FileMaker – Bento 3 review

personal database for Mac users
Photo of FileMaker – Bento 3

Home databases have all but disappeared, replaced either by specialised products that catalogue collections, keep home inventory and membership records and store recipes, or by Microsoft Excel which has developed into a database-lite, able to handle all sorts of different jobs. This means that Bento, a low-cost, general purpose database for the Macintosh, is something of a rarity: a product barely seen since the days of Appleworks.

The name Bento is derived from the Japanese word for a takeaway for one person, a reference presumably to the fact that each Bento database does one thing, well. Thus, those looking for relational database-style features (and despite the low price, the comments on the Apple Store indicate some people expect this) are going to be disappointed.

If, however, you’re looking for a simple, elegant way to manage the kind of tasks that are common to many households and small businesses, then there’s much to recommend Bento. It looks great and comes with 35 templates to get you started. These are fully-fledged working databases that include simple project management, note taking, recipes, a diet log, home inventory, time planning and so on.

Beginners will find that the best way to understand how Bento works is to dive in and explore a few of these: those more familiar with the ways of databases can start building from scratch and we were able to create a simple database for tracking invoices (that included calculated fields, checkboxes, drop-down lists, currency fields and an automatic counter for the invoice number field) in about 15 minutes, without looking at the manual.

Version 3 adds better all round picture support, including integration with iPhoto, the ability to add static images to forms (and related data fields so you can pull photos from iPhoto into a database of party guests for example) and a new grid view which is great for looking at visual data.

Elsewhere there’s also a new group e-mail feature, more effective security features like database-wide password protection and encrypted fields, and it’s also possible for up to five users to share databases over a network (though if you’re working at that level, FileMaker might be a better choice).

Layout options are still relatively limited (you can’t specify fonts, colours or even sizes, beyond smallest, small, medium, large and largest) but in a way that’s the point; remember the name, this isn’t carefully home cooked food, it’s fast, general purpose and convenient. Should you want to change the look and feel of a form there are over 30 themes to choose from that will do it with a single mouse click.

There are still some significant omissions: Bento doesn’t integrate with a word processor so you can’t do mail merge, and its printing features in general are very limited so it’s not suitable for creating reports. It could, however, be pressed into service to produce invoices; just.

We also came across a nasty little gotcha. If you duplicate a form and then remove certain elements from the copy (for example, a text box or a separator) they’ll also be removed from the original form. Yuk. Overall though, Bento does a good job and we’d recommend it to anyone who needs to knock up quick and dirty databases for a wide range of home and small business uses.

Company: FileMaker

Contact: 0845 603 9100

Inexpensive, flexible, good-looking Mac database program suitable for many common household and small business tasks, though let down by primitive printing features. If you never go beyond the existing templates this is excellent value for money, but if you want to create your own, you'll find that Bento has a surprising amount of power under the bonnet.