Provides: Create and/or run Databases
Developer: FileMaker Inc.
Requirements: Intel Mac running OS X v10.6+ with 1GB of RAM or OS X v10.7+ running 2GB of RAM
Retail Price: FM Pro: $299 ($179 for upgrade); FM Pro Advanced: $499 ($299 for upgrade, no upgrade pricing for Bento users)
FileMaker (the company) has just released the latest version of FileMaker Pro (the product). With this new release, FileMaker dives deeper to make it easier to create portable device layouts for FileMaker Go, and now provides FileMaker Go for free (more on that later). They also realize that not every database creator is a viable designer, and now provide a number of ways to help in that regard. In addition, there are new chart types and enhanced container fields, and you now have the ability to create layouts to make them accessible to screen readers. In the grand scheme, there is a lot more to FileMaker than just a pretty face, but in this release, the developers focused on helping you create a pretty face. And, as usual, there's a lot more there. So, let's examine these new features and see how they work out.
Let me start off with a word of caution and comment: if you recently purchased FileMaker Go for the iPhone or iPad, that application will work with files from FileMaker 7-11. FileMaker Pro changed its format structure with FileMaker 12 and files from FileMaker 12 cannot be opened in earlier versions of FileMaker Pro or FileMaker Go. The free versions of FileMaker Go will ONLY work with files created (or updated) by FileMaker 12 (as well as future versions). The good news is that by updating your databases to FileMaker Pro 12 will automatically let them be accessible with the iPhone, iTouch, or iPad versions of FileMaker Go.
So let's start off by showing the new features on how to make your database prettier by stating a reality: not everyone who can create a database can make a pretty database. Another reality is that people will respond better to a better looking database than an ugly or bland database.
On a side note, one of the big features in Bento, FileMaker's database for the home or small business user, is the ability to create "skins" for the various layouts that can radically change the appearance of the database. Since these are skins, changing the appearance is as simple as changing a font from a list. This is no different than changing layouts in Keynote or PowerPoint. Perhaps it's surprising (or not), one of the most appreciated features of Bento are these skins that make it beyond easy to improve and/or change the appearance.
Making your database attractive
Below is a database I created (yes, I'm willing to say I created and designed this) to keep software tips. Simple enough of content, I obviously wasn't too concerned about appearance (no one other than me sees this (till now)). After selecting a layout skin from a list, and making a few tweak modifications, you can see the results on the 2nd image below.
Within these skins FileMaker provides a suggested font, font color and size, matching textures and customized header and footer.
Below is the window from which you can select the various themes. Unfortunately you cannot expand the vertical size of this window, nor does it show what YOUR database would look like, only a generic composite. All of the themes that have the word "Touch" in them refer to themes that have been pre-tuned for iPod Touches, iPhone, and iPads with larger fonts and larger fields. Sadly, of the 40 created themes, only 4 are pre-customized for an iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad.
Probably my biggest complaint about themes is that while you can alter any theme you select, you can neither save any customizations nor can you design and save any new themes. For example, if you take a pre-made theme that uses a size 12 Tahoma font and you change that to a size 14, the font size for that field will remain if you change the theme. Any subsequent fonts in that field will now also be 14. But if you bring into a layout a new field, it will come in at a size 12 font, that theme's original default.
Update: After writing this article I've learned of a technique to changing these themes and even adding your own. However, it's not for the weak or timid and should only be done by someone who know what they are doing: this is not FileMaker Pro sanctioned, so back up before you do anything here, but information can be found at this YouTube video.
Note in the image above, FM Pro has a left and right region that is darker as well as a header and footer region that is also dark (not all of the layouts have this, it's optional). It seems that there is a magic minimum size to make this work and if the amount of Footer/Header you have is too small, the region appears more like a hook than anything else. To fix this you simply increase the height of the Footer/Header and all is well. [As in earlier versions of FM Pro, the height of the header/footer can be as tall as needed for any graphics, text, or fields as needed. All I'm discussing here is that there is a minimum height needed for the visual styling of this dark boarder.]
