FileMaker Pro has always had a deserved reputation as the most accessible relational database going, allowing average users to build and customize databases for typical small-business tasks like list management, accounting, and personnel, without having to hire costly developers. That's why I was so impressed with the key changes in FileMaker Pro 10 (US$299), most of which serve to make operations even more intuitive and productive.
Take the revamped Status bar, which has moved from an area on the left of the screen (where it has been since FileMaker 1) to a more modern position at the top of the window. The Status bar is the primary interface between the user and the database, akin to a browser toolbar. It's where you search for records, create new ones, sort them, and switch to different layouts (views on your database). Not only does the new location look 1000 percent better, it allows space for customization: You can now add buttons for oft-used functions like Print, Export, or Duplicate record. You can also remove buttons you don't need.
For most users, upgrading to FileMaker Pro 10 will be a seamless experience, as the underlying database format has not changed since FileMaker 7. In a test with a set of large databases used by a medium-size software company for bug tracking and software development, FileMaker 10 was able to run complex scripts and applications unchanged, right out of the box.
The scripts and apps also ran about 15 percent faster, although FileMaker says it made only small performance tweaks in this upgrade. A frequently run, complex script--one that imports about 28,000 records from an Oracle database (as well as local records from Excel), then manipulates them and generates various reports--took an average of 53 minutes to complete in FileMaker 9, and only 45 minutes in FileMaker 10. Perhaps even more impressive, this company does all its work in FileMaker Pro, not Advanced. Unlike most relational databases, the entry-level version is not dumbed down. The Advanced version adds features needed only by custom application developers.
That said, the Pro version only supports up to nine simultaneous local network users (on Windows or Mac), or five Web users. Larger workgroups will need to buy FileMaker Server 10 ($999; up to 250 simultaneous connections) or FileMaker Server Advanced ($2999; up to 999 users).
Other key features that are new include saved finds, dynamic reports, script triggers, and send-mail capability. Once you've tried tools like saved finds and dynamic reports, you'll wonder how you ever got along without them. Saved finds allow you to save commonly used searches right in the Status bar, for easy access. Before, you had to create scripts to do this, a cumbersome task.
Similarly indispensable once you use them, dynamic reports allow you to edit records and have the changes reflected in grouped reports right away. Enter a new record in a sorted database, and it will automatically move to the right position in the sort order as soon as you save it, eliminating the old "semi-sorted" mode.
Just as useful to many will be the built-in send-mail feature, which connects directly to SMTP servers so you can send out an e-mail blast to your contact database without having to go through your desktop e-mail program.
So what's still missing? One feature that we'd like to see is the ability to create charts and graphs within the program. Fortunately, third-party add-ons address this need, and the Excel integration features allow you to draw charts from that program as well. Otherwise, it's hard to point to much that's lacking.
Overall, FileMaker Pro 10 is an evolutionary upgrade to an already-great database tool that mostly focuses on usability improvements. But once you try it, you won't want to go back.