TUAW readers who were listening to the TUAW Talkcast on Sunday, May 10th, are aware of the discussion that took place during the show. A few of us were describing apps that we've installed on our iPhone that we're not using, or are not likely to use. For example, several of us brought up the fact that we were initially enthused about Evernote as a common, cloud-centric location to keep all of our digital stuff. However, some of us find ourselves not using Evernote for one reason or another.
I commented that I felt the same way about Bento based on my use of version 1.0 of the desktop application. In the old days of System 7, I used FileMaker frequently, not only for large flat-file databases but for personal databases that weren't really covered by any of the included Mac apps of the day. With the advent of OS X, I stopped using those databases. When the desktop version of Bento arrived I thought it might be time to try another database app, and since it wasn't as complex as FileMaker, I figured I'd be using it constantly.
I was wrong. Instead of capturing my time spent on consulting gigs in Bento, I found myself using my time-honored system of capturing the start and end times for work on an iPhone or Post-It® note for future invoicing. When it came to the integration between Bento and Address Book, I found I didn't want to add extra information to my contacts. The same with the iCal integration -- I just didn't find it necessary to link Bento and those other apps. When Bento 2.0 came out and was a paid upgrade, I decided not to bump myself to the new version.
Along came Bento for iPhone, and the lure of integration between the iPhone and desktop versions of the application got me excited again. After working with the app in concert with the 2.0 desktop version for a week or so, I'm surprised to find myself starting to think of ways that I can use Bento to hopefully bring a bit of organization into my life. Will I actually use it? Time will tell, but I don't like to use overly complex apps and Bento is not a complex or difficult app to learn or use.
So enough of this rant, already! Let's get on with the review.
Bento for iPhone and iPod touch (click opens iTunes) is a US$4.99 companion to the popular personal database application from FileMaker, Inc. with the same name. The app weighs in at about 3.0 MB, which is surprisingly small considering that 26 pre-designed templates are included. Then again, the templates really don't consist of much in terms of graphics; they're simply lists of fields that have been predefined by Bento. There's a Cover Flow-like interface that you can flip through showing all of the templates and what they're used for.
Those templates are the same as those that are provided with the Mac edition of Bento. For a complete list, visit this page and click the "View templates" link about halfway down. In addition, there's a blank template for creating your own customized library on the iPhone.
In the business analysis classes I teach in my real job, I often talk about the value of keeping an updated issues list to track and resolve problems associated with IT projects. I was pleased to see that one of the templates included with Bento was for issue tracking. After tapping on the Create Library button, Bento created a library (database) with a sample record. All records are listed in a view that looks suspiciously like Contacts on the iPhone. The letters of the alphabet are listed down the right side of the iPhone screen, with a search field at the top. There are also icons at the top of the screen for setting sort options and display fields, as well as adding a new record.
You then begin to tap through the pre-assigned fields, entering information along the way. In this particular example, there are twelve fields including Status and Date Created. I usually have a Date Closed field in my issue databases, and I also like Project On Hold as a status. Fortunately, changing the fields in the Bento templates is a piece of cake.
Tapping on the Fields button at the top of a record takes you into a Modify Fields screen where you can add or edit fields. You can't change the type of an existing field; if you wish to do that, you need to delete the field, then add it back in as a separate type. To add a field to a library, you tap on the plus sign icon in the Modify Fields screen. A standard rolling picker appears, with fifteen different fields types including Media (a picture, movie or sound), Address (which includes all parts of a street address), URL, and IM Account to name a few. Tap the create button, and you're asked to enter a name for the new field. Tap the create button again, and either the field is added to your library, or you're asked to enter other attributes (like the choices available in a Choice field) for the field. If you want a certain field higher or lower in your record, you tap an area on the far right of each field name listing, then drag the field up or down.
That's all there is to taking one of the standard Bento templates and tweaking it to your personal preferences. I found this to be very easy to do, and much faster to perform than on some of the other personal iPhone databases on the market.
So what about syncing the library with my Mac? Tapping on the Sync button at the bottom of the Bento screen the first time provides you with a Help screen with instructions on how to set up syncing. As with several other iPhone apps with Mac or PC companions (Mark/Space's Missing Sync for iPhone and Fliq apps, for example), setting up the sync requires that Bento be running on both devices and that a four-digit code that is generated on the iPhone be entered into a special screen on the Mac. Pairing the devices in this way assures you that nobody else can accidentally sync their Bento information to your iPhone and vice-versa. You can, however, set up syncing with multiple Macs on the same WiFi network if you'd like and then set up only certain libraries to sync with specific Macs.
Where this feature could be powerful is in an office environment. Let's say that you need to have time billing information sent to an accountant, order information sent to an order processor and prospect contact information sent to a marketing rep. It would take no time at all to set up the Bento libraries on the individual computers in the office, then add the sync links so only the appropriate information is synced to a specific computer.
After pairing is completed, all you need to do to start syncing is tap that sync button again. I found the syncing process to be lightning-fast. It took no time at all to sync even fairly large (600+ record) libraries between my Mac and iPhone.
As with the first version of many iPhone apps, Bento has some minor bugs. When attempting to add a Project library to my iPhone, the app crashed. The next time, the same action worked perfectly. There are also some tasks that you may want to perform on the Mac version of Bento only. For example, the Project library has a field for linking to Team Members. On the Mac, the Team Members field links to the Address Book so you can pull up all contact information for a person through one simple click and drag. There's no similar ability on the iPhone version. Likewise, Bento for iPhone doesn't show tasks or events from iCal like the Mac version does, since the iPhone OS (at least in its current form) doesn't allow apps other than Calendar to access that information. And let's face it; data entry is a lot faster and more convenient with a real keyboard than it is with a virtual one. You should probably only enter data into Bento for iPhone when you're in the field, otherwise depending on the Mac's keyboard and mouse for speedily entering your records.
FileMaker provides a caveat that the iPhone product may not support large databases "due to mobile device memory limitations". More information about that and other limitations can be found in the Bento knowledgebase.
Can you use Bento for iPhone without the Mac version? Of course. But I honestly feel that the true power of Bento for iPhone is to use it as a mobile extension of the Mac version. I always thought Bento would be a great tool for doing a home inventory, but with Bento for iPhone I can finally realistically think about walking around my house, entering info into the iPhone and snapping pictures, and then sending the results into my Mac with the tap of a button. Had it not been for Bento for iPhone, I wouldn't even be considering using Bento on the Mac.
As a US$4.99 standalone personal database app for the iPhone, Bento stands alone as a professional and fast solution. It's even more outstanding when paired with the US$49 Mac version. How good is the iPhone version of Bento? I'd love to see it bundled with every iPhone sold. 'Nuff said.