Today, FileMaker announced the release of Bento for the iPhone and iPod touch, a companion to their popular personal database software. Priced at $4.99, the mobile application can synchronize directly with Bento 2 running on your Mac to keep information up-to-date.
If you’re unfamiliar with Bento, our review is a good place to start. Essentially the application helps you to stay organized through creating a personal database. It offers a great deal of flexibility and is suitable for anything from managing a list of recipes to tracking home inventory.
Bento is renowned for three characteristics: simplicity, elegance, and ease of use. All of these are present in the Mac software with virtually no learning curve required in order to start organizing your information. The same experience has been ported across to the mobile application with great effect.
Creating a New Library
Bento for iPhone is separated into four main sections, which remain consistently present at the bottom of the screen: Home, Search, New Library and Sync. Upon opening the app for the first time, you’ll be asked to create a new library.
Two options are available for creating a new library. You can either select from one of the 25 pre-designed templates, or design your own set of fields from scratch.
Flicking through the default templates is done through a cover flow-style animation, though it seems to behave in a slightly different manner. While the functionality is fine, flicking through the various options is slightly sluggish and template icons take a short while to load.
The pre-designed templates available cover a wide range of options — everything from expenses and time billing, to an exercise or charity donation log. Each template has a wonderfully designed icon, and there’s a good chance you can find a library that meets your requirement.
If you’re in need of a custom solution, selecting ‘Blank’ will allow you to design a new library from scratch, right on your iPhone or iPod touch. A simple interface guides you through adding and editing fields, some of which are able to interact with iPhone features (taking a picture, for example).
Two views are available for the home screen allowing you to either flick through libraries in cover-flow mode or view a detailed list of libraries and collections. When browsing in cover flow, tapping the “i” icon will flip the current icon around and display further information about the records/collections within.
This provides a clear and simple way to quickly browse or edit the desired library. I appreciate the inclusion of a list view, as performance is notably quicker than loading the high-res icons for cover flow.
Browsing & Searching Libraries
After opening a library, a list of the collections (groups) and individual records contained is displayed. Various sorting and display options are available to adjust how the list appears. You can either add a new record, or drill down further to edit each item:
Searching is powerful, and is performed across all available libraries. Results update in real time as you type, and are broken down by library:
It will be interesting to see whether Bento information could be tied into the Spotlight search planned for iPhone 3.0 — this could offer a very useful addition to iPhone-wide search.
Syncing with Bento for Mac
Synchronizing your information with Bento for Mac is a simple process provided both devices are connected to the same Wi-Fi network. After instructing both the iPhone and Mac version to search for other devices, connecting involves authorization through a four-digit security code:
After connecting, the iPhone should display as a ‘Device’ in the left pane of Bento. You can then select which libraries you would like to sync (in a very similar fashion to managing your device via iTunes).
Performance & Limitations
There are a few areas of Bento for iPhone that don’t synchronize with the desktop version. These include any media over 10MB, iCal events and tasks, file list fields, automatic counter fields, and smart collections. In addition, it isn’t possible to modify calculation fields from the mobile app. I would also like to see a table view which displays records side-by-side, making use of the iPhone’s landscape display. That said, these limitations are certainly acceptable, and don’t stop the iPhone application being incredibly useful.
Unfortunately, the stability and performance of the app was, for me, a major sticking point. Bento was prone to crashing every few minutes and there was a noticeable delay when opening the app and browsing in cover-flow mode. I’m fairly confident that these issues will be rectified through an update shortly.
Performance aside, Bento for iPhone represents a powerful and worthy mobile companion. I’m pleased to see that FileMaker has offered an application fully capable of creating a database, not confined to act as a viewer for existing desktop libraries. At the price of $4.99, Bento for iPhone represents one of the most powerful and affordable database tools available. As soon as stability is perfected, I’m confident I shall be a regular user.