Bento 2 thinks inside the box

GCN

A popular lunch for Japanese schoolchildren, business people and travelers is the bento, a takeout meal of rice, fish and vegetables that fits in a segmented box. One of the charms of a bento meal is little surprises tucked into the compartments, such as a miniature octopus or vegetables trimmed to look like flowers.

[IMGCAP(1)]I got that same sense of delighted surprise using FileMaker's Bento 2 personal database. It compartmentalizes your data and adds elegant touches that make it much more compelling to use than an ordinary database or spreadsheet.

Bento 2 is Mac-only software, and it riffs off of the two most popular Mac features, Address Book and iCal. It also uses the familiar look of iTunes for setting up data collections, which are the Bento equivalent of iTunes playlists. You can view Bento records in either an iTunes-style table view or as a full screen form, a separate screen for each record.

Bento 2 has to run on a Mac with an Intel, PowerPC G5 or G4 processor, running Mac OS 10.5.4, the Leopard operating system. We ran it on a PowerPC G5, but we had to upgrade its operating system to Mac OS 10.5.4. That was the hardest part of the testing process. It took almost an hour to download the Leopard software.

But installing the Bento software couldn't have been easier. You drag it into the Mac's applications folder, and an icon that looks like a little bento appears.

The Address Book and iCal data you already have on your Mac will automatically appear in Bento. Any changes you make to this data in Bento will also appear in the Address Book and iCal apps. You can also import data from Microsoft Excel or Apple iWork Numbers. You can easily add and delete data and fields using the table view.

Bento lets you set up projects such as holiday planners, incorporating addresses, dates, events, notes and gift lists. It offers 23 pre-made templates for projects including home inventory, exercise logs, vehicle maintenance, student lists and expenses.

You can dress up the full screen form view with a veritable Baskin-Robbins of 31 different themes. In keeping with the Zen-like bento theme, the colors are subdued and the themes abstract. Paradise, for instance, is coral pink with sea foam accents; Swimming Pool looks like sun-dappled water. I'm not too sure why Bookworm was a plain cordovan brown; perhaps it was supposed to look like leather bindings.

The surprising touches just kept coming. After clicking on an instant-messaging account address, Bento starts an iChat session. Even the iChat icons have Japanese cachet. They were all pictures of Japanese items: kimonos, bonsai trees, teacups. Or click on an arrow to the right of a street address and Bento will take you to Google Maps. You can also add photos and sounds to your Bento forms.

Bento takes away that feeling of drudgery you sometimes get with spreadsheets. This is a single user product. It's not designed for a large enterprise, although it can hold as many as 400,000 records.

Bento is an appealing choice for Mac users who want to get organized. It's almost soothing, if a database can be soothing -- a little Zen moment of quiet in a data-packed world.

FileMaker, 800-725-2727, www.filemaker.com

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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