Bento - The database manager for your iPad

The launch of Bento for Mac OS X over three years ago brought a breath of fresh air to the software productivity scene. Until then, switchers and database users had to opt for the heavyweight FileMaker as an alternative to Microsoft Access on their Macs. Bento used the friendly approach and attractive interface of Apple's iLife applications: complex tasks don't need to look boring. 

I need to confess that we use Access databases for keeping track of hours worked and other repetitive data entry tasks at work. The prospects of having the same experience on my personal Mac were a big downer, but the informal hip look of Bento made me go for it over its powerful big brother Filemaker. The iPad version follows the same direction.

If you have a look at the Productivity and Utilities categories on the App Store, you'll notice the amount of apps dedicated to cover very specific tasks: from personal finance like Bills on your table to note-taking apps, the choice is endless. Bento for iPad [iTunes Link] by FileMaker offers you the opportunity to organise all your personal projects within the same app. Let's say you need an app to keep track of all the wines stored on your cellar. Bento can handle it. Perhaps a database with your BlueRay films. You can do this too. Even some other tasks that you had covered with more specific apps such as to-do lists and notes, can also be included with Bento for iPad.

Designing your perfect database

The beauty of Bento is its flexibility to create something that will suit your needs, instead of dealing with what the programmer thought it would be useful for you. You can import your existing databases or start creating new ones from scratch directly on the iPad. The app comes with several templates, which are always good to check out to copy good ideas and layouts. There's even an online repository called Template Exchange where you can download designs created by other users. Depending on your needs, trying a couple of them is a great way to discover how to make the most of all the fields included.

As you might have expected, the iPad app is a watered down version of its desktop counterpart. The functionality is there and is actually rather powerful, but it lacks some customization options that you'll miss if you are already using Bento on your Mac. While the desktop version allows you to arrange the form fields the way you want, the iPad version follows a vertical format where you can only stack items vertically. The same goes for imported databases, they will lose their perfectly designed layout. Having said this, all the important stuff is still there: You can add text fields, numbers or currency, star ratings, checkboxes and even functional emails and URLs. Oh! There's even a fancy multimedia uploader.

You can tweak the appearance even more changing the theme. A selector allows you to swap backgrounds, fonts and text size to suit your needs. As you can see in the screenshots, these are nicely to the eye. Some resemble real life objects such as a clipboard, a leather bound diary or a notebook, while others go for a minimalist look. Customisation options are slightly limited here and in the current version you can't use your own backgrounds. Many of the default forms can do the trick for many users, but they don't go in the depth of the desktop version.

Taking information with you, securely

Once you are done with creating your perfect template, it's time to start adding data to it. The projects are structured by libraries, with each library having sub-categories called collections. The typical example for this can be you wine collection divided into whites and reds. If you wanted to add spirits there under a different template, it would go under a different library. 

One of the killer features of the app is the Contacts integration. This allows you to populate fields easily and interrelate information. If you are using a database for customer queries, this is going to save you a lot of time. Adding entries with the iPad's multitouch keyboard is not a joy but is perfectly doable if you are only adding a couple of entries. You can easily add the details of latest films purchased on the iPad, but you probably want to use a physical keyboard to include all your collection. 

Managing information is simple as fast. You can either swipe left and right to see entries, use the search function or sort fields. For large databases you want to limit the searches designating some areas as primary and secondary fields. If I want to find all the red wines of 2008 in my wine collection, I need to tell Bento to look up on the year record and not on the wine name, for example. 

If you plan to use Bento for iPad along with the Mac or iPhone version, the app will sync over the same Wi-Fi network. This can be quite handy if you are out and about and have to consult information on your records, modify or add new entries. The moment you get home and sync your devices, all the new information will be changed. If you are working as part of a team where others are editing information, you won't get the latest update over the air, but only after a Wi-Fi synchronisation. 

A general characteristic of great apps is that they solve just one problem, but they do it brilliantly. However, Bento goes to the risky territory of catering for all audiences being a jack of all trades. Bento's killer feature is adapting to your needs: it gives you the chance to design your database the way it works for you.

While other apps might be tailored for very specific tasks. If you had to track your gas mileage, you could use Gas Cubby. Bento offers you the flexibility of having it your way. Moreover, the multi-platform approach is an absolute winner for keeping all these important records backed up securely while ensuring they are compatible with other platforms. Perhaps an different iPad app to keep hours worked will have timekeeping specific functions such as a calendar view, but you will need to deal with this information with another app when you export it. In my personal experience, this is where many apps fail. Maybe a PC user doesn't mind exporting Excel files via email, but I don't personally want to deal, or even care about compatibility issues.

Bento for iPad gets the job done but I missing a little "cute but powerful feeling" that you get the moment you launch Bento for Mac. I'm not a fan of the way the information is displayed and the combination of large and tiny fonts doesn't work in many occasions. There are many great UI details and configuration options, but there is not enough freedom to drag fields around having a two column layout.

For the price being offered, Bento for iPad is an excellent standalone solution for anyone who wants to keep track of personal and professional projects. While it offers enough advanced customisation options, it is definitely an approachable app for database newbies. Combined with Bento for Mac, it becomes a very reliable tool that gives you that extra freedom to manage lists, import data from spreadsheets and eases the process of adding large amount of data. Bento 4, which was released last week, offers a 30-day demo for you to try.