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Review: FileMaker Pro 14 continues to make the best better

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FileMaker and FileMaker Advanced icons

FileMaker (an Apple subsidiary) recently released version 14 of their award-winning database software that’s been around 30 years (and I should know; I bought the version 1 in 1985). This release is interesting in that while there is a good range of new features, there are a also few updates to some of their core tools. And, like a true geek, the place where this release shines for me is the spectacular update to their scripting. Is it perfect? No, I feel there are several areas where some UI improvements are still needed. Nonetheless, there are new tools, new scripting opportunities, new UI features, and some very powerful server features. So sit back, pick up your beverage of choice, and read all about it.

FileMaker Pro is a database software application that lets you create and manage databases. What’s a database? Consider an electronic collection of business cards where you can search for plumbers, plumbers in your state, and/or plumbers that do house calls. A web search engine is a database, but the contents are based on what’s on the web. If you have an organization and you want to look up members of that organization, you need a custom database.

When you open FileMaker Pro for the first time, you can either open an existing database, create a new database, or open a template database that you can customize. I point this out early in this review on the chance that you download FileMaker Pro for a trial and find that when you open up the application there’s no database ready for you to use. This is no different than opening up MS Word and not finding the novel you haven’t written yet.

There are four parts to the FileMaker Family:

  1. FileMaker Pro: This is the basic FileMaker database software that lets you create databases and use the databases.
  2. FileMaker Pro Advanced: This does the basic stuff as well as provide extra support for diagnosing problems in scripts, better support for database management, and the ability to create run-time databases.
  3. FileMaker Go: This free software for mobile devices lets you access and do basic operations to any FileMaker database on a mobile device.
  4. FileMaker Server: This version of FileMaker runs on servers and lets any desktop or mobile device access the database in real time and allows changes be made to the database in real time.

The whole FileMaker family has been updated to take full implementation of the new features. This release does not change the basic structure of FileMaker, and still has the suffix of “.fmp12.” This means you can open and (mostly) run any database made from the new FileMaker Pro 13 or 14 on a FileMaker Pro 12 software. However, any functions and/or script steps that were developed after FM Pro 12 (or 13) will not function in an earlier version. For example, below you will read about a new “Button Bar” feature that provides a strip of buttons such as you might find in a website. If you open a database with this feature in FileMaker 13, the Button Bar simply doesn’t exist.

WebDirect

There’s no doubt FileMaker has spent a significant amount of time improving one’s ability to access a database with a Browser over the Internet. Significantly now, users can access the database from the FileMaker Server on a desktop (as before) but now also on mobile tablet devices (sorry, no phones). Maintaining their Apple connection (FileMaker is an Apple subsidiary), FileMaker Go is only available for Apple Devices. However, for mobile devices, the hardware requirements for WebDirect are an iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 3, or (and here’s the big thing) any Android tablet with 2GB or RAM (minimum), 1.4 GHz of quad-core CPU, and a screen size of 10.1″ or greater (those are minimum requirements; more is better).

Getting your solution onto the web is essentially placing your FM Pro 14 solution on a server with FileMaker Pro Server. Done. There are some administrative details for setting up connections, but as far as the look of the database, there’s no html, php, or CSS to deal with.

Improvements include expanding the number of concurrent users from 50 to 100. Unfortunately, this leads to the biggest problem with FileMaker Server in that you are charged for the number of concurrent connections (on Browser and FileMaker Go) based on units of 5. This starts at $1,440 per 5-pack per year. If you are a big business, this is money well spent. If you are a mom and pop store, it might be out of your league.

Scripting Improvements

A certain amount of the focus for this release is to ease some of the processes that have been “pain points” for users in the past; most specifically (at least for me), creating scripts. In the past you needed to know exactly what script function you needed, you needed to know how to create that script, and you needed to know how to implement that script. In addition to these criteria, you also had to deal with the interface for scripts that, while it has improved over the years, was very cumbersome.

Part of that improvement with scripting is that now all aspects of script making are in the same window: viewing, creating, examining, and debugging scripts. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s vastly increased the efficiency of creating, editing, examining, and debugging scripts.

As shown below, on the left you have all of the current scripts in the database at which you are looking. Click on a given script and you can see the steps of that script in the middle “Script Editing Pane.” As you create scripts and/or build upon them, you can access the Steps from the right hand column. In the middle section you can see two “tabs” showing that you can open multiple scripts at the same time, and yes, copying and pasting from script to script is possible. The only limitation on this is that you need to copy and paste from either the keyboard or the menus; there are no contextual menu options for most operations within the scripts, a surprising and disappointing limitation.

script window #1

On the right hand side of the image above you can see that the Script steps are now controlled by a tipping triangle so you can quickly and easily close categories you do not need to see. This simple addition significantly speeds the process of skimming for the script step you want. More on this in a second. Also note that the bottom of the right hand side displays the purpose of any script you click on. While this may seem small and trivial, it’s a nice addition. (To the right on the bottom is a question mark. When clicked, you are taken to FileMaker’s Help application right to that script step.)

