Review: Bento 4


Bento Provides: A very simple yet powerful database for the Mac that doesn't require any special knowledge of database creation.
Developer: FileMaker
Requirements for Bento: Mac OS X v10.5.7 or greater, G4 through Intel Mac.
Price: $49 or $99 Family Pack (5 users); $20 upgrade rebate for Bento 1, 2, or 3 users
Availability: Out now

Bento, the Japanese meal of databases, is back with a new release. Bento 4 brings new printing options (most notably Label printing in addition to printing options that use less ink), new fields such as "Location," the ability to store sound files from mobile media, and a Simple List field that provides a small scale spreadsheet within a record. There are also a variety of other enhancements.

Bento is made by FileMaker, Inc., who also makes the database program FileMaker Pro. FileMaker is probably the best database application there is that can sit on your desktop or on a server. As good and easy as FileMaker Pro is to construct a full-fledged, full-featured database, to make one that's also easy to use can be a bit of a challenge. While not as powerful as FileMaker, Bento is significantly easier to use and, more importantly, is dirt simple when it comes to creating a new databases from scratch. Bento 4 continues to add features and power and still maintains its ease of use and development.

[If you need a catch up on the Bento story, Charles Moore did the first review of Bento 1 here followed by his review of Bento 2 here. I later did a comparison between FileMaker and Bento 2 here.) There is also a Bento for iPhone and iPad, you can read that review here. Finally here's my Bento 3 review.]

Bento iconWhile FileMaker Pro is cross platform, Bento is a solely Mac product and is designed from the ground up to use software already on your Mac into the mechanics of a database. That is, Bento is designed to integrate your Mac Address Book, iCal events, iPhoto libraries, etc. This is why PC users are not likely to ever see Bento on their platform.

Bento is what's considered a "flat" file database in that it can't really work with a one-to-many or many-to-one structure, but it does freely use what are called Portals (developed from FileMaker Pro) so that one can access and manipulate (in a limited way) one database from within another. Thus, while relatively easy in structure, Bento can take full advantage of very powerful interactions of multiple databases that are acting together but are really separate databases. This makes it very easy to construct databases by simply creating a new field, identifying to Bento what kind of field you want it to be (date, text, numbers, etc.) and then leaving it to Bento to provide the internal structure of the new field.

In case you do not have any interest in developing your own database layout, when you first open Bento you will find a number of layouts, or templates, already created and ready to go. These are from your Address book, iCal, iCal Events, and iPhoto. Like I said, Bento uses some of the Mac's resources directly. The other advantage/power of Bento is that people create their own databases and these "Templates" can be uploaded to a central Template resource page at FileMaker's Template Exchange. You can see the variety and range of templates that are offered here.

It has intrigued and surprised me how many businesses are using Bento but in reality, that shouldn't be such a surprise. There's only so far one can use a spreadsheet and I've known people who run a business with Excel. While a spreadsheet may be great for observing and/or calculating your overall business activities and profits and losses, a spreadsheet just doesn't do a very good job at displaying your customers, your products, prepare invoices, and other paperwork needed around an office or agency. Surprisingly, until Bento 4, you couldn't generate a basic mailing list label--now you can.

When selecting to Print from Bento, you now have the option to do a standard Print (Command-p) or Label Printing (Shift-Command-p). This latter option brings up the window shown below. From the Layout tab you can select from hundreds of Avery or DYMO pre-made labels (and you can customize your own size if needed). From the Setup tab one can select fields, drag and drop to rearrange them, add pictures (which will resize to fit the label dimensions), whatever. Any custom setup can be saved and reused later. By simply changing the size of the label and the contents, you can easily and quickly change from printing mailing labels to name tags. [Curiously, none of Avery's "business card" stock is listed for use from the Layout selection. Fortunately it's not all that difficult to create (and save) custom label pages, thus allowing you to print out your own business cards.]

label printing

There have been several other printing enhancements such as a few new themes that use less ink when printing the theme as well as options in the print dialog that let you turn off the printing of field labels and borders so that your printed invoice or forms are not only cleaner and neater looking, but again: they use less ink. I think that these improvements fall into the "why did it take this long to do" category. While it's been a long wait, it's good to see them here.

Because of the nature of the way that Bento is used, it tends to promote a village community dynamic that people want to share their own templates. As it is, including all of the templates made by FileMaker, professionals, and the general user, there are (at the time of this writing) just shy of 900 templates ranging from inventorying your woodworking tools to businesses templates, from saving sewing materials to book and record collections. Think about these last two: since there is also Bento for iPhone and iPad, you can keep your book collection with you as you travel and if you are in a bookstore and see a book you are not sure if you have or not (or may have a poor copy and you are looking at a suburb copy), you will know what you have. For an avid collector (of anything), Bento combined with Bento for iPhone or iPad is a win-win for the collector.

There have been some improvements to how templates operate within Bento. As before, you can go to FileMaker's Template exchange here and download any template that looks helpful to you (and adapt , alter, and personalize as needed). However, with Bento 2 or 3, you could only export your templates to your hard drive and them upload them to the Bento site from the web. Now you can export your templates directly from the Export option in Bento. As shown below, this is the same Export option as seen in Bento 3 but now there is the button option on the bottom left: Send to Template Exchange

bento templates

With Bento 4, there is a new option when exporting templates. Now you can (if you wish) save all of your data within the template when exporting the template. [Templates that are exported to the template exchange cannot contain any data so there's no concern about exporting your personal data to the world.] This is both a very nice but not perfect feature. It's nice because prior to this release there was no easy way to transfer your templates and contents to another computer. Now, you can simply export the template with the data, and drag it into the other computer. Where this process breaks down is let's say you send your recipe collection to a friend. Over a period of time both you and your friend have updated and expanded the recipes. At this point if you send that person your updated template and contents, there's no way to reconcile the differences. When your friend drags the updated recipes to their Bento, the old database and the new one will both exist on their computer: one that includes their changes, the other that includes your changes.

[By the way, the recipient of this template must be using Bento 4 because no Bento database can open databases generated by a later edition. That is, Bento 3 cannot open Bento 4 databases, Bento 2 cannot open Bento 3 databases, etc.]

Ironically if you sync your desktop computer with your iPhone and then sync your iPhone with your laptop, you will end up with synced databases. This is cumbersome but it does work. [For information on syncing your iPhone with your computer, see my review of Bento for iPhone and iPad mentioned earlier.]

On a side note, FileMaker Inc. added a wonderful simple addition to installing new templates: now you can simply drag them into the Library region and you are done. Before you had to formally import them. Since this is a Mac, the drag-and-drop for a new library is another "about time" feature.

adding templates

There are a variety of new fields that have been created for Bento 4, let me start off with the Location field. This field is created like any field where you chose it from the field types, provide a name and then select how you want it to create the contents prior to clicking the "Create" button. Whether generating the contents from an iPhone, iPad, or your Mac, when it's important to verify the location of where a record was taken or modified, now you can. [And if you need both, you can simply create two separate Location fields.]

location field

Let me also add here that one of the great things I like about Bento for the mobile devices is that you have essentially full capabilities on that mobile device as you do on your computer. If you've seen my reviews of FileMaker Go (a version of FileMaker that lets you run FileMaker databases on an iPhone or iPad), one of the limitations is that you can only work with what you have on your device. If you are out with your device and need a new field, you are stuck until you can get access to the regular FileMaker application to make changes and alterations with the layout. With Bento, if you need a new field, you go ahead and make the new field, configure it, and continue. Remember, syncing any changes with your mobile device and your desktop copy is very very easy.

Below is a screenshot of creating the same Location field on my iPhone as shown above for the Bento for the Mac. On the top image below you can see that I've just created a new field, identified it as a Location field and have just named it. After tapping the right-facing arrow (to the right of "Record Created"), you can see the options available shown in the bottom image below. Here you can see the two options for Auto Enter.

location field on iPhone

There is one problem with this field: tight accuracy. There is no real good way to fine-tune the accuracy of the location. Google maps always has problem with my home address and the GPS nailing down my house always misses by a house or two. Unfortunately there is no way to manually type in the specific address and there's only so much you can do by manually holding your finger on the screen and sliding the pin around. Even "zooming in" has limited success for detailed placement. I think it's safe to assume that this is not an issue with Bento, but rather limitations with GPS and Googlemaps. However, it does effect Bento and it means that location is potentially only an approximation, not extremely accurate account of where the record was recorded.

location accuracy

For a real quickie new feature: one of the common complaints about Bento was that because there is no "layout" mode where locking iconyou can design and create how things appear/look, it was not uncommon for people to inadvertently drag a field out of where it's supposed to remain. So, to solve this FileMaker Inc. has added a simple lock icon in the bottom right of the window. Clicking on the locked icon unlocks and vise versa. No password is required: all this does is lock the fields or unlocks them. when locked you cannot do anything to the layout. Unlocked leaves the fields as they were in Bento 3 and before. A simple solution.

Voice recording has been added as part of the media saving. If you've saved your Bento database on Bento for iPhone or iPad, you can tap on a Media field and the following options will appear (as shown below). They are to either place an image you've already taken, take a new image using your mobile devices camera, or record sound. The length of time one can record seems to vary depending upon the device. According to FileMaker, one can record up to about 20 minutes on the iPad, on my iPhone I showed a total time of 42 minutes. Also, according to FileMaker, on the iPad one can see recording levels while no recording levels were apparent on my iPhone. So, while you can do this, your mileage may vary. [As you can gather from the above, I do not currently own an iPad, so no iPad testing was possible.]


The new "Simple List" field lets you (finally) do basic business calculations within a database. You create the Simple List as you would any new field by selecting it from the field types during the field creation process as shown on the top image below. In the 2nd image below you can see how you identify the kind of data contained in these fields (by column). Note the menu selection called "Edit...." this is where you can change the name to something more relevant. Also note a field called a calculation Field. In the 3rd image below I'm setting the conditions for a Calculation column. Here you see me selecting the quantity field and multiplying that by the cost field. Lastly, in the bottom image, you can see that I've selected to display a Summary Row and am setting up the kind of summation I wish to have displayed.

simple list.

While this seems like a great field, keep in mind that this field will only display the contents within a specific record, not the database or a found set. That is, if you have a database of fruit and you have records of bananas, apples, and oranges, and you place a "Simple List" in one of the apples record, the data within that Simple List will only show up in the single record that you placed in the apples' list and will not be seen in the other apples, or the bananas or the oranges records. Since you can't do tables that reflect the contents of the whole database, I'm not all that certain what the full value is of this field. In Bento's standard Table View, you already have the summary field row options, what you do not have is the calculation field seen in the "Total" column above. FWIW, I feel that such a calculation field would be more valuable than this Simple List field. But I may be missing the value or the Simple List.

The bulk of the updates in Bento range from good to great, interspersed with a few that seem great but on reflection have limitations. If you do not need exactly precise locations, than the Location field is a very valuable item for a reasonably accurate placement when a record was created and/or modified (a second Locator field lets you do both). If you need to do basic spreadsheet calculations within a record, than the Simple List field makes that a simple process. If you need to send yourself, co-worker, or a friend a database with records, than as long as they do not already have the layout, you'll be helping them a great deal.

Other improvements such as printing Labels has been a long time waiting and is great to see it here (along with a very good implementation). And any printing improvements that let the user save ink will get cheers from miserly ol' me. I like the ability to record sound into a media field within a record (although I can't think of why I'd use that, but that's me).

In short, I have to say this is a nice update, but not a profound update. If you have Bento 2, it's time to update. But if you have Bento 3, unless you have any need for labels, I can't say that this is a vital update. And, if you don't have Bento, but have a need for a basic simple database, why are you waiting. For $50 (or $20 upgrade cost), it's a great deal.

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___________ Gary Coyne has been a scientific glassblower for over 30 years. He's been using Macs since 1985 (his first was a fat Mac) and has been writing reviews of Mac software and hardware since 1995.

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