For the past five years, I’ve been relying upon FileMaker’s Bento to manage structured data on my MacBook. Unfortunately, the Apple subsidiary recently announced that it was ending development of the friendly database application. The company will stop selling Bento after September 2013, and will end user support after July 2014.
It’s time for a new simple databasing app for the Mac. In this review, I’ll be looking at an indie database app called Tap Forms to see how it stacks up as a Bento replacement. It looks promising — and hopefully it can eventually take the Bento crown.
How I use Bento
Back in the 1970s, I began keeping a record in a composition notebook of the books I read. When I got my first PC, one of those clunker Compaq “portables,” one of the first things I did was transcribe my reading list notebook into a flat file database program I bought just for that purpose. Over the years since I’ve had at least a dozen computers, and I’ve been able to move that original reading list file in one form or another — usually a comma separated value text tile — from database to database, computer to computer. For the past five years, that information has been residing in Bento on my two successive MacBooks. And more recently, I’ve been able to carry my reading list around on my iPod Touch and iPad Mini thanks to the iOS version of Bento.
Now that FileMaker has made Bento abandonware, I have to decide if I want to keep relying on it or if I want to find a new home for my reading list, as well as the other structured information I use a database program for.
For me a Bento replacement would need to meet the following criteria:
- Can import and export data in a variety of common file formats, because someday it too will become abandoned or obsolete.
- Easy to use. No programming necessary.
- Versatile field types to handle various kinds of data.
- Though this review is concentrating on the Mac app, I want to be able to have my information with me on the go, so a companion iOS app with seamless syncing is a must.
- Adequate ability to filter, find and sort data as needed.
- Affordable price.
Tap Forms to the rescue?
The first application listed when I searched on “database” in the App Store was Tap Forms, the product of Brendan Duddridge of Tap Zapp Software Inc. A review of the web site gave me good reason to believe that it might just offer the features I was looking for, so I spent the $24.99 to purchase the app (put a check mark next to “affordable”).
As the name implies, Tap Forms began life as a database for iOS five years ago. The Mac version came out about a year ago. The iPad version is $8.99 from iTunes, which will probably sound expensive to some, but if it works as advertised is well worth it to me. It is not a universal app, so if you want it on your iPod or iPhone, you’ll need to spend another $8.99. A little pricey for all three, but the total still costs less than the $50 the Mac version of Bento will run you.
Import and export options
Just about the first thing I did after getting Tap Forms installed on my MacBook was to export my Bento Reading List as a CSV file. I expected to have to create a file in Tap Forms to import that data into, but was pleasantly surprised when Tap Forms gave me the option of appending my data to an existing form or creating a new one. I chose the latter option and was able to import my precious data flawlessly.
You need to pay attention to the options for importing, adjusting the field type to match your incoming data. You also need to adjust the date format to ensure the information comes through making sense. My Bento data was formatted as yyyy-mm-dd, so I set the date field in Tap Forms to match (see the screen shot below).
Export from Tap Forms is equally easy. I had no trouble importing a CSV file exported from Tap Forms into a new Bento database — so moving to another app in the future, if needs be, shouldn’t be that hard, either.
Easy to use
For the most part, Tap Forms is very easy to use. It comes with 26 template forms (a form being the front end of a database), so you may be able to start using it for collecting data without having to create your own form. But making a new form is quite simple. Once you select NEW FORM from the FORMS menu (or press the + sign at the bottom of the forms navigator pane), you the EDIT dialog box with two tabs. The default tab is FORM PROPERTIES, where you provide a name for the form, categorize it, set the default sort fields, and more.
Once you’re satisfied with the form properties, you switch to the FIELD PROPERTIES tab in order to create and order the fields for your database. You have a wide selection of fields to choose from, but I’ll get to that a little later in this review.
You can edit the form and field properties, so you can make changes as your needs change. Then you just create new records and fill in the fields as you would in Bento or any database. There are a few nuances depending upon the type of fields you have, which I’ll cover shortly.
Tap Forms does not match Bento’s flexible viewing options. You can re-order your fields in the form, but you can’t move them around freely or add rules and boxes to the form as you can in Bento. And, to paraphrase Henry Ford, you can have any color form you want as long as it is white. You can, however, switch between two ways of listing your records. The single list view works essentially like an index, with your records shown in one long list alphabetized on whichever field you choose, and showing up to three pieces of additional data. There is not such an option in Bento.
And the column view essentially matches Bento’s table view. You can edit the fields of your records inline in column view.
Versatile field types
With Tap Forms you can choose from 20 different field types, so you can keep a wide array of data organized. (For comparison, Bento has 23 options when creating a new field.)
My Reading List data has common field types. Author first and last name, and title are all text fields. Category is also a text field, but it has an associated pick list called BookGenres. Pick lists are handled a bit differently in Tap Forms than in Bento (where this field type is known as a Choice), where the list of options is a property of the field that you create as you create the field. In Tap Forms, you create pick lists as items separate from your form, so you can use the same pick list in any number of different databases.
