Bento ( ), a sort of “database for the rest of us” has been available on OS X for a couple years now, managing contacts, recipes, DVD collections and the like. Now, joining the iPhone version released in mid-2009, comes Bento for iPad.
Bento’s purpose is organizing information and it comes with a number of templates for keeping track of things like possessions, addresses, events, and tasks. You can use the templates as offered, but the real flexibility comes in customization. Bento allows you to add or remove fields as you see fit. Its 15 field types range from plain text and numbers, to media fields that contain sound or photos, to e-mail fields that automatically include a button for composing and sending a message from within Bento. Placing those fields is a drag and drop operation. While the desktop version of the product allows fields to be placed next to one another, they may only be stacked vertically on Bento for iPad.
The appearance of your data depends on the theme you’ve selected. Bento offers six themes that determine the background, font and colors used. Bento’s themes are tastefully done and work well on screen, but if none of them capture your heart you’re out of luck. Themes can’t be customized or loaded from another source.
Bento data is organized into Libraries and Collections. A Library contains records of a particular kind of information, say address book contacts, or jewelry. Each Collection is a subset of Library records with something in common—inside your jewelry you may have Collections for toe rings, anklets, and ear cuffs. Tapping a Libraries button in the top left corner reveals a list of your Libraries and any associated Collections can be brought up with another tap. New Collections can be created from here, but unfortunately the Smart Collections feature of Bento for the Mac didn’t make the cut for the iPad app. This means that populating a new collection must be done one record at a time.
Locating records is a simple and limited affair; tap into the search bar and start typing. Like Spotlight on the Mac, results appear as you type. Bento is a trifle odd about which fields it searches. It looks in all the text, number, and currency fields, but ignores all the other fields. You can enable searching on up to two of those ignored fields by designating them as primary and secondary fields. Searching by criteria such as area code or e-mail domain is only possible if you’ve designated the desired fields. This alone wouldn’t be a big complaint, but coupled with the lack of an advanced search, finding a record in a large library could be frustrating. If I’m looking for everyone in my contact list who works at Smith and Son, I can’t tell Bento just to look at the company field. My results will contain every contact with the string “smith” or “son” anywhere in the record.
Bento for iPad’s stand out feature by far is synchronization. Indeed, some of the shortcomings outlined above are blunted when you pair Bento for iPad with Bento for Mac. The sync feature keeps the Libraries, Collections, and records consistent between the iPad and the Mac. Smart Collections created on your Mac will work on the iPad though the criteria can’t be changed. Many actions, like data entry and defining a Library are more easily done with a keyboard and mouse, so synchronization plays to the strengths of each platform. Best of all, Bento synchronization is performed over the local Wi-Fi network. No cables and no iTunes (no offense, iTunes), you just sync when you want from wherever you are.
Bento for iPad is a worthy information organizer for your iPad. But to get the most out of it, you’ll need to drop another $50 on its Mac OS counterpart.
[Stuart Gripman is the coauthor of FileMaker Pro 11: The Missing Manual and founder of Crooked Arm Consulting.]