Bento: An Easy to Use Database App

When my son comes across something he really likes, his usual response is whoo-hoo. In this instance I would like to borrow from that younger generation and declare whoo-hoo for a new database product on the market called Bento.

Company: FileMaker
Product: Bento
List Price: U.S. $49 (single license) $90 (family license)
Minimum Requirements: Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard), 512 MB Ram (1 GB recommended)

Fine and dandy you say, the price is right -- but what does it do? Bento is a database program for all of us who want to use a database program without having to design one from scratch. The company FileMaker is famous for - well for FileMaker. FileMaker is a complex database application that is used by large and small businesses to keep databases of extremely important business data organized.

I have worked with FileMaker databases on numerous occasions, and each time I have been enormously grateful that all I had to do was fill in the blanks, as opposed to creating the databases. They are like the inside of my Mac. I really donit want to know how they work.

However, there have been times when I really wished I could create a database for things that were important to me. Lets be honest here. A Microsoft Word table just doesnit cut it.

I guess that FileMaker got wise to the fact that more and more people are using Macs, and not all of us are running businesses so they decided to tap into this new market by creating Bento, which is a simple database program for the average user.

I happened to see an excellent demo of Bento a couple of days after it was introduced in January and began using it immediately. I have also taught a class in it so I got feedback from a number of others as well. Everyone I know who has used it just loves it.

The application is designed to work with Leopard and it will not work with any other version of the OS prior to Leopard. It works intuitively with Address Book and iCal and the defaults are set for that although you have the option to turn that off if you wish. The first time you open Bento all of your Address Book files will automatically be used to create a data base which you can then adjust to meet your specific needs, selecting from the predetermined criteria or creating criteria of your own.

Even more useful to my mind is the ability to take a flat database that exists outside of your Address Book file and, within a matter of moments, turn it into a useful, fluid database. For instance, I took my Mac user group membership database, which exists in a Microsoft Excel format and exported it into a "comma-separated value" format (CVS), which is required by Bento. Excel allows this export with a click, as do other applications like Numbers (part of the Apple iWorks package). I imported the CVS version of the database format and I instantly had a Bento database that I could individualize to meet my special needs.

Here is an example of the modifications that I made, including visual enhancements, adding a place for photos, monitoring for special interests, date stamping, and monitoring any correspondence I might send. Setting up these modifications took a matter of minutes, but the results mean that for the first time I have a database that completely meets my needs, not one that I have to work around.

Bento Database Sample
(Click on the image for a larger version)

The one component of Bento that I donit find useful is the interface with iCal because Bento can not read any subscribed calendars, i.e., calendars that come to your home iCal calendar via the Internet.. However, this is a personal thing because of my reliance on subscribed calendars related to my user group activities. According to someone I spoke with at FileMaker, this element will not change in the future because of the basic design of Bento.

Otherwise, I think Bento is fabulous and I am so glad to have access to a database application that I can not only easily use, but easily modify to fit my personal needs. I can also report that it is a very stable application - always a plus.

On another note. I am pleased to report that I am now a semi regular member of the MacJury podcasts which is a peer discussion of topics and issues of the day related to whatis going on in the Mac world. The discussions are lead by Chuck Joiner and you can always find the latest discussion at the MacJury Web site.

Donit forget that my Tips and Hints Manual for Experienced Beginners is available for purchase. The entire Table of Contents and a sample page are available for free review for anyone who wishes to see them. I am making this book available in three formats: