Friday 17th January, 2014
FileMaker must really have believed that killing Bento was an economic decision; that the revenues from users' trade-ups to FileMaker Pro and the marketing & development savings would outweigh lost sales. By now they’ll have the numbers, and know. Does Bento’s demise leave a gap in the Mac ecosystem though? Do people need a low cost, easily customisable database for the Mac?
There’s a good argument to make that more than 90% of spreadsheet documents are really databases. Not every problem capable of being solved by a database app, looks like a database. For the day-to-day small database user, who employed it for maintaing mailing lists, inventories, dvd collections, and small businesses, Bento gave them the speed of knocking up a spreadsheet, with the clarity of seeing the data in a form view.
In looking for a replacement, it’s important to see what made Bento such a good product. It was quick to learn, and until recently made good use of the databases already built-in to MacOS - the contacts files, filing system, mail.app messages, and media libraries. Thanks to its need to remain cross-platform, these are features unlikely to appear in FileMaker Pro anytime soon.
Bento benefitted from a great set of interface tools - exemplified by its smart field types (ratings, encrypted fields, lists, file lists, and message lists, etc.) that sidestepped problems with data entry, and its iTunes-like collections and smart collections that made grouping records straightforward. This focus on the avoidance of wheel-reinvention was another Bento asset.
One might have disagreed with Bento’s occasional layout choices, but creating good-looking, easy to use forms was a snap. Bento databases tend to be small, focussed on a single task, and aren’t required to handle vast amounts of data.
TABLE: Databases on Test | At A Glance
|iDatabase||FileMaker Pro||Numbers||Panorama Sheets||Symphytum||Tap Forms|
|View As||Form/List||Form/List/Sheet||Sheet Only||Sheet Only||Form/List||Form/List|
|Import||No||TXT,Excel+||TXT,Excel||TXT,Drag & Drop||No||TXT|
|Sync Via||WiFi,DropBox||No (Server)||iCloud||No||DropBox||iCloud|
|Demo (Days)||Yes||Yes (30)||No||Yes (15)||Yes (14)||Yes|
NB: All applications can import and export CSV.
Though Bento wasn’t a perfect app, and certainly not to everyone’s taste, it still leaves some (small) shoes to fill.
Test One: Database Design
Making Something Useful
Each app offers its own way of creating a database - essentially the process of adding new fields of varying types, and then laying them out on forms. Of those under test, both Panorama Sheets and Numbers only let you enter your data in a sheet view. Only Panorama Sheets (expensive) big brother offers form creation, and it also disappoints with its limited number of field types. As a spreadsheet, Numbers will let you display data graphically. FileMaker Pro lacks the pre-defined field types of the other apps - it clearly expects a bit more heavy lifting from the user. In terms of look and feel, both Symphytum and iDatabase require some MacOS clean-up. iDatabase’s Qt origins are clear. Symphytum’s UI suffers from being almost right, lacking the attention to detail expected from a Mac app (less charitably: spacing’s wonky, icons suck.) Tap Forms is a clear winner, with its clean Mac-like UI, and Bento-like setup: plenty of field-types, and a slick out of the box result that can be tweaked later.
Test Two: Import & Export Data
Does it play well with others?
All of the apps under test dealt passably well with CSV, or “comma separated values” files (although Symphytum handles semi-colons too!). Panorama Sheets offers a neat trick of text drag & drop from another application, which if you’re using it as a tool for cleaning up lots of data, could be a real time saver. Along with FileMaker and Numbers it also handles native Excel files. The half-way point is Tap Forms that also handles TXT format - which effectively means tab-delimited data. All of the apps will happily create a new database from an imported CSV file, and both Tap Forms and iDatabase offer user-selectable methods of dealing with non-Mac data files. The Tap Forms import dialog goes the extra mile, in terms of handling date formats in the incoming data. Of interest to Bento users: will any of them open Bento files? FileMaker, unsurprisingly, offer a separate tool for doing just that, but Tap Forms includes the ability to import Bento Templates from inside the app, including the handling images.
Test Three: Filter Data
Finding needles easily
A database is no use for storing things in if you can’t find them when you need them later. Each of the apps offered some level of search. Symphytum provides a fast, as-you-type search for text in any field. iDatabase goes one better, by saving recent searches in a small pop-up. The remaining apps (FileMaker, Numbers, Panorama Sheets, and Tap Forms) all provide variations on the theme (often with the opportunity to save searches for later use), as well as an advanced search/filter/select dialog that lets you build advanced searches by combining different queries within different fields.
There are some idiosyncracies (for example, Tap Forms' “contains” search actually looks for the start of words, skewing the results versus the other apps), but in general, the results are pretty similar. One minor note, both FileMaker and Panorama Sheets let you focus in or out from the current selected set of records, which may be important if you’re a complex-search sort of a person. For the nerdish, FileMaker’s scripting can simplify this even further.
Test 4: iOS & Backup
Can you get there from here?
Being able to update your records on the move can be an important part of inventory management, for example, so it’s no surprise is that the majority of apps offer a companion iOS app, with Symphytum and Panorama Sheets the exception. The interesting thing is to try to work out which came first, the iOS or the MacOS app. Both iDatabase and Tap Forms have good form on iOS. Numbers' and FileMakers' companion apps are full ports of the original. For iPhone, the former is better, for iPad the latter.
Syncing & Backup are also important issues for users that want their info to be up-to-date where they are now. iDatabase & Tap Forms both specifically offer syncing, and Numbers shares documents via iCloud. FileMaker is notoriously bad at Syncing per se, but you can email documents from desktop to iOS device. Backup-wise, Panorama Sheets has the edge - its TimeLapse function offers a time-machine functionality for roll-back, partial roll-back, and even version comparisons. Other app devs, take note.
Getting Test Data
How do you test databases? With data of course! But getting decent data to play with can be frustrating. Yes, you could use existing mailing lists or financial records, but cough data protection act cough. Duplicating a few of the same old records can give you a big data set, but what you really want is some randomly generated data, conforming to specific patterns. Psst, wanna know where to get some? http://www.generatedata.com is your friend. The site (which you can also download as PHP app to a local webserver), lets you build large datasets for testing out mailing lists, mocking up catalogues, or producing character names for your latest block-buster. Essentially, you specify the data you want to produce by field type (names, addresses, postcodes, related data, calculations), and then choose how many records you need generated, and how you want them delivered (Excel, SQL, CSV, JSON, XML, HTML, etc.) You can even save your setups for later testing re-use. The country specific options are especially cool.
For a straight Bento replacement, Tap Forms is the clear winner, by a country mile. The user interface is beautifully Mac-like, the structuring of data similar enough to Bento offers a shallow learning curve, it offers a direct import of Bento templates, and the iOS companion app is great. An honourable mention should go to Panorama Sheets. At first glance, it’s the anti-Bento. No forms, and only three field types. But for those who spend their days cleaning up text data, maintaining postal mailing lists, the rich functionality under the hood gives products 10 times its price a run for their money. Yes, I’m looking at you FileMaker. If you’re a data geek, the drill-down summary feature may blow you away.