If you need a database to manage personal information, but you can’t see shelling out hundreds of dollars for a version of either FileMaker Pro or FileMaker Pro Advanced ( December 2005 ), the $70 iList Data might be your answer. Its ten templates will serve the needs of most users, but beware: The program lacks a lot of the graphical bells and whistles you’ll find in FileMaker. So if you want to create a database that’s very different from one of the templates, you’ll need to be familiar with basic database concepts and be unafraid to roll up your sleeves and do some scripting.
The program is primarily designed for educators (two of the templates are school-focused) as well as for personal or small office/home office use. iList Data is for single users only; the $90 iList Studio is the multi-user version of the application.
Building the database
iList Data’s templates represent a pretty good cross-section of typical applications. These include model databases for contacts, appointments, tasks, sales/order tracking, student grades, and CD and DVD inventories. The Survey template, designed for collecting data, is intriguing.
If you want to design a database from scratch, choose New Custom Database, then begin typing the names of your tables and fields into a dialog box. It’s easy to edit table names by double-clicking on them, and starting with version 3.2, you can modify the field type as well. So if you initially forget to specify that you want a field to hold, say, a number rather than the default type of text, you can go back and change it.
Modifying the preset field names and properties (such as whether it’s read-only or password-protected) is relatively easy, although you have to access the attributes from different menus. For instance, you rename fields via the Administer menu, yet you change field properties and appearance using commands under the Edit menu.
Unfortunately, you can’t customize the look of individual databases—the appearance preferences you set, such as typeface and type size, apply to all of your databases and tables. The View Sets feature makes a bit of customization possible—you can change field width, background color, and which fields appear onscreen—but I would rather have the ability to change the look of the main window for different databases. In addition, Window Sets let you save various arrangements of window sizes and positions, a bit like saving different workspaces in some programs.
iList Data 3.2’s Find Relational command lets you choose fields from multiple tables to include in your search.
The dialog-box and text-input method of creating tables and fields is simple when starting out. And version 3.2 includes a new feature that makes it easier to set up a relational database (one with multiple interrelated tables): When you control-click on the New Field dialog box, a list of field names in other tables pops up, so you can choose one of them.
Finding your data
iList Data’s Find function, though simpler, works similarly to FileMaker’s. You set up both simple searches and more-complex queries using the Find menu; to create complex queries, you must write a statement using either the Find Relational or Find SQL dialog boxes. These boxes let you choose the available search fields and show you the operators (such as “equals,” “greater than,” or “like”) you can use in your statement. You can view examples inside the dialog box while you’re building your query, which is very helpful.
You save your search by clicking the Bookmark button on the menu bar. Search results stay onscreen in the Record List window until you click the Back or Forward buttons to look at another view or start another search. I would have liked a button for “Clear Results” or “Back to Table” in this window, which would make it easier to go back to the main set of records. I also would have liked the ability to filter records in the Record List as well as sort them. You can refine or expand searches using commands in the Find menu, but I would prefer these features to be more accessible.
When doing a simple search for records, iList Data doesn’t automatically look for fragments. So if you can remember only a partial album name from your CD database, you have to put % signs around your search-term fragment, like this: %Nothing Left to Lose%.
It’s easiest to do data entry in iList Data’s default view, the Record List view, as long as you set your fields so that you can edit them inline. This lets you click on the row and begin entering data, rather than having to double-click to open the Edit Record window. Unfortunately, in the templates, fields are not set that way by default—not even ones that would be convenient to edit inline. Instead, you have to open the View menu and set them up to be editable.
In the Edit Record window (the typical data-entry screen), there are no arrows for navigating among records. There’s also no “New Record” button—but you can set a preference so that clicking the Create button generates a copy of your active record, which you can then edit.
Importing and exporting
iList Data imports delimited text files, but not .csv files (a common file format for exporting tabular material). So, for example, if you have information in Excel that you want to put into iList Data, you’ll need to save it as a delimited text file first. Other database programs can import .csv, .xls, XML, and other formats that iList Data can’t.
iList Data’s Import File Paths feature lets you catalog documents, photos, or music files and launch them with a menu command. The Images database template is a good example of how to use file paths—to set up a catalog of photos, create a new database from the Images template, then choose Paths: Import. iList Data automatically sets up records for every image that you specify, and you can specifically narrow down which image paths you import. Starting with version 3.2, you can import and view image thumbnails inside records. When you choose Launch Path for a given record, the picture opens up in your default image viewer (such as
The program’s facilities for publishing reports are no-frills. You can save record lists and reports in text or PDF format, or send record lists to
Microsoft Excel or
Word. You can’t craft highly formatted reports or publish to HTML, as you can with FileMaker, but you can set up a styled document in Word, then use Word’s merge function with an iList Data report as its data source.
You build reports much the same way you construct search queries—by writing small scripts in the Report Palette.
Macworld’s buying advice
Even if you’re inexperienced with databases, iList Data 3.2 makes it quick to get started, and its templates are relatively easy to customize. However, the limitations of its interface hinder productivity. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer with modest needs, iList Data could let you build the personal database that suits you just right.
[ Rebecca Freed is a freelance writer covering Mac hardware and software. She writes about Macs regularly for
PC World. ]