Bento may very well be the friendliest database application for the Mac. FileMaker, well known for its FileMaker Pro series of relational databases, has taken a complex concept - relational databases - and turned it into a personal database application that can help you organize the daily details of your life.
Unlike popular specialized cataloging applications, Bento is a general-purpose personal organizer that can easily accommodate many different types of tasks, from home inventory to time billing and project management.
Bento is available in a single-user pack ($49) and a 5-user family pack ($99).
Bento - Installation
Bento is available as a retail boxed version and an online download. The installation process is basically the same for both versions. Load the Bento installation CD in your CD drive or double-click the Bento file you downloaded from the FileMaker web site to mount the Bento image file. To install Bento, drag the Bento icon from the window to your Applications folder.
You may notice a Users Guide file icon in the Bento disk window. You can drag this icon to your desktop, for easy access to Bento’s manual, but it’s not required. The Users Guide is part of the Bento application bundle, and was copied to your hard drive when you dragged the Bento icon to your Applications folder.
While installation is simple, the basic requirements for Bento are a bit strict. Bento will only work on Macs running OS X 10.5 or later. If you’re running an earlier version of OS X, you’ll need to upgrade to Leopard before you can use Bento.
Note: When you first launch Bento, you may get a message telling you that an update is available. Click the ‘Get Software Update’ button. When the FileMaker web site loads, click the appropriate ‘Learn more’ link for your language to get to the Bento update page. Click the ‘Download Now’ button to download the update. When the download is complete, double-click the file to mount a disk image of the file on the desktop. Drag the Bento icon from the disk image window to your Applications folder. When asked if you want to replace the older item, click the ‘Replace’ button. When the copying process is complete, you can launch Bento again.
Bento - First Impressions
Bento uses a three-pane window. The left pane is a Source list of all of your Bento libraries; libraries are Bento’s way of organizing your information. Each library is a template of how data will be organized; it also contains the data the library represents. For example, the Address Book, one of the default libraries, includes the Address Book template, as well as any contact information you’ve entered into your Apple Address Book.
The Source list also contains any collections you’ve created from a specific library. A collection is similar to a playlist in iTunes or a Group in Address Book. It allows you to organize a large library of data in smaller, more manageable chunks.
The middle and largest pane, the Records area, is where all the action takes place. This is where a selected library’s records are listed, either individually or in table form. Records are how a database manages related items. For instance, an Address Book record would contain the name, address, and phone number of an individual, as well as other information; taken together, these items make up a single record.
The Fields pane on the right is a list of fields used by the selected library or collection. Fields are the individual items that make up a record. In the Address Book library, the fields include first name, last name, birthday, cell phone, email address, and home address.
Bento’s simple three-pane window displays its libraries, collections, records, and fields in a unified interface that’s as easy to use as iTunes.
Bento - Address Book and iCal
Bento comes with a collection of 23 pre-made library templates, ready for you to use. Three of these templates, Address Book, iCal Events, and iCal Tasks, use your existing Apple Address Book and iCal data. This offers a number of advantages, not least of which is the ability to view the data in table format, something you can’t do within the native Address Book and iCal applications. Using Bento, I can view all of my Address Book entries in a single table, rather than click through one Address Book record at a time.
Another nifty feature is two-way data access; any changes I make to Address Book or iCal in Bento immediately show up in Address Book or iCal. Remember Bento’s collections? I can create a new Address Book collection in Bento that contains all of my Focus on Macs contacts. When I go back to Apple’s Address Book, I’ll see a new Group that Bento created (the Address Book equivalent of a collection).
What’s more, I can leverage all of the information in Address Book and iCal via Bento, incorporating the data into other Bento libraries. For example, my Bento Home Inventory library now contains an entry for our home insurance agent. That entry is actually a relational entry back to my Address Book. If I update the information in either application, both instances of the data will be updated.
Bento - What Bento Can and Can’t Do For You
Bento’s primary purpose is to be a personal database that can help you catalog and organize your life. It excels at this function, due to its collection of over 20 pre-built templates that you can easily modify for a specific purpose. You can also start with a blank template, and build your own custom library from scratch.
Bento makes it easy to create new libraries; it’s also easy to customize existing libraries. Its general-purpose nature is one of Bento greatest strengths. But Bento isn’t a good choice for every use. It’s ideal for students, home users, and home office users, but it lacks the more sophisticated capabilities that businesses demand, such as the ability to share database files among multiple individuals, network support, and the ability to add scripting or macros to trigger pre-defined functions.
Focusing on the single-user personal market allowed FileMaker to develop Bento as an inexpensive database application that retains versatile capabilities for the target market.