Another benefit of this new Scripting environment where everything is in a single package is that you can open the Script Workspace for one database, open another Script Workspace and go back and forth from one workspace to the other; copy and paste scripts or copy and paste steps, since it’s all in one window, it’s much easier to manage and keep track of everything.

One strange limitation of the middle section in the Script Workspace is the word wrapping, or lack thereof. If you look at script step 7 above, you can see that after the semicolon the step wraps to the next line. All is good. But if you look at line 2, the word “Membership” is chopped off. There is no semicolon in that line, and therefore word wrapping is not available for that line. Also note there are no horizontal scroll bars for viewing this script. There are two different ways to see more of your script text; drag out the Script window horizontally until you can see the full step. This is possible if your screen is large enough and/or the text is narrow enough to fit within your screen. Beyond that, if you look at the screenshot above you’ll note in the upper right-hand corner two small blue squares. If you click on the left one, you can open or close the left hand panel that displays the completed scripts. If you click on the right-hand one, you can open or close right panel displaying the various scripts steps. While this extra width will very probably open the middle section sufficiently to probably show just about any script, I really feel that this is a strange and surprising limitation for FileMaker, and I do hope and expect this will be corrected soon in an update.

Natural Language

However, scripting is also enhanced by the addition of natural language to help you build scripts. It mostly works, as long as you stay on script [pun intended]. In the past, the process was that you went to the specific category in which you felt your desired script step was located, and then scrolled through the list until you found the specific step you wanted. This was fine if you knew exactly for what and where you needed to look, but if there was any question, and/or if the step could be in several places, then extra time was needed.

Now, if you simply type into the search field at the top of the Steps panel, all of the script steps that have that word will be displayed, as shown below. In this case, the script step with the word “find” can be found in four different categories. That could be a lot of hunting.

script window #2

Meanwhile, typing what you want is also available in the center section as you are building up your scripts. If you look in the image below, on the top image I’ve typed the word “go,” and below are all of the script steps that use the word go. Partial words are also good as the middle image shows where I’ve typed “se” and all possible script steps that start with “se” show up.

Natural Language scripting

This bogs down if what you think is a proper word for a script step is not what FileMaker Pro thinks the proper word for a script step might be. So, for example, if you think you want to “Go to a website,” you’ll be stuck. Even “Open a website” will get you nowhere. You need to “Open URL” to get to a website. So, while this is a very good feature, if they really want to make it easier to use natural language to create scripts, they need to add full language (or at least more than what they have).

For me, one minor but very annoying issue with developing scripts in the new script window is that the completed script step is selected by a very, very, very minor light, light, light blue selection. This makes it very very hard to see if it is selected. In the same vein, this off color is used to let you know you can start typing in a script editing pane. There is no blinking cursor when you are at the beginning of a line. I really, really would like to see a blinking cursor to know I can start typing; a colored field is unfamiliar territory for me.

Another small but great new feature within the Scripts window is that now you can open/close the categories for the script steps. This makes it much easier to scroll the full list of possible script steps. If you right-click on any of the categories, you can Open All or Close All. One option they do not have is a checkbox option so when you open one category any open items automatically close. But even manually opening and closing each category is better than having them in the “only opened” position. One other great new feature is a Favorites tab so you can keep your often used script steps close at hand. If you right-click on an item you can make it a favorite. By the way, if you do not see a Favorite tab, you first need to make a script step a favorite to have the Favorite tab show up.

Getting any script step into Favorites is a simple matter of right-clicking and selecting that option. This brings up one small issue, there are only right-click options in the left- and right-hand panels. I keep on right-clicking on the script steps themselves to copy, duplicate, or do something/anything. But alas, there are no right-click options in the actual script steps themselves.

favorites

It isn’t only scripting that took advantage of the new triad-view of your work, Calculations also benefited from the same structure.

Below you see the new Calculations window. On the left is your fields pane (with a symbol displaying what the field is (text, number, calculation, etc.)). In the middle is the calculation pane where you are creating your calculations (on the right side of the calculation pane is a collection of operators), and on the right side are your Functions.

Calculations #1

If you know the kind of function you want, you can access it more quickly either by using the search field or by clicking on the “bars” in the upper right corner as shown below.

calculations #2

If you have many, many fields in the left hand column, you can narrow the list down by typing into the search field. Word order is not important, so searching for “name” would reveal “name first; name last; spouse name.”

