FileMaker Pro 8 review
L ast year, the introduction of FileMaker Pro 7 was a major transition, involving a completely new file format and some significant structural changes. At the very least, all FileMaker databases had to be converted, and in some cases redesigned, to take advantage of the new features. This year, the arrival of FileMaker Pro 8 is a less stressful event. There are many significant new features, but the file format remains unchanged, so this is extending version 7 rather than changing it.
One area that’s been significantly improved is data sharing. FileMaker Pro now contains the Adobe PDF Library, which means you can save any record or group of records as PDF files, complete with the usual PDF options for document data, security and initial view.
As well as PDF, FileMaker now offers full compatibility with Microsoft Excel files. Version 7 could read Excel workbooks directly, but version 8 can also save in native Excel format, making it easier to create charts from FileMaker data and to share data with non-FileMaker users. There’s also a useful option that lets you print a blank record in order to create a paper form to match the one onscreen.
A clutch of email-related features adds to the data-sharing toolkit. The new Fast Send command lets you send the contents of any field – even a container field – as an attachment. Similarly, when you create those new PDF or Excel files, they can also be sent directly as an attachment. Finally, you can now run an email merge entirely within FileMaker. The Address, Subject and Message fields can all be filled in directly or taken from specified fields in the current found set. Alternatively, you can specify a calculated entry, which allows complex conditional merges to be set up.
Last time round, the Global field type was abolished, so any field could be stored as a global value. That’s more logical, but it didn’t solve the problem of having to create global fields simply to hold any temporary variables used in calculations or scripts. This time FileMaker has, at long last, provided local and global variables that can be set and read within scripts, which means we can eliminate many fields that were being used for loop counters or intermediate results.
If you create complex databases with many related tables, you’ll welcome the fact that FileMaker’s Relationships Graph now allows annotation of items and lets you automatically select related groups of tables all together.
On the design front, one standout feature is the introduction of tabbed layouts, providing multilayered areas that users can access by clicking a row of tabs. Previously, these had to be painstakingly hand-built using multiple layouts; now they can be laid out very simply. Each tabbed layer can show data from different tables if required, so there’s plenty of scope here for reducing layout numbers and removing onscreen clutter. Also noteworthy is a new drop-down calendar that can be attached to fields to simplify date entry, either set to appear automatically when the user enters the field, or opened manually.
Improvements aimed at the end user include an auto-complete option to speed up repetitive data entry. This can be based either on previous entries in that field or on a value list. There’s also a useful new search mode called Fast Match that lets you right-click a field and find all records that match it.
One irritation with FileMaker 7 was that while you could easily convert individual files to the new format, there were no tools provided for combining separate databases into the new multitable files. This has been partly addressed in version 8 – you can now import a complete FileMaker file as a new table without having to define all the fields in advance, making it faster to convert to a multitable database. However, you still have to re-establish relational links, re-enter value lists and import scripts, so it certainly isn’t a complete solution.