I also use a date field to record the date I finished reading the book. The field field works pretty much the same way as it does in Bento. Select the field and enter a date with the keyboard or click the calendar to select the date. I make use of a rating field to provide a 1- to 5-star review. I like how much more visual the rating field is in Tap Forms than in Bento.
And finally, I have a note field for making longer comments. In Bento, a note field is just an expanded text type field, while in Tap Forms you select a special note type of field, intended for longer text entries. When you fill in the text field in Bento, you just type the text directly into the box on the form. With Tap Forms, you click the note icon beside the field to pop open a mini editor window.
When you’re finished entering your text, you have to click the X control button in the upper left corner, then you have to confirm that you want to save the text. This may be a small nit-pick, but it feels like an unecessary step. I’d like to see a SAVE AND CLOSE button to speed this up. Also, while you can change the font and font style (adding bold for instance), this appears to apply only to the entire note, so you can’t just bold a word or phrase.
Companion iOS apps
As mentioned, Tap Forms actually began as an app for iPad, so you would expect it to have a solid synchronization between the iOS and Mac versions, something that turned out to be true. Setting up the sync via iCloud was a snap, and I quickly had my reading list database available on my iPad. I have not yet tested the iPhone version.
You can also transfer files to Tap Forms via Dropbox. This is a nice feature, but really only significant if you’re using the iOS app. Otherwise, the file attachment field type works just as you would expect it to in the Mac version.
In the iOS app, you first import the file into Tap Forms (which you can do directly from the Dropbox app, or from Tap Forms itself), then it becomes available to attach to a file attachment field.
Searching and sorting and organizing
Bento allows you to build advanced searches, which find records based on multiple criteria, as in the screenshot below:
Correction: Tap Forms does have a multi-field search option. After typing in the search term in the search box, a button named SAVE will appear, allowing you to save the search. Next to the SAVE button to the right, a smaller button with a “+” will appear. Clicking this button will make the field picker visible. Pick the field, select a comparison operator, and then enter the value. You can keep adding fields to your search, clicking the “+” button as many times as needed. This search is an AND only, so you will continue to narrow your search with each new field. Note: You may possibly see an “X” button instead of the “+” button beside SAVE. That’s just a glitch. Clicking the button with either sign returns the same results.
This is not currently possibly with Tap Forms, which has a search function that is not particularly sophisticated, but is reasonably effective. Typing the search string in the search box reveals records which match the search, and provides an option to save that search as a sub-set of your database. But unlike in Bento, I can’t create a search that shows me all the five-star, science fiction novels I’ve read. I can, however, achieve that result combining search with grouping and sorting (which you set in the FORMS PROPERTIES tab of the EDIT dialog). This kind of sorting power makes many searches unnecessary.
Tap Forms’ other features
Tap Forms has several additional features, which are not part of my criteria for judging it as a Bento replacement, but are worth noting. First, Tap Forms is multilingual, with full unicode text support and localizations for 15 languages. It supports AES-256 bit encryption on the database and individual field level, to keep your data secure, and also has options to make complete backups of your data. Finally, Tap Forms has a built-in formula editor. Create a calculation field, then use it to calculate values based upon other fields in the record. Results can be displayed in plain, decimal, currency, or time formats (e.g. 10 hrs, 15 mins.). All of these are nice extras that make it a great tool to explore.
Notable differences between Bento and Tap Forms
In Bento you can adjust the look of your database with a couple of clicks, and you can arrange the fields on your form how you want, shifting field positions, lining them up on the same line, adding rules and boxes. With Tap Forms there is just one look, and the fields roll out in the order you have them sequenced. While this is mostly a cosmetic difference, it is not entirely that. With Bento you can make better use of screen real estate, which becomes significant if you have forms with many fields.
Bento has dedicated fields for contact information, while Tap Forms has a field that links directly to a contact from the Apple Contacts app. This is useful for relating information to a contact, but it is not so helpful if you want to use Tap Forms for managing contact information. Tap Forms also can not print mailing labels (although the developer is considering adding that option), so if you use Bento heavily for, say, customer information, you may need to consider an alternative, or keep using Bento as long as you can.
Tap Forms met my six criteria with flying colors:
- It quite ably imported my data from Bento.
- It is easy to use
- It has versatile field types.
- There are very functional iOS companion apps available to keep my data in sync across all my devices.
- It has a reasonable ability to sort and find the data I am looking for.
- It is reasonably affordable.
Tap Forms is not as elegant as Bento, and in some ways is less sophisticated. This should not be a surprise, as it is the work of a one-man shop, that is simultaneously developing the iOS versions. Given that, and given the price, it is a remarkably well-rounded program that will serve quite adequately as a Bento replacement, unless you make use of some of Bento’s more powerful features.
I’m farily confident that Tap Forms is going to have the honor of being the next in a long-line of applications that have hosted my reading list, but for the first few months I’ll continue to use both Bento and Tap Forms until I’m entirely sure the transition will be as smooth as I anticipate.