FileMaker occupies an interesting space in the database world – straightforward enough for non-techies to use for basic record-keeping, yet powerful enough for professionals to make a living designing and then selling bespoke custom-built databases. It also runs on both Windows PCs and Apple Macs and there's a free 'to go' version for iPhones and iPads that enables you to access databases created by the desktop product while you're out and about. FileMaker Pro 12 (hereafter referred to as FMPro 12) builds on these characteristics as well as offering a number of significant changes and new features, specifically a new file format (FMP12), the ability to apply visual themes to databases, and 16 new so-called 'Starter Solutions' - pre-baked templates that cover a range of application types. Let's look at the main new features in turn.
For the first time since version 7, this release isn't directly compatible with databases built in earlier versions of FileMaker Pro, although it is possible to convert databases created with version 7 to work with the new release - we were able to convert our old accounts database without any problems. If hiccups do occur, there's a useful conversion log which may help track down the problem - and version 12 always converts a copy of the existing database, leaving the original untouched. Converted databases retain their underlying structure and original design but can be given an electronic wash and brush up by applying any of the new themes.
Users of even older versions of the program aren't forgotten entirely; you can use one of the free, 'pre-version 12' 30-day trials to make the intermediate conversions. For instance, you can first convert version 6 to version 11 (via the version 11 trial), and then to version 12. While the conversion process is straightforward for anyone using FileMaker for their own databases, those who create runtime systems for clients - there's a thriving business in bespoke FileMaker databases - will need to convince them that it's worth the trouble.
Given that FileMaker is a subsidiary of Apple, it's surprising that it's taken this long to focus on the look and feel of database creation, but the new version of FMPro 12 now supports themes which include pre-defined colours, fonts and object styling and can be applied to an existing database with a single mouse click. Each of the 40 themes also has a 'Touch' variation, which includes elements designed specifically for the iPhone or iPad and it seems clear that the requirement to produce good-looking apps for these portable devices is behind the new themes. The themes are excellent but there's no apparent way to design and then save your own ones to re-use later.
While we applaud any move to make databases more elegant and nicer to use, it's possible that the new themes are behind the user complaints that scrolling in list and table view is much slower – some have argued that it renders the product unusable. At the time of writing, FileMaker was aware of the issue but hadn't come up with a way to solve it.
FMPro 12 includes 16 so-called Starter Solutions; pre-designed databases covering popular applications like Contacts, Assets, Content Management, Tasks, Inventory, Invoices, Projects, Estimates, Resource Scheduling, Meetings, Expense Reports, Event Management, Product Catalogue, Personnel Records, Time Billing and Research Notes. The idea here is that new users – or those in a hurry – should be able to use many of the features included in these templates straight away with the minimum of editing, although all of the templates can be tweaked, edited and amended using the full FMPro feature set. Even though earlier versions of the product included more templates, we were impressed with the new ones both in terms of their visual style, the way they run on iPhones and iPads and the breadth of applications on offer.
The revamped design tools stand out here, along with improved charting and beefed up container fields. When putting forms together, it's now possible to add gradients to buttons and fine-tune various other elements, like rounded corners. There are also new rulers, grids and alignment guides, which enable you to design forms with DTP-style speed, making it much easier to line up fields, buttons and other elements to produce professional looking forms. New alignment guides can also be dragged out from either the horizontal or vertical rulers and then applied across different forms to provide a consistent look and feel. The result is a much simpler, slicker form design.
Container fields - the parts of a database that allow you to store things like files, photos, videos, music, documents and other items - have been improved and their use streamlined. It's now possible for example, to just drag and drop them into position, rather than burrowing through different menus. In addition, FileMaker claims significant improvements in the speed at which container fields display and deliver their content.
Finally, there's a new Quick Charts feature that includes 10 charting styles, five of which are new in this release - stacked column, positive/negative, stacked bar, scatter and bubble charts. It's even possible to prototype a chart before you have any actual data, so you can start to visualise the best way to present information before getting too bogged down in the detail.
If you need a database that runs on PCs, Macs and iOS devices, then FileMaker Pro is still the application of choice – easy enough for beginners and powerful enough for developers. Version 12 beefs up the visual elements with 40 single-click themes, new fancy-looking Starter Solutions, better charting and a range of improvements that make it easier to design forms from scratch. On the downside, some users report significant performance problems in list and table view and the fact that FMPro 12 uses a brand new file format may cause those with larger installations to hold fire, at least until things have settled down.
Latest version of Mac, Windows and iOS database focuses on improving the look and feel, rather than adding any substantial underlying functionality. The included one-click themes and new Starter Solutions are excellent but a change in file format (which means databases created with earlier versions must be converted) and some performance issues offer pause for thought.