To its credit, the import is extremely easy to use..

Bento screen


Bento Data Import Dialog


Another feature I found a bit confusing at first is the multiple editing tools across the bottom of the window. Each third of the screen has its own add, delete, and tool buttons, so you must be careful which button you press. I recommend you close the Fields column when entering data.

Bento screen


Bento Edit Tools


Bento may lure many a new user into its false sense of security, but I think after a few months, many users will bump their heads against some of its restrictive features.

Victor Marks writes, I installed Bento on two people's machines. One had never used a Macintosh before, and the other has six years experience with the Mac OS doing simple tasks, such as email and surfing the Net. Neither has ever created a database and only one had ever used a database before; looking up records and entering new ones as a part of office work.

I asked both users to create a Collection and form for a recipe database. One user stored her recipes on 3x5 note cards. The other kept them in a Microsoft word file. The second user edited the file and converted the Word document to a CSV file, and then imported it into Bento.

Each user now has over 300 recipes in Bento, but they designed different forms with different categories. Both decided to put in a place for an image of the prepared dish, and take pictures of the meal as they make them. They store that image in Bento with the recipe.

After a couple of months, neither user has had any problems, but one complained about the font size and Bento's failure to handle Unicode right-to-left languages well. They left-justify fields and do not automatically right-justify on a right-to-left language, and do not let you right justify manually.

Summary

The bottom line is, Bento is easy to use, easy to set up, and includes potentially useful features to integrate your data from other Mac OS applications with your databases. You may find some of these simple features include too many restrictions though. Generally, if you have any previous database experience, you may be happier with the more expensive FileMaker ($299). If you are new to database work, Bento ($49) may be all that you need. We wrestled over the star rating for Bento and averaged it out to 4-stars. You should download the demo from FileMaker and test it out to see if it meets your needs.

Please also see Bento Part 1 for more specific information about Bento's dialogs and how to use it.

Other FileMaker Product Reviews:

FileMaker Pro 9

FileMaker Pro 9 Advanced

by ilene hoffman, reviews editor


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