Bento – Database software review
As a man obsessed with order, data and lists I’ve always had a softspot for databases. Right from the early days using an Apple Mac one of my favourite things to do was create HyperCard stacks and little apps within Hypercard for all sorts of things. I used to make my own financial recording stacks, exercise training stacks, databases of my books and music and so on. None of it was particularly good but it worked and served a need.
Of course, HyperCard didn’t last long and I soon moved onto FileMaker Pro. Once again, I put it to similar uses and created some nice relational databases for things I needed (wanted) to keep track of.
More recently if I needed a database I was more likely to develop a quick online one using a MySQL database and PHP, and to be honest as my “Simple Life of Luxury’ has developed I’ve had less time for cataloging things I didn’t really need to catalogue and haven’t been using databases at home.
I hadn’t used a database application such as FileMaker Pro for a few years. In most cases if I wanted to keep track of certain things such as my bike rides or my finances I would use a bespoke application – Ascent for my bike rides and other exercise, Moneywell for my personal finances. In most cases these bespoke applications are much better and have features that wouldn’t be possible with a database.
However, with the moth season approaching I wanted a way of recording my moth counts and having heard good things about Bento I needed an excuse to satisfy my need for a database! There are bespoke biological recording applications out there such as MapMate, but nothing for a Mac so I decided to give Bento a go and build my own.
Bento is built by the makers of Filemaker Pro but at £29.95 is much more affordable. It isn’t a cut down version of Filemaker Pro, rather it is a completely different product with a very user-friendly approach to database design.
I downloaded the trial on Saturday and had a go at building a database without reading any of the manual! The look and feel of Bento is very Mac-like and the interface resembles that of iTunes. There is a pane to the left of the window which contains your various libraries (tables), a smaller pane below this which lists the fields (columns) used in any library and the main screen which contains the records (rows). The records can be displayed as individual cards or as a list.
Adding new fields and arranging them within a record card (form) is easy and just a case of selecting the field options and dragging the field to where you want it. I was up and running with a basic database of moths in no time.
The next thing to try was creating some relationships. Now Bento isn’t a fully-fledged powerful relational database application. It isn’t trying to be, but it is trying to be a useful database application for personal use. I wanted to have one library that contained records of the moth species, with descriptions and photos of that moth, along with another library that contained records of the moths I collect in my trap. Of course I wanted to join these together so that any recording of a particular species in my trap was linked to the description ot the moth species.
I did have to resort to the manual a little here, but once I knew how to do it this was simple. First I created the moth species library with its various fields. Then I created a moth trapping library with its relevant fields. Linking the two was then just a matter of dragging the Moth Species library onto a form within the moth trapping library. This has the effect of creating a ‘related data’ field in the trapping form that allows me to select a record from the Moth species library. You can choose which fields from the related library are shown in this related data field.
Now, when I enter a new record to the trapping library, I enter the various details such as date, species, and the number trapped and also click in the related data field and select the relevant species from the Moth Species library. This is OK, but not actually that useful. I therefore created a relationship in the opposite direction. This time dragging the moth trapping library onto the Moth Species form. I displayed this related data field as a list showing the date and quantity of moths trapped from the trapping database. This is quite useful. Now when I look up the details of any particular moth species I can also see the days that I have seen these in the trap and in what quantities.
Of course as these records are now related, changing anything in one is reflected in the other.
OK, using such a database to keep track of simple moth records isn’t groundbreaking but it was a fun way to get to grips with Bento and as far as database applications go I have to say I’m impressed.
Probably the most important aspect of Bento of most home users will be the seemless integration it has with Apples iApps. The libraries pane by default contains special libraries that link to Address Book, iCal and iPhoto meaning that databases for each of these apps are automatically created for you.
You can therefore add more information to records within these apps, contacts, calendar events and photos, or integrate them into libraries of your own. It is all very slick and I’m sure I’ll find a use for it soon.
The ease of use is continued through to exporting and importing of data too. Importing data from a Numbers of Excel spreadsheet is ridiculously easy. Just drag the spreadsheet file onto the libraries pane. Bento analyses the data and up pops a diaolgue box showing you that it is going to create a new library based on the data in the spreadsheet. Bento works out that the first record in the spreadsheet contains column names so it uses these as field names in the library and then it allows you to check through the records to make sure it has everything correct. Click on the import button and Bento creates a completely new library for you containing all of the data in your spreadsheet. It couldn’t be easier.
Exporting to Excel or CSV format is just as easy meaning that Bento should be compatible with a range of other applications.
In addition to the Mac look and feel, you can customise the various forms you create in Bento using various themes that come pre-loaded. You don’t have complete control over all aspects of the form design and I found what you could do was a little limiting. You can’t change fonts for a start and there are only 5 font-sizes that you can choose from. This does of course simplify things and I guess databases are meant for storing and analysing data, not looking pretty, but a little more control would be nice. I for one don’t like the fact that I can’t make the scientific names of my moths display italicised.
Making changes to the look and layout of a form is really easy and there is enough flexibility for most users. I’d like to be able to lock the form layout though so that it couldn’t be changed. I would then be able to use it in simple data-entry and retrieval mode without the ability to accidentally edit the form. When sharing a database with others the database is ‘locked’ in this fashion meaning that users viewing your shared database can’t create or delete fields or make changes to form layouts, but they can edit, add and delete data.
Overall Bento is easy to use, works well and would suit the needs of most personal users needed a database application. I just need to find a few more uses for it now, but I think it is well worth £29.95.