Review: FileMaker Pro 8.0 - InformationWeek

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Review: FileMaker Pro 8.0

New version maintains its reputation for ease of use with new templates and features that make it particularly good for sharing databases inside a business.

The developers at FileMaker have always liked to characterize their product as a friendlier database than Microsoft Access. The latest version, FileMaker Pro 8.0, with such new features as Fast Match, PDF Maker and Excel importing and exporting, certainly helps cement that reputation. Its many pre-defined, commonly-used database templates are a reminder that Access has never been easy to use, forcing many users back onto Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program and its rudimentary database tools instead.

Recognizing that many of its users have been using Excel as database software, or work with colleagues who continue to do so, this new version includes a facility for saving your database as an Excel worksheet. (It can also import an Excel file into FileMaker. I imported a simple spreadsheet and found it worked flawlessly.) The program also includes new features to save as a PDF or Excel file and a mail merge facility to make it effortless to mail a database, Excel file or PDF to colleagues for review. These new functions worked perfectly in tests. The only question is why they waited so long to include this functionality.

Using a template such as this one for creating timesheets makes setting up a new database in FileMaker Pro 8 a snap. (Click to enlarge image.)

Visual spell checking, so you can see which words are misspelled as you enter data (as you can do with Microsoft Office documents), is also new -- but this can become more trouble than it’s worth when you are entering brand names in an Inventory database, for example, and the program doesn’t recognize some brands. Unfortunately, there is no clearly identified menu choice like Preferences for shutting spell check off.

Other new features include Fast Match, a way of finding the exact record you need by right clicking, finding a match, then extending or constraining the list of results, all from the handy right-click menu. It’s quick and easy and beats the heck out of trying to build a complex query. What’s more, you can easily align items when designing a database by clicking the right, left or center tool in the toolbar or by right-clicking and selecting the appropriate align command. This is much easer than previous versions where you had to set alignment preferences, and it will feel more intuitive to people who are used to working in other applications (such as Microsoft Office).

Before you try to install FileMaker Pro 8 you should be aware that this new version actually requires that you have Windows XP Service Pack 2 installed on your system. I didn’t and I was more than surprised to get an error message that my operating system wasn't compatible during my first installation attempt. I installed SP2 (no small task) and an hour later I was on my way to installing the FileMaker Pro software. That little detour aside, getting started was very simple.

The software presents you with a Getting Started screen with a list of database templates, or you can start your own database or open an existing one. There are additional free templates available for downloading on the FileMaker Web site. These make it simple to start a new database and adapt the standard template to your own needs. I tried several templates and found they were simple to use, and changing field names was as easy as double-clicking and retyping. To change the field type, you right-click and redefine the field.

FileMaker has made some steady incremental, and frankly, long overdue changes to the way the program works, but they deserve credit for making the necessary changes and continuing to deliver a product that is relatively easy to use. What’s more they have also made it simpler to share information and to import and export in standard formats such as Excel and PDF, making a good product even better, and that’s all you can ask when you get this far in a product’s evolution.

FileMaker Pro 8.0
FileMaker, Inc.
Price: $299 new / $179 upgrade
Summary: The new sharing tools such as PDF Maker, Excel importing and exporting and mail merge make the program easier to use inside organizations to share database information, while other tools such as Fast Match make it easier to work with the databases you create.

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