To help in layout, FileMaker has also finally placed auto (or smart) guides into their layout editing. That is, as you drag an item (fields, text, objects, whatever) around the layout, the item will react with other objects to help you align the top, bottom, or middle to other top, bottoms or middles of other objects. In addition if you have three or more objects, these guides will also pop up in between the objects to show that things are equidistant across all of the items.
While this is great in theory as well (as in practice most of the time), the more items you have in your layout, the more the usefulness of the auto-guides starts to break down. Below is a composite image created from 14 screen-shots showing that as I dragged one item across the layout, I was getting guides popping up from every thing the item could sense. In this case I was not trying to align my item up with any of them, I was trying to place some text in the middle of the layout. Ironically, it turns out that that is something that no guides are provided for.
What might be helpful here is if the user could click on the object that needs to be moved and then click on the item/object that you want to align it to. That way FM Pro would only focus on those two objects. It would also be good if one could select an item and align it to the layout.
Before I leave the design features, I do want to focus on some changes to fields: please note in the images above that they can now have radii of any size letting you create fields who's ends could be complete round-corner fields. As shown in the image below (where you see the layout and part of the Inspector), the radius can be set at each corner so that you can have interesting designs within a field itself as shown below. [This stylization can only be on or off, not "some here, more there" kind of thing.] Note that you can select if the lines around a field can be solid, dashed, or dotted.
On the other hand, the faux dropshadow has been dropped. No loss there.
As I stated earlier, you can now download FileMaker Go for either iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad from the App store for free. To get content properly placed on your device used to be a lot of guess work, diligent work with rulers, and a lot of trial and error. Now, to help with layout, FM Pro provides overlay templates to guide.
As shown below, when you select a guide from the list below, an orange border is displayed over your layout. From that you can remove, add, shift, and adjust your fields to fit the confined space. [Also note: once selected, each outline remains until de-selected. Things can get messy if you keep on selecting guides without removing the ones you are not focusing upon.]
Lastly a couple of quick comments on design: Since FileMaker 1 from 1985, there has been a "T-square" feature to align objects on a horizontal or vertical axis. That's been removed and replaced with as many horizontal or vertical lines you could want by simply dragging them from the rulers.
While the following is not a new feature, as you create your designs for devices, you can share your files using a local FileMaker network at your work or home. Thus, instead of viewing the database residing on your computer and imagining how it would look on a device, you can share the file with your device live while working on it on your computer. [Remember that one of the limitations of FileMaker Go is that you can only see and interact with the database, you cannot do any adjustments on the layout, scripts, calculations, or other internal dynamics within FileMaker Go.] This means, as you make changes to the file on your computer you can see the file in real time on your device. Make a tweak, see it on your device, move this or that, see it on your device. Very cool. For more information on how to set this up, see the information here.
If I were to have one new feature that surprised the heck out of me by its ease of use, I'd have to say "Charts." When Charts were first introduced in FileMaker Pro 11, it was pretty cool, once you established your parameters of what you wanted to chart and where it was going to appear and within what kind of subsection it was going to appear in, it was a piece of cake. Now it is a piece of cake. Really.
To generate a Chart in Fm Pro 12, it's easiest from the Table View. You can click on the drop-down menu in the file-type's header and select Chart by [name of field].
From there you are looking at your chart in real time and as you fine-tune all of the logos, names, views, etc. from the selection menu on the right, you can see your final product as it develops.
Below is a 100%-sized view of the column seen above on the right-hand side including the three different views it provides.
FileMaker 11 brought us 5 chart types (Bar, Horizontal Bar, Line, Area, and Pie). These have been added to with Stacked Bar/Column, Positive Negative Column, Scatter, and Bubble. [What was once called Bar is now called Column, what was called Horizontal Bar is now called Bar.] The Chart Selection menu can be seen below. To access this menu, you click on the Drop Down menu seen in the Chart menu view (above left on the top) where it says "Type."
Several more nifty items: If you look at the lower right corner of the Chart Setup Window, you will see the option to "Save as Layout..." When you click on this you can save your Chart on a new Layout within your database (This Layout can be seen or hidden from the Layout drop-down menu.) The one catch here is that it cannot be resized beyond manually changing the physical size of the database window. The smallest size is around 600 x 400, but the Chart can expand as big as you make the window. You could make the chart fill one of those 30" Apple monitors if you wished.
