Filemaker Pro 11: old database program has some new tricks

Having parsed and plotted three years’ worth of pedestrian accident data from my town just because the info was available, it’s fair to say I’m somewhat of a data geek.

Yet while I’m most comfortable with the database I learned on — MySQL — I don’t work with it often enough to feel confident writing complex SQL commands.

And while I’ve largely turned to online database apps, notably Zoho Creator, it becomes frustrating when I try to do more complex work, such as querying multiple tables or setting up sophisticated many-to-many relationships, or customizing data view layouts.

As a result, when I heard about the introduction of FileMaker Pro 11, it seemed time at last to take FileMaker out for a spin. FileMaker Pro 11 lists for $299, or $179 to upgrade from previous versions.

Version 10 had already improved on previous releases, including saved searches, triggers that launch scripts based on certain events, and a major revamp of the interface. FileMaker Pro 11 adds several more features, such as charting, “recurring import” to automatically update a database from an Excel or text file, and a “Quick Find” search box.

The opening QuickStart screen is straightforward enough, letting you create a new database from scratch, from a template or by importing via another file. This is helpful if you’re unfamiliar with the interface; it can be turned off if you are.

Once you’ve set up your tables and imported your data, you can edit both the structure and appearance of your database in several ways. A new feature in Version 11 is the Inspector panel, which offers a single place to tweak layout, structure and field behavior.

Once you’ve set up your tables and imported your data, you can edit both the structure and appearance of your database.

Locating the Inspector panel can be a bit confusing if you’re in a table layout, since it isn’t readily available. Specifically, when I was in a table view, the Modify button offered access to just a few change options; I needed to be in a list or form view to see the Edit Layout button and Inspector access.

I would have preferred an obvious way to jump to layout editing even when in a table view. Once I got there, though, the new Inspector panel was a useful addition to zero-in on any editing need — look and feel or data structure.

The new Quick Find search box looks through all fields in all records and is a handy addition to Version 11, allowing users to quickly find a key word or phrase without having to guess which field it’s in.

This would be a useful feature in the database-driven application we use at Computerworld for story planning, for example, where a key phrase might appear in the headline, description or comments field.

FileMaker Pro offers flexibility in field definition for users who don’t want to write their own SQL or code their own front end.

The program offers an easy way to display data from related tables, such as showing a customer’s name, address and phone number based simply on adding the customer ID to that record — no SQL inner join statements required. It’s also quite simple to create views where some fields are read-only and others are editable.

The report option felt needlessly complicated, with numerous dialog windows explaining what to do that I was required to click through; yet when I tried to follow the directions, the options I wanted were grayed out. The problem may well have been user error — still, after going through eight windows, some with multiple options, I felt that the process should have been a bit more foolproof.

Doing basic grouping of data in a table view, much like grouping similar entries in a spreadsheet (such as all entries by state), was a lot easier.

The new charting option was simpler than creating reports and worked as advertised, even when following relationships across three tables. I tried adding one table of categories, a second table of companies where I assigned them to categories, and a third table of announced layoffs by companies. The chart popped up with layoff numbers properly grouped by category.

Views can now be sorted in folders (a feature I’ve had in Zoho Creator from the outset), which becomes important if your application mushrooms to include dozens of customized displays.

“Snapshots” offer a way to freeze (and share) the results of a query at a point in time, as opposed to a saved search query, where the number of records can change as the database does.

In the snapshot, which records are included doesn’t change, but data within those records can be updated. This seems a bit esoteric, but I suppose there are scenarios where that would be useful.

Recurring import is a rather slick way to use FileMaker Pro to parse data from another source. Pull in your text or Excel file and choose “make recurring import,” and then you can update the database by clicking on a button at the top of a view.

This is nice if you have a spreadsheet and want to perform more sophisticated queries than Excel will support, or if you need to keep one table in your database in sync with another external data source.

Note that this is only one-way: You can’t update records in the database and then sync back to the original source. In fact, you can’t modify data pulled in this way at all; it’s read-only. And your data must reside locally or on your network — you can’t pull it from the Web.

What application update in 2010 would be complete without a mention of social media? FileMaker Pro 11 lets you easily add a “Web viewer” field to any record layout and then pull in a window for Twitter or Facebook viewing. This is also useful for adding a Google map view to an address within a record.

Recurring import lets you parse data from another source.

Other new Version 11 features include filters for FileMaker Pro portals (displaying records from multiple tables) and some scripting improvements, such as allowing variables for find requests within scripts.

Overall, I found FileMaker Pro 11 to be a useful platform for database work. However, despite ease-of-use claims, this is not a trivial application for new users to learn. (There’s a reason why FileMaker sells a 12-module training program with a 700-page manual.)

If you’re looking for a database application, FileMaker Pro is worth a download to see if it’s got the balance of features and ease of use that you seek.

Already a user? If you’re on Version 9 or earlier, it looks to me that there are significant enough enhancements in 10 and 11 to make upgrading worth a look. If you’re already on 10, you’ll need to decide how much you want features like charts, automatic recurring import, quick search and layout folders.

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