Organize Yourself with Bento for Mac and iPhone

To be blunt, I’m cheap when it comes to buying software. I often find myself waiting for a sale, looking for a discount code, or putting off a purchase until the next great ‘bundle’ is announced. However, I occasionally see an application for which I’m happy to plunk down my credit card and pay the full price for (because it’s just that good!)

Bento is a personal database for OS X that integrates with other applications on your Mac. It was out for about 38 seconds when I downloaded it to try it out, but I didn’t really see the value in it at first. Over time, however, the ease of use of the application, beautiful interface and included templates drew me in. The new features in version 2 more than earned my $49, giving Bento a permanent place in my applications folder – and recently, a slot on my iPhone screen as well.

A Different Breed of Database

The first thing that strikes you about Bento is the contrast to a stereotypical database program. You are greeted with a welcome screen that gives you the option of starting to work with Bento or visiting their website to view tutorial videos (as of this writing, there are 10 tutorial videos and even more demo and other tools on the website). Even if you forego the tutorials, it’s amazingly easy to just jump into the app and start setting up your first database.

Firing up Bento

Firing up Bento

First you have to decide what you’d like to organize – the sky is the limit! I’ve looked for little apps to track various things, both on my iPhone and on my computer, and not found one that did exactly what I wanted. With Bento, you can essentially create your own app.

Let’s say you want to track medications – when someone is supposed to take what medication at what time. I’ve looked for an iPhone app that will allow me to simply track the medication I’ve given a child so that I don’t overmedicate them if they have the flu (swine or otherwise!)

With Bento, you can setup the database on your Mac and then sync it to your iPhone/iPod Touch and quickly access when someone is due for another dose.

Starting with a New Library

When you want to start a new library (a new database), you can either use a pre-designed template or start off with a blank one. The templates are very helpful and the designs are just stunning – you can pick one that comes close to suiting your needs and then make a few adjustments. If you want to, you can always design one from scratch and then apply a theme to gain the look you want to achieve.

Working with Templates

Working with Templates

From here, you can add fields to your library. The program prompts for types of fields (text, media, choice, textbox, etc) and even allows for specific types of text such as time, calculations, and currencies.

Adding Custom Fields

Adding Custom Fields

Once you add all the fields you want to use, drag them onto the workspace, format them, arrange them in whatever layout works best and you’re ready to roll. It’s easy, and fairly good fun (we are talking about databases right?).

Entering Data

Click on the plus sign at the bottom of the workspace to enter your first entry. You can input data directly in this screen (including dragging in media) or into the table that was created when you created the library.

You can also view the form and data in a split-screen setting.In the example I’ve setup, it’s helpful to look at when a particular member of the family has taken a type of medication. You can create other forms as well to analyze the data (to see, for instance, just the medication taken by a particular family member) that can be part of the same library.

Building a Form

Building a Form

Taking it With You

The recently announced iPhone/iPod touch application makes is simple to take the information with you. Setting up the iPhone with Bento is a snap – setup pairing using the simple instructions, then select which libraries you want to sync. The two will sync over your Wi-Fi connection and the data we setup on the desktop app will now be available on the iPhone.

Not only is the data accessible, you can also enter a new entry into the phone and then sync it back to the desktop client. In using the app, the sync takes just a few seconds and works exactly as advertised.

Bento on the iPhone

Bento on the iPhone

The Bento iPhone app is also preloaded with a slew of libraries that you can create right on your phone. From time billing to recipes, you can use the templates and alter the fields to suit your needs for a particular library. Obviously this is not nearly as easy or feature-rich as doing in the desktop version of Bento. It’s a nice touch, and does allow you to create the basics of a database on-the-go.

Importing and Exporting

Commonly, you may already have some data from another application that you want to use within Bento. If it’s your Address Book or iCal info (events and taks), that data is automatically imported and ready for use when you first open the app. Bento will reverse-update data if you make changes, so they appear back in iCal or Address Book.

You can also import Excel, Numbers, comma-separated-values (CSV), & tab-separated-values (TAB). This means you can export files from websites or other apps to a CSV file, and then import that data into Bento.

You can also export the files to the same kinds of files. In my experience importing and exporting to/from Numbers and a CSV file, everything worked perfectly. This is always useful to know, as I never know when a superior database application may spring up!

A Life Saver?

One of the primary uses I have for Bento is tracking data for fairly large Cub Scout Pack. There are more than 80 records in that database and being able to access data on my Mac and iPhone is invaluable. I can track information on the desktop version and take it with me on hikes and camping trips.

Instead of keeping a pile of papers with information about the kids, I have ready access to almost everything I could need. The data syncs in just a few seconds when I’m back at home, and everything works flawlessly.

No matter what your specific needs, Bento offers a flexible solution to mould itself into whatever you need it to be. The latest version, coupled with the iPhone app, strengthen Bento’s position even further as a great personal database solution for OS X.