Bento 3: Database Management for Mac, Made Better

bento_iconFilemaker’s Bento software for the Mac (s aapl) is meant to be a database management program for users who aren’t much interested in keeping databases. At least, as someone who shudders at the very term, that’s how I see it. The program receives its third major iterative upgrade today, and there’s a lot for web workers to get excited about with this latest version.

I haven’t used Bento since it was first released, so a lot is new to me. For the purposes of this review, I won’t be detailing what’s changed so much as what strikes me as most useful about the program from a web working angle, since I imagine many of you will be new to the software as well.

The Basics

By default, Bento looks somewhat unassuming. It lists databases that already exist on your computer, whether you were thinking of them as such or not. That includes your Address Book contacts, your iCal events and tasks and your iPhoto library. It also lists a category called “Projects,” which starts out with dummy content for demo purposes. So, out of the box (pardon the pun), Bento is a convenient, all-in-one storage spot for all of your existing work and play-related Mac data that looks great to boot. But it can be more than that, too.

Screen shot 2009-09-29 at 5.14.14 PMYou’ll notice that in addition to the nicely-designed interface, the entry screens associated with items in your databases provide more customizability than their counterparts in the apps themselves. Address book entries, for example, can be browsed in an Excel-like (s msft) list view, or in a grid-style view that’s reminiscent of one of the ways of browsing your albums in iTunes. Each entry has all the data that your Address Book card includes, but you can customize them further, adding photos, objects, text fields, or many other things.

Bento for CRM

That comes in handy when you want to use Bento as a CRM application. You can include details like known family members, business partners, and associates, all through your own custom fields. Add a preferred meeting place, best time of day to contact, corporate gifting schedule, or whatever else you may need to keep track off. Attach meeting notes or agenda files to keep a record of your interaction with said customer. It truly can be as powerful as you need it to be.

Screen shot 2009-09-29 at 4.45.09 PMBento for PM

As project management software, Bento is equally versatile. You can attach the same sort of custom fields to your projects here, and tie them to your address book and other collections for easy, single location access. If you need to open iCal or another app to check or change something directly, Bento can do that for you, too.

Keeping track of complex, multi-staged projects can be difficult, but Bento has a Smart Collections feature which should allow you to navigate even the most treacherous of prolonged endeavors. Set filters to catch all entries under a specific budget, for example, or by end or start date, or by the PM assigned to the task in question. It’s a great way to make sure nothing falls through the cracks without having to manually comb through every entry.

Bento for Everything

There’s countless uses of Bento for those working from home, so I won’t go into much more detail here, but it does feature handy, pre-made templates for time-tracking, inventory management, expense monitoring and issue tracking. It might take a little more setting up than tools designed specifically for those purposes, since it is made to be a jack-of-all-trades, rather than a master of one, but that also means it could become an end-t0-end solution for all of your business needs if you put in the time and effort to make it so.

Screen shot 2009-09-29 at 5.13.54 PMBento 3 is available as a free trial from Filemaker. The full version will run you $49.99 U.S. for a single user license, or $99.99 for a five-user family copy. Those who already own previous versions of Bento (either 1 or 2) are eligible for a $20 rebate. The way I see it, $50 is not a very high asking price for something that could easily do the job of three or four other programs, but try it out first to see if it fits your working style.

What programs do you currently use to manage your work-related databases on Mac or PC? Do you think pleasing aesthetics affect your database-related work one way or another?