Databases can quickly get technical. You end up juggling lists, queries, forms and tables, and before you know it you've turned into a part-time software developer, when all you wanted was to store information.
Bento turns all this on its head. It comes from FileMaker, which also makes the fearsomely powerful FileMaker Pro database tool, but whereas FileMaker Pro can do anything at all, provided you can figure out how to do it, Bento is stripped-down simplicity, a database tool aimed at the app generation.
All the regular database fixtures are there, but working subtly in the background. You can create lots of different databases for different jobs, such as to-do lists, personal inventories or exercise plans. And if you can't find a ready-made template from those supplied, you can go on FileMaker's Template Exchange and download hundreds more.
And instead of storing your databases as separate files within the Finder, Bento calls them 'Libraries' and displays them all in its source bar.
Each Library is built like a conventional database, out of records and fields. You can view your records as a table, using a form view or as a grid, which displays thumbnail images of each record.
You can create different form views, depending on how you want to display or print your data, and this is one of the big improvements in Bento 4 – there's more flexibility in the printing options, so you can print neat-looking label runs for mail-outs, say, or much more professional-looking invoice forms without messy-looking field labels.
List view is where you sort, search and analyse your data. You can save your searches as Smart Collections in the source bar, or create regular Collections and add records manually.
You get all the field types you'd expect from a regular database too, including dates, numbers, text and calculations, and one you might not, called 'Simple List'. This displays a spreadsheet-style grid within the field, and is ideal for lists of items that don't deserve whole fields to themselves. In Bento 4, this has been enhanced so that you can add a total row to the bottom, too.
Bento also does relational links, after a fashion, but this is where the heavyweight hands-on approach of bigger brother FileMaker Pro could prove a better long-term solution.
Although many of Bento's templates are designed for business use, they're very much at the lightweight end of the market – ideal for individuals and small workgroups, but a long way from the bespoke applications that bigger companies are likely to need.
And although Bento has Address Book, iCal Tasks and Events Libraries and can even display your iPhoto library contents, there's an uneasy crossover in that it's a slightly messier way of managing data that the standard Mac OS X apps manage perfectly well – though it does enable you to combine this data with your own fields and Libraries.
In the end, Bento is still a database tool. It's fine for data that conforms to a specific format each time, and which you need to search, categorise, summarise and analyse, but for more freeform data storage of random text, web pages or images, the tag-based structure of a data manager like Yojimbo is going to work better.
Bento can feel like an old concept trying too hard to be new, but what it does, it does brilliantly. It's the database tool for people who don't like databases, making them as simple to use as they are ever likely to get.
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