FileMaker 8 full review

In terms of release schedules, FileMaker has been taking some parental guidance and has readied the next update of its flagship database product in an Apple-like time – and it’s an upgrade worth having.

The new features and improvements in FileMaker Pro 8 fall into three groups: user interface tweaks; improvements to data exchange; and database design tools. In each case, the aim of the game seems to be improving life for the day-to-day user.

FileMaker is cross-platform, written using Apple’s Carbon API, and so in the past it hasn’t automatically benefited from UI improvements in OS X. Version 8 engineers have gone some way to address this issue. Pro 8 now supports the scroll-wheel on three-button mice, so no more clicking through lists. When editing fields, you now have access to interactive spell checking with questionable spellings underlined in red. Text fields can now use auto-complete (like a web browser), using values from either a predefined list, or based on previous entries for that particular field. Date fields finally get their own pop-up calendar entry tool, meaning no more pop-up windows or expensive plug-ins required. As the average FileMaker user spends most of their time doing two things – editing and searching – this is good news.

Perhaps the biggest change to the UI is the new tab control. Making a tabbed interface in FileMaker Pro 7 involved creating a layout for each tab, and buttons (and sometimes scripts) to move between tabs. In Pro 8, simply select the Tab tool, draw the area where the tab will go, and in the resulting ‘Tab Control Setup’ dialog specify the name of each tab required. Click on OK and your new tabs just work, even in layout mode. Add layout items, such as fields or buttons, to each tabbed panel and FileMaker takes care of showing and hiding these tabbed elements for you. There’s great attention to detail: there’s no ‘go to panel’ script step, but the ‘go to field’ script step will tab to the correct panel if necessary. (You can only show tabs at the top of the area, but this is a minor niggle.) Suddenly, you can concentrate on the business logic rather than layout tricks to make your solution feel more like a real application.

The important thing about a user interface is how you use it to get things done. One new feature that everyone will be using, once they’ve seen it in action, is Fast Match. Select some text in a field, control-click to bring up the contextual menu, and choose ‘Find Matching Records’. There are also options for constraining found set (performing the find inside the current found set) and extending the found set (adding records to the current found set). Could you make a searching interface any easier?
Talking of simplifying tasks, Pro 8 has what it calls a Field List Filter. When choosing fields in dialogs, as well as selecting from a specific table or relationship list, you can opt to see just those fields on the current layout. The filter respects the new tab control, so only those fields that are visible at the time are listed. This is great when the current table might have 200 odd fields to pick from and you’re trying to sort, or export, some records.

Exporting, and data exchange in general, are covered by some of the key new features in Pro 8. You can now create PDFs directly from FileMaker. To OS X users, this may seem like no great shakes, but the fact that you can do so, and include standard Acrobat metadata, security settings, and viewing options, is incredibly useful.

Creating a custom PDF catalogue for specific customers that they can view (but not print or copy) and automatically have it attached to an email ready to send, can be done from a single button. If your customers prefer Excel, Pro 8 offers the opportunity to save records directly (or as an email attachment) to a fieldname-headed Excel sheet (without jumping through any XSLT hoops). FileMaker has taken this email attachment fever to the logical conclusion, even allowing you to email an individual field’s contents as an attachment with just a control-click.

The drawback with doing email this way is that all it does is create a blank email, which you have to send manually. Sometimes you want the email process to be taken care of automatically. Guess what? There’s a new Email Merge, which allows you to take data from the current found set, or even just the current record, and create emails using field values or calculations for each of the To, CC, BCC, and Message fields. You can even add an attachment. At a stroke, FileMaker has enabled a whole heap of cross-platform solutions that before would only work on Macs (via AppleScript) or would require expensive third party plug-ins.

In case you were worried, developers get more than just a look-in with Pro 8, including improved layout and relationship tools, 22 new calculation and formatting functions, and script variables. We’ve yet to see a preview of FileMaker Developer 8, but it is rumoured that there will be radical improvements to the script editing process. Watch this space.

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