Bento Has Its Place, Finally

I bought Bento awhile ago but it never seemed to find a place in my computer life. Bento is a “personal database” from Filemaker, an Apple subsidiary. It’s a Mac-only product, unlike Filemaker’s flagship database product. The Mac version is $49. There’s also versions for the  iPhone and iPad for $5 each.

I don’t like having my data tied to a specific platform and converting formats back and forth is usually more trouble than it’s worth. So cross-platform apps are the norm with me. Bento isn’t cross platform but when I think about it, it’s not that I’m tied to a cross platform religion, it’s that I want my data to be where I am. So in the case of Bento the iPhone app (at the time I bought it) and now the iPad app make me less intent on a true cross platform database solution.

I first gave the Bento trial version a look back in November 2007 but ended up passing on it until January of this year. At the time it was about 10% off list from Amazon but these days Amazon is nearly full price. It took awhile, but at this point I’d say it was clearly worth the $50.

My first Bento use was to move my DVD database from a dedicated program (DVDPedia) to Bento. This way I could have them on my iPod Touch. I exported the DVDs from DVDPedia into a CSV file and the import into Bento was straightforward and without error. I let Bento create to Library and field names as it imported the file. During the import I changed some field types to pick lists (choice fields into Bento terms). I was happy to see it correctly imported my star ratings.

I had no complaints about Bento, but it also hadn’t impressed me. I didn’t really care about the integration with Address Book, iCal or iPhoto and in fact I recently removed those libraries from the list (through a preferences option).

I pretty much left Bento alone until the iPad came out. This happened to coincide to when I was looking to move a spreadsheet based database to a real database. But in this case I needed it to be truly mobile data. Until the iPad I was thinking Windows since it could be on my desktop and netbook. But with the iPad and the Bento iPad app is seemed apparent that the iPad could provide the portability.

I’ve written in the past about my interest in domaining and I’ve been keeping track of them in a spreadsheet. The “spreadsheet” had actually grown to multiple worksheets as things grew and changed. So I started off by just importing the main sheet that had my current domains. But this started to grow and expand as I explored the features of Bento.

I was able to start itemizing expenses and income by setting up separate libraries and using related fields. Bento keeps all the “Libraries” in one database, even if they are unrelated. But any Library in the database can be related to any other library. I found this counterintuitive at first, although once it clicked in my brain it became quick and easy. There’s also the ability to set up folders so I’ve begun to create a folder for each project and all the libraries for it go in the folder.

Bento for iPad

I have Bento for the iPad too. As expected it’s much more limited than the OS X version. Related fields don’t get synced to the iPad but fields that are calculated based on them retain their values.

Only one form per library can be created on the iPad and it’s shared by all collections for the library. It’s not a big deal for me, at least so far, since I just use the iPad to look up info or do a quick update.

I also had a problem with one library that broke Bento on the iPad. I tried to start Bento iPad and it crashed. Because Bento always tried opening that library on startup (and immediately crashed) I had to uninstall Bento and deselect the library from syncing. I’m not sure why that one crashes Bento and a similar library doesn’t.

What I Like

Bento lives up to it’s reputation and easy to use. What I didn’t expect was it to be so powerful. No, it’s not Filemaker but it’s about 1/6th the cost. I use MS Access with my day job and Bento is easier to use, especially when it comes to setting up data entry forms.

In typical Mac fashion the queries are called “Smart Collections” . Look at an iTunes Smart Playlist and you’ll get the idea. I found this a bit cumbersome at first as each smart collection gets it’s own entry in the sidebar. But I decided to go with the flow and have no real complaints. I created one smart collection called “ad-hoc” and I just keeps changing it as needed. Likewise I have some Smart Collection templates (for lack of a better term) where I just change the one field I care about at the time and the rest of the fields always stay the same.

What I Don’t Like or Would Like to See

All the databases are in one file. (I seen hacks around this but haven’t tried any yet. Should work OK since it’s the same hack for multiple iTunes libraries.) I’d be concerned about performance on large databases.

Like most Apple apps it’s GUI intensive. I find myself having to go back and forth between the mouse and keyboard more than I’d like. I’d rather stay with the keyboard, maybe I’ll come across some keyboard shortcuts.

On Bento for the iPad all the collections in a library share one form. When a new collection is created on the OS X version it inherits the form(s) from the library, but then the link is broken. Changes have to be made on all copies of the form. This is more plus than minus I guess, but it would be nice to have a form that could be shared across collections and only needed to be changed once. This has been especially annoying as I’m learning Bento and developing the database library.

The terminology – hopefully I haven’t misused terms in this article. I think of Libraries as databases. I’ve gotten use to collections although I found myself using the term when I mean to use library.

Bento reminds user to backup weekly or monthly (or never) and the backup process gives the file a unique name each day. It would be nice to have a preference setting to do this backup automatically every day (for those of us who don’t trust time machine).

Syncing between Bento desktop and iPad (or iPhone) has to be triggered manually and from the iPad (or iPhone). So when I had the collection problem that crashed Bento iPad I couldn’t remove the collection via a sync because I had to start Bento iPad in order to trigger the sync.

Conclusion

After I slow start I’m now more than satisfied with my Bento purchase. The iPad lets me take the data around with me and gives me a usable interface to make updates. My days of using a spreadsheet as a database are over.

Reference

The following links go to sites that provide more in-depth information about using Bento.

The official Bento tours and demos.

While written for Bento 2, How To Create A Complex Database in Bento 2 provides a good overview on how to relate multiple libraries.

I haven’t gone through many of the articles yet, but this seems like a good source of tips and how-to’s.