Against all our prejudices, FileMaker has debuted a phenomenal consumer-focused app. FileMaker is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Apple, so you’d hope its baby database would look good but its position doesn’t afford it any preferential treatment; Bento is Leopard-only, and this is because it’s had to wait for the ability, in this latest OS, to access Address Book and iCal information natively, courtesy of public APIs.

Worth the wait

Boy, are we glad they waited. As soon as you launch Bento, it pulls in your contacts from Address Book and events and to-dos from iCal. Unlike with some applications this isn’t a one-time gulp of data. Neither is it using the Sync Services framework to round-trip information. No, it’s actually interacting with the same raw data that Address Book and iCal provide an interface to. That means that if you make a change to a record in Address Book or iCal, it’s instantly reflected in Bento, and vice versa. Bento supports all the fields that Address Book does – including the optional ones such as maiden name and nickname – and you can add your own fields too for use exclusively within Bento.

The main interface is split into three sections: on the left are your collections and data, on the right the list of fields associated with each collection, and in the centre the main records view.

Creating this main view is superbly simple. You can choose to add new libraries based on a range of templates – including project and event planning, billing, inventories and basic CRM models – or create one from scratch. You can use Address Book groups as the basis for your own collection types (though there’s currently no support for Smart Groups) and when creating the main record view, it’s just a matter of creating whatever fields you want in the pane on the right then dragging them into the main record view. This, set to anywhere from one to five columns wide, automatically reflows resizable fields so your forms look really great.

Good looking

A selection of visual themes helps here too, and if you tire of the pretty graphics, toggle to a table view instead, with optional automatic mathematical fields at the foot of each column to calculate totals, averages and the like.

The bundled templates are sophisticated, while creating the fields from scratch is easy too. Click the + button at the bottom of the Fields pane and you’re prompted to add certain types of field. As well as the usual contact info and basic text/number/currency options, you can also create media wells that can hold pics, movies and even DRM-restricted AACs from the iTunes store. Creating calculation fields is a matter of dragging and dropping existing fields into the calculation window and using standard mathematical operators. Examples are only a click away.

Getting info into Bento is pretty straightforward too; it can parse CSV files – not Excel files, though you can export to CSV from Excel – and you can tie the CSV’s fields to fields in your Bento collection. CSV export is available too.

The combination of friendly interface, comprehensive help and a welcome movie means you can get to grips with this database tool more quickly than any other we’ve seen. It’s not intended as a server-hosted database to which you can attach scripts, and those apps that do specific tasks and yet are themselves databases – MYOB, for example – might be better suited if all you want is to manage your finances, say. But Bento is by far and away the best attempt we’ve seen to build a do-anything database app you can sit down in front of and just use. And what’s more, it feels like Apple made it.