Building the calculation is just like it is in scripting where you can start typing and if you are going in the right direction, you can select the specific calculation tools you want.

New Features (a compendium of my favorites)

Keep in mind that this is far from a complete list of new features. Rather, it’s a list of things that particularly appealed to me. Some improvements, like Scripting, have so many enhancements and improvements that this review would be doubled in size. So please be grateful for my “brevity.”

Top and Bottom Navigation

Have you ever been looking at a full page spreadsheet and as you visually scroll down the columns to see an item you can’t remember what column you are looking at so you have to look back at the top of the page and then look back at the item you were looking at to reinforce the significance of that item? And have you ever done that on a long, long page in a browser where it’s even worse because of the potential length of data you have to scroll through?

FileMaker has solved the problem. If you are in Edit mode and go into Layouts (menu) -> “Parts Setup…” you’ll see two new options for your Layouts: Top and Bottom Navigation. Simply, anything (buttons, text, whatever) that’s placed in these new parts will remain at the top or bottom while you scroll the page.

Top Bottom Navigation

Button Bar

One of FileMaker’s long-standing features was the ability to create buttons to perform operations, go to different layouts, etc. In the past, if you wanted a row or column of buttons, each one needed to be made one-at-a-time and assembled onto the page. To make this an easier process, new to FM is the Button Bar. The Button Bar is simply a tool that helps you create a clean and neat strip of button in your database. The tool is found in your Layout Tools (when in the Edit mode). Here, you can create either a vertical or horizontal tool bar and each button can be a button or a popover button. They can display a message or initiate a full script or a single step.

Button Toolbar #1

I did find several limitations with the Button Bar. First off, you cannot copy a Button Bar and paste it into a different layout. This means you have to recreate the same bar over and over. Thus, if you create a Button Bar to access three different layouts, you need to duplicate the Button Bar from scratch three times. (Ugh!)

One area where the Button Bar is especially useful is for creating layouts that work on mobile devices when the user may flip back and forth from portrait to landscape view. In earlier versions of FileMaker, in order to have a nice “tight” layout, the designer might have had to make both a portrait and landscape version of the same layout. This will help limit that need.

The Button Bar does a good job of utilizing the selected theme, but you can only veer off the theme for the whole Button Bar, not a section. Thus, if you want one button red, one blue, and one white, sorry, can’t do that. On the other hand, you can have an Active Segment. What this provides if, in the example shown above, the “People” button is selected and if that is the People layout, you could identify this as the Active Segment and the People button would show up as the flipped colors of that theme (here, it would be black type on a white button).

Now, in some of the literature you’ll see for this new release, you will see comments about 140 new Button icons. Finding them, though, is a bit of a challenge. Did you see them in the screenshot above? They are almost there, all you have to do is click in the right place.

Button Toolbar #2

See them now? It’s really obvious once you know the secret handshake. But to tell the truth, I spent an amazing amount of time trying to find them. Surprisingly, in all of the PDFs, manuals, and help files that were released by FileMaker, none of them pointed out how to access this icon collection. The good news is that these are not limited to only the Button Bar; if you create a button anywhere using the standard Button tool from amongst the Layout Tools, you have access to the same set of icons.

Ironically, the concept of button icons is not all that new. FileMaker used to ship (or you could download) the FM Graphics Pack with over a thousand icons that were held in a FM solution. You simply scrolled through and copied and pasted them into your solution. While not as varied nor as colorful, these are much easier to use (once you know where they are).

Placeholder Text

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make me jazzed. Here’s a small feature that has me jazzed: Placeholder text. You often see these in website forms where the desired content is placed inside the field to be filled out. Ever since—well…ever—FileMaker has relied upon text labels next to fields to let the user know what kind of data is supposed to be placed within the field. Unfortunately, this takes up space, and if your layout is already filled with stuff, every little bit of extra stuff is hard to fit into a layout.

Below, on the top is what we’ve had for years—a name for the field followed by the field. The name could be to the left, right, on the top or bottom, but there it was taking space. To deal with this, on the bottom of the Field Picker floating window are the Label Options: none, top, left, or placeholder. On the bottom you can see what this looks like.

Placeholder Text #1

The one unfortunate things about this is that there is no way to automatically convert all of your labels into Placeholder Text. It can be done two ways. One is to drag in new fields from the Field Picker (the center screenshot above is displaying the lower section of the Field Picker). While this is fine for new fields, it’s not very practical for previously made solutions. The easier way is to use the Inspector, select the field, and then manually type in the name of the field from within the Data tab.

Placeholder Text #2

If you want to stylize the text beyond the default, switch over to the Appearance tab of the Inspector, select Placeholder Text from the dropdown menu on the top, and set the Font appearance in the Text section of the Appearance tab within the Inspector.