Remember that after you complete making the chart, the data is always live. That is, if you add or change data, the chart will always be updating. If you add new fields, the chart will always be updating.
New to FM Pro is accessibility. This feature helps the blind or poorly sighted work with FileMaker by use of screen readers. Most of us have played around with having programs read things to us using "Ralph" or "Hysterical" but when it comes to more complicated text structure, a table, a web site, or a database, a screen reader needs to know what to read and in what order. Otherwise, the user is likely to be receiving information in a scattered format not making any sense.
The process to create that order in FM Pro is fairly straightforward, FM Pro relies upon your tab order to set the order but to know what to ready, you have to tell it.
While in the Layout view, you select Accessibility Inspector from the View menu. This provides a small floating window as shown below. You click on a field and if you have a label on the layout, you can click where it says "Click to select..." and then you can click on the label for that field. If the field does not have a label, than you can click on the field to select it and then click in the Title field in the AI window and type in: what this field is or what it's called (or whatever is short and to the point). If it needs an explanation, you can type that into the Help field.
If you wish to delete the accessibility content from the field, than you either have to click on the "Click to select..." button to unlink that or manually delete the content for the Title and/or the Help. Curiously they do not provide a simple "Unlink" button that covers everything all at once.
Despite the somewhat crude limited controls provided here, this is a very welcome addition. Because many government agencies are now requiring accessibility features, this is overdue.
Stored Images on Server
Having fields to display images in container fields is nothing new in FileMaker, that ability has been around for ages. What is new is if you have images stored on the same servers that your FM Database is being served from, FM will only download what you need for any given operation. At a minimum, you can keep a thumbnail version of an image at any time regardless of the actual size of the image. Then as you look at larger sizes of that image, you will only download what you need. For example, if you have a 12 MP image (4000 x 3000 pixels), you might only need that full size for printing. But on a iPad or iPhone, you do not need that level of resolution so you will only download what the stated size of that Container field can contain. [To facilitate this, there are several new script functions: GetHeight, GetWidth, and GetThumbnail.]
FileMaker Pro Advanced
Besides updating the Advanced version to the new features of FileMaker Pro 12, there wasn't a considerable amount done with the Advanced version in this release. Amongst items that have been added of note though, you can now temporarily disable or enable script triggers while working in the Script Debugger. In addition, if you create a run-time solution that has buttons that close windows, the buttons will now work. In the past, you could open new windows but could not close them (besides using Apple's closing Red dot). [There are still ways to prevent windows from being closed in v12, but in earlier versions there was no way for a button to close a window.]
Despite the new features, one feature was lost for Mac users: you can no longer directly import photos from a camera. [There were some other lost features for PC users, but you are reading "Applelinks.com."] No big loss there.
In short, this is an important update for those who have to design databases but don't really have any background or education in layout design. The number of features for extending the capabilities of FileMaker are not really all that extensive. The real sticky thing here is that since this is the first update in the FileMaker Pro format since 2004, it means that all of the users who would like to take advantage of the new design features have to make sure all of the people using FileMaker to work with their databases also update their copies of FM Pro as well. That could be a big investment. To soften this blow, or to just make FileMaker that much more appealing, the FileMaker Go applications are now free. Considering the usefulness of the FileMaker Go App, this is wonderful to see.
If you want to generate tables from your data more easily than you have, you WANT to get FileMaker Pro 12. If you need to make your databases accessible to the blind, you NEED to get FileMaker Pro. And lastly, if you suffer from PDIA (Poor Design Implementation Abilities), you SHOULD get FileMaker Pro 12.
Rating this update was a challenge because with a few exceptions, this release did everything that it claimed it could. However, it seems that the vast majority of development time was spent in helping the user make a better looking database. While that is certainly a wonderful and excellent feature, it came at the expense of forcing an update on everyone who wants to use a nicer looking database. As mentioned above, there are some users who will not think twice about updating. But not everyone creates tables, not everyone is working with extremely large images, and not everyone is required (at least not now) to generate accessible databases for the blind.