FileMaker Pro 9 Review

FileMaker (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Apple) started out as a fairly simple database program – the sort of thing you might use to store information about your record collection (in the days before iTunes came along). Since then, it has grown in power and complexity and has had some success in penetrating the corporate market, despite the dominance of Access, the database program included within the Windows version of Microsoft Office. The program is now used by several million people worldwide, in both large corporations and small businesses, as well as in thousands of schools and universities.

For day-to-day use there are two main versions of the program – the standard FileMaker Pro 9 and the more sophisticated – FileMaker Pro 9 Advanced. The standard version costs £257.33, and will probably meet the needs of most ordinary business users, providing all the main features that you need to quickly create a database, sort and locate information, and create reports that you can share with colleagues.

The Advanced version costs £386.58 and is aimed at database specialists who will be responsible for designing customised databases for use across an organisation. It includes additional tools for designing the database, along with powerful scripting and debugging features that can be used to automate tasks such as compiling reports or generating mail-outs.

Our review copy was FileMaker Pro 9 Advanced, but the main new features are actually common to both versions. It’s interesting to see that these new features manage to improve ease of use for new users, while also providing greater power for corporate users.

To ease newcomers into the program, there’s a new QuickStart Screen that allows you to open or create a database quickly, or get help on the basics of working with databases. Click on the ‘Learn More’ button and you can watch a series of video tutorials, browsing through an on-screen user guide or getting help with some of the program’s advanced features.

When you’re ready to start work you can just click the ‘Create Database’ button to see a series of ‘Starter Solutions’ – templates for databases that can handle common tasks such as managing expenses, product catalogues, and personnel records. Once you’ve started work and entered the main program you’ll find that the Help menu has been modified, and includes help on specific tasks such as customising those Starter templates. Some of the program’s more complex dialog boxes also have their own ‘Learn’ buttons, which you can click to get help with the various options contained within the dialog.

However, the biggest single new feature in version 9 is the ability to create ‘live’ links to SQL data sources – the large corporate databases created with products such as Oracle or Microsoft’s SQL Server. Previous versions of FileMaker did have a limited ability to ‘query’ SQL databases, locating specific bits of information on a one-off basis. However, FileMaker can now create a permanent link to an SQL database that is automatically updated so that you can see the latest version of the database without having to perform a new query each time. This means that ordinary office workers can use FileMaker as a simplified ‘front-end’ to gain access to SQL data without having to deal with complex (and expensive) programs such as Oracle.

There are a number of other new features, such as the ability for up to nine people to access a database simultaneously. This will be handy for small businesses that want to share a database without forking out extra cash for the Server edition (see sidebar). The program’s interface has been brushed up a bit too. The main toolbar now includes options for exporting data in the form of PDF files or Excel spreadsheets, and there are multiple Undo and Redo commands available when editing data. The program can also resize the database layout automatically when the FileMaker window is resized, so that text and other elements on the screen remain clearly visible.

However, it’s the SQL features that represent the biggest breakthrough for this upgrade. One of the Mac’s main weaknesses in the corporate market has always been the lack of high-end database software. FileMaker could now fill that gap and finally make it easier for Macs to start infiltrating the corporate market.

OUR VERDICT

In the past, the lack of a Mac version of Microsoft Access has meant that Mac users didn’t really have much choice when it came to business-strength database programs. However, the improved SQL capabilities in FileMaker Pro 9 mean that the Mac can hold its head up in the corporate market at long last.

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