Launch Center

Launch Center is a good idea, mostly well implemented, albeit with some lapses.

Although not really directly part of Launch Center, you can add custom or pre-made icons to your solutions. These are accessed from the File (menu) -> File Options, and if you mouse-down on the dropdown menu for FileMaker, you can see a collection of very plain (flat) icons for your solution. If you do not like any of the provided options, you can create your own custom icons (these can be brought in by the Custom…” button to the right of the dropdown menu). These icons do not show up in the Finder, but they do show up in the Launch Center.

FileMaker launch center icons

The Launch Center shows up when you start FileMaker or any time you go to the Open option from the File menu (or press Command-o). I should point out that the images below are only 75% the size of the original screenshots. I mention that because there are two views of Launch Center: Titles (on top) and List (on bottom). And at full size the Title view icons are well into cartoonish-big.

I do like the potential for the custom icons, and the varying colors are nice if you know you want the “orange” one. But as opposed to the Finder where you can vary the size of the icons, here you cannot. If you want to keep this window small and you have a number of solutions, you cannot see all of your potential solutions at one time without scrolling.

The alternative to the Title view is the List view (on the bottom in the screenshot below). At least here the icons are not ginormous and you also have the bird-trail of where that file is located (I really like that). However, just like in the scripting interface, you have no ability to scroll horizontally if there is not enough room to display the full length of the text. Similarly, if you wish to vary the width of the columns (the solution column and the location column), you can’t do that either. In fact, if you drag the width of this window out as far as your monitor will let you, you only affect the Location column, leaving the Solution width unaffected.

Launch Center

Despite these limitations, I do very much like the Launch Center. It’s also the easiest way to select files to be considered as “Favorites” (those with the stars) as any mechanism there is within FM Pro. If you click on a file without a star, it now has a star and vise versa.

FileMaker Go 14

With the various advancements to FileMaker Pro, FileMaker Go needed some updating as well. Besides a new user interface, and updating to access the new features of FM Pro, FM Go can now do RT (Rich Text) Editing, the addition of a script-step to lock the screen orientation, enhanced signature capture, new script-steps to control video and audio playback, and you can now access the various touch keyboards via new scripts.

Focusing on the interface, below on the left you see the two top buttons (red & blue), and what they reveal directly below. On the right you see the two bottom buttons (again red & blue), and above them what they reveal directly above. I am not going to bring up images of how FM Go 13 used to present the same range of tools, but this is a substantial improvement. I have to admit that while FM Go 13 worked, I often tapped at things only to undo and try something else until I found what I was looking for. Now, I find what I’m looking for without having to hunt.

Please note a Launch Center option on the left screenshot in the expanded red section. This provides the same Launch Center view as you had in the Desktop version. If you had any custom icons for your solutions, they will show up here both in an icon and list view.

FileMaker Go controls

By the way…if you are working on an iPhone and want more space, if you drag up with three fingers, the interface will go away to give you more room. You can return the space by dragging down with three fingers.

Some wishes…

As FileMaker Pro has developed and evolved over the years, especially since FileMaker Pro 12, the Inspector has become an amazing and powerful tool. New tabs have been added, and the options available to alter and enhance have increased significantly. What I’m finding now as I work in FM Pro, trying to get as much out of the application I can, is I’m constantly spending as much time switching back and forth amongst the tabs as I am within a tab. So, what I’d love to see is the ability to tear off a tab and have that tab either floating or “stuck” to the side of the Inspector. This would let me see both tabs at once and help me with a unified experience. This is not to say you can’t work with the Inspector as it now stands. Rather, I’m simply expressing a wish to expand the Inspector’s capabilities.

I would also like to see more contextual menu interaction. I would like to be able to right-click on a field and have the name of that field be converted to Placeholder Text. Most of the time that would be sufficient, and the few times I’d need to go to the Inspector to enhance that text, I could live with that. There are a number of times when I right-clicked on a item expecting to access copying or cutting capability only to find no contextual menu.

Old Issues & Beefs

FileMaker 12 introduced Themes to quickly let the user have a well-balanced and professional look to user-created database. At the time, a few of those these provided coordinated Themes so the look of your Desktop view matched your iPhone view. FileMaker 13 upped this by providing the user more ability to manually fine-tune any given Theme to their desire. At this point with FileMaker 14, we have yet more enhancements to fine tune a Theme. But if the user wishes to work with what they are given to keep desktop and mobile Theme consistency, he/she is no further along. There are 11 themes that have a desktop and touch version while there are 29 themes that are exclusively desktop based.

FileMaker has made astonishing strides making FileMaker work across the desktop and mobile modes. Much of this has been through their spectacular work with FileMