FileMaker Pro 11: Database Software Review

Thursday Mar 18th 2010 by Gerry Blackwell
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FileMaker Pro has been considered essential small business software for years. We review the latest iteration.

Is FileMaker Pro 11, the latest version of the ‘easy-to-use’ relational database for PC and Mac from FileMaker Inc., an essential upgrade that puts FileMaker head-and-shoulders above competitors? The short answer is probably not. But the longer answer will depend on your needs and resources.

FileMaker Pro 11 does include substantial new features -- new charting and report generation capabilities, for example -- that make an already strong contender stronger.

And the new features, in our limited testing, work pretty much as advertised, although, as always, their incremental value to users may be overblown by the company.

FileMaker: Out of the Box

Our out-of-the-box experience went smoothly. The program installed -- it was a new installation, not an upgrade -- without incident and reasonably quickly given its size and complexity. We installed it on a two-year old dual-core Dell laptop.

The touted new QuickStart screen is not a huge innovation, but it does give quick, intuitive access to the most likely starting points -- launching an existing database or application, converting an existing file such as a spreadsheet, using one of the bundled ready-made "solutions," or going to tutorials and other help resources.

data entry layout in FileMaker Pro 11 screen shot. Small business database
This is a data entry layout sample using FileMaker Pro 11's contact manager.
(Click for larger image)
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Find Database Records Quickly

While it’s still possible to find records in a database by searching on a specific field, the new Quick Find feature lets you search multiple terms across all fields.

This can save time if you want to find a record about which you can only remember partial information, or in a database where you’re not sure in which field a search term is likely to appear.

When we searched on two terms (first name and country) in an admittedly small, sample contact database of 29 records, it turned up two matching records almost instantly. In a real database with hundreds of names, it might take longer, and indexing a large database converted from another source to enable Quick Find would also take time. Still, score one for FileMaker 11.

Setting the Database Table

In FileMaker 11, you can do more in table view -- the rows-and-columns, spreadsheet-like presentation of data -- than in past versions. It’s important because many Filemaker customers, old and new, are very familiar with spreadsheets and feel comfortable working in this mode.

You can now add a new field by clicking the plus button at the end of the row of columns in table view. You can also sort, hide or delete fields by clicking the down arrow beside the column heading and selecting an action from the drop-down menu.

Best of all, you can create on-the-fly reports in table view by sorting data -- by state, for example -- then using the drop-down menu to add a subtotal for each separated group, and a fill color to highlight the subtotals to make them easier to see.

Creating such a simple ad hoc report in the past meant going into a different, more complex dialog and completing more steps.

But FileMaker 11 also simplifies the more traditional report-generation process with a new Layout/Report Assistant that makes it a little more intuitive and reduces the number of steps.

Charting the Data

Charting capability should have been more easily available in FileMaker, and now it finally is. It’s not nearly as easy to use as the new on-the-fly reporting in table view, though. We wonder if that will eventually come -- sort by State, select Bar chart from the drop-down menu and hey, presto. But it isn’t there yet.

You have to go into Layout view, create a new layout, draw -- by mouse-clicking and dragging -- an area for the chart to fill in the new layout, and then select fields and calculations on which to base the chart, as well as the data set (the entire database or a found subset) and the chart style.

FileMaker Pro 11 can generate bar charts -- horizontal and vertical -- as well as line, area and pie charts, and in lots of pretty and easily selectable colors and themes. Once you’ve created a chart, you can fairly easily change it from, say, a bar chart to a pie chart.

It’s not a terribly user-friendly functionality, but FileMaker does now have charting.

Simplified Record Keeping

A couple of new features make it easier to save actions you perform in a database to eliminate the need to repeat steps or to preserve original results.

The Snapshot Link, for example, lets you save a search (with its subset of records) as a link you can then click to repeat the same search instantly. You can also e-mail a Snapshot link to a collaborator who uses FileMaker so that person can see exactly the same found set.

Every time someone clicks a Snapshot Link, the search results are updated, so that if someone has added new records to the database they appear, too.

database table view in Filemaker Pro 11
The new table view in FileMaker 11 shows the drop-down menu button and field addition (plus sign) link.
(Click for larger image)
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Similarly, the new Recurring Import function will repeat the action of importing records from a Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheet. This is handy if you want to continue to maintain and update the data in Excel, but occasionally need to manipulate it in FileMaker.

When you set up the import as recurring -- it takes a few mouse clicks -- FileMaker creates a new layout to present the imported data and a script for importing it. The next time you want to work with the imported data in FileMaker, the script executes automatically, repeating the import to ensure data is up to date.

Refining Database Management

Filemaker Pro's other new features, which refine the process of creating and managing database applications and their components, will appeal primarily to advanced users and developers.  

The new Layout Manager feature, for example, makes it easier to organize multiple reports and layouts into folders and to search for them quickly. A layout is any unique display of data from the database. Some people create many different layouts and, according to FileMaker, they wanted a better way to organize them.

Similarly, the Object Inspector centralizes functions related to objects -- the elements in a layout, such as fields, labels, data sources, etc.-- and makes it easier to see them and quicker to make changes.

The Sociable Database

FileMaker already had a Web viewer -- basically a browser window -- that you can add to a layout. Now it’s easy to add your Twitter or other social media page URL and work on it right within FileMaker.

We’re not entirely sure who would want to do this or why, though. Maybe hard-core users who live in the program, or an application based on it, the way other people live in Outlook or Salesforce.com?

Pricing

If you’re already using a version of FileMaker Pro earlier than version 10, the good news is that upgrading to 11 will cost no more than it would have cost you to upgrade to 10.

Retail prices remain the same: $179 (upgrade) and $299 (new) for FileMaker Pro, $299 and $499 for FileMaker Pro Advanced, $599 and $999 for FileMaker Server, $1,799 and $2,999 for FileMaker Server Advanced.

FileMaker Pro Advanced includes additional features mainly of interest and value to developers building custom applications using the program. The Server edition is for companies that run FileMaker applications for several or many users to access on a central server.

Bottom Line

If you were already toying with upgrading from an earlier version of FileMaker such as 8 or 9, FileMaker Pro 11 offers enough added inducements to make the plunge worthwhile. And if you’re planning to buy a new relational database product, FileMaker is clearly stronger for these changes. But the program isn’t a game-changer or enough to warrant an upgrade from version 10.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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