Simplicity and software are words not often found together: A glance at the toolbars for, say, Microsoft's Word or Excel programs will confirm that. Even working with something as relatively simple as a portable document file (PDF) document can become a little intimidating as Adobe Acrobat pops into view.
Finding a simple piece of software, therefore, can be a treat, and users of Apple's iPad and/or Macintosh computers can have such a treat in Bento 4, a flat-file database released June 19. Bento is a product of FileMaker, the Apple unit whose eponymous database is a favorite with many personal and corporate users.
The pricing is a treat, too: Through July 31, the iPad version costs $4.99; the desktop software is just $29.99. (On Aug. 1, those prices go to $9.99 and $49.99, respectively.)
For less than $5, it's hard to go wrong. When it comes to Bento and the iPad, it's very easy to go incredibly right.
Here's why: The iPad is great for grabbing and holding a bunch of data, and Bento 4 is great at organizing it. The program comes with 25 built-in templates for things such as a home inventory (or one for your business), to-do items, time billing, event planning, expenses, vehicle maintenance, customers or donations. You can design your own templates rather easily, and everything works, nicely, with the iPad's interface. Template design there is a drag-and-drop process.
There are great ways of viewing your data, in form, table and split-screen views, as well as multifield sorting (all top-selling employees with a last name beginning with G, let's say) and highlighted search results. GPS locations also can be added to records, another handy feature when on the go.
Even at $9.99, this is a bargain, but at half that price, it's a steal. Depending on just how obsessive-compulsive you are, this program can offer hours of fun and entertainment as you compartmentalize just about every aspect of life.
On the desktop, Bento 4 continues this, enabling you to create your own database or use templates. In both cases, FileMaker offers an online "template exchange," which allows users to download database templates others have created. Whether it's your pencil collection (I kid, you know) or your collection of role-playing game cards, or something in between, there's probably a template for that.
In operation, Bento 4 is fast and easy to use, and there's no steep learning curve. There's online help in the iPad app, and finding answers is no more than two clicks away. You can attach all sorts of media files to a Bento record, including voice memos (recorded in the app), photos and PDF documents. In short, you could have a rather complete customer file in a Bento database and access everything rather quickly and easily. When one considers it, that is kind of what the iPad was meant to do in the first place. Bento simply offers an elegant way to get that done.
Bento is the kind of program you might not think you need, but once you discover it, it's difficult to imagine getting along without it. My only regret — one acknowledged by other reviewers, too — is that there's no way (yet) to synchronize Bento data with applications on a PC, and FileMaker has no plans to publish Bento for Windows or other platforms. (I would imagine the Bento application and data would be backed up on a PC when synchronized via iTunes for Windows, however.)
Still, the plusses of having a handy, user-friendly database at a very affordable price are enough to make me happy to recommend Bento 4 to just about everyone. If you have an iPad, you won't be disappointed.
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