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Bento: A database app for the rest of us

The dearth of personal database programs for the Mac has puzzled me for a long time.

While many people may never need (or think they need) a database app, nothing beats them for organizing and tracking large lists, catalogs of collections and other personal information.

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I created database files years ago (in the original version of AppleWorks for the Apple II!) for my music and film collections, among other things. (I know iTunes serves as a de facto database for digital music, but my original file includes a lot of albums on vinyl and cassette that have not yet made it to my Mac.)

I still can access my ancient files with the Mac version of AppleWorks thanks to my trusty old MacLinkPlus translators. But Apple discontinued development of AppleWorks last August, so we'll never see an Intel-native version.

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Many Mac users with basic database needs searched for a replacement but came up empty.

Apple's iWork? Nope, the suite features only a word processor (Pages), presentation (Keynote) and spreadsheet (Numbers).

Microsoft Office? Well, Office does offer a database program -- Access – but it's exclusive to Windows and available only in pro-level versions.

Mac users could buy the venerable and acclaimed FileMaker Pro, but as a product aimed at professionals and businesses with a relatively hefty price tag ($299) it never made sense for casual users.

Enter Bento, a database app from the folks at FileMaker designed specifically for personal use. It lacks most of FileMaker's fancier features, particularly the ability to share a database over a network, but for a reasonable $49 it provides most of the functionality an individual user would require.

FileMaker is a wholly owned subsidiary of Apple Inc., which helps explain why Bento has the look and feel of Apple's iWork and iLife applications.

And it doesn't just look like an Apple application – Bento integrates with other Apple programs as much as any component of iLife or iWork.

Case in point: On first launch Bento imports any data you have in iCal and Address Book.

Any changes made in Bento immediately are reflected in the source program and vice versa. In other words, whenever you add someone to Address Book, that entry shows up automatically the next time you launch Bento. If you make a change to a calendar in Bento, it appears in iCal.

You can create new databases ("Libraries") from scratch or import them from CSV (comma-separated value) files. If you've been using Microsoft Excel to store lists, you can export them as CSV files for import into Bento.

Bento also copies many interface features from OS X and Apple applications. Smart Collections, for example, work just like Smart Playlists in iTunes. For any given Library, you can create a Collection to include only records that meet a specific set of criteria. If you add a new record that meets those criteria, it automatically shows up in the Smart Collection.

Stepping beyond the capabilities of the databases of yore, Bento offers more than mere data storage and management. In addition to text and numbers, you can include media files such as photos and video, hot links to Web sites and links to related files elsewhere on your hard drive (such as Microsoft Word documents).

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Other nice touches include optional fields for assigning star ratings or creating a multiple-choice pop-up menu.

Adding fields is as easy as drag and drop in Form View, which shows one record at a time. Want to get rid of a field? Drag it out of the window and it disappears in a puff of smoke, Mac OS X-style. You can rearrange the fields on the page any way you like, and can easily resize or align them.

If you want to see your data in list form, Table View shows it in labeled columns (as it would appear in a spreadsheet like Excel.)

The Advanced Search function provides traditional database functionality, allowing you to find all the movies in your film collection from the 1980s starring Emilio Estevez, for instance.

Although solid and impressive for a 1.0 version, Bento could improve in a few areas.

My biggest complaint is that despite all the customization available in Form View, Bento offers no option for printing multiple records on one sheet of paper. Table View will print a list, but if you have one or more fields with a lot of text that won't do the job.

Another oddity is in how Bento saves files, or rather doesn't save them. Databases don't exist as standalone files; all of your Libraries appear on launch in a Mac OS X-like sidebar called the Source List.

Somehow every change you make is saved to the database with no user interaction. Although it seems to work fine, I find the lack of a Save function mildly disconcerting. The Bento User Guide does at least tell users how to back up their data.

Finally, although Bento is not a system-resource hog, its advanced integration with Mac OS X means it runs only on 10.5 Leopard, the current version of OS X. Those with Macs incapable of upgrading to Leopard will need to buy a new Mac before they can run Bento.

Overall, I recommend Bento for Mac users who have need of a database application. FileMaker has created an exceptionally Mac-friendly, easy-to-use database program for regular folk, and just in the nick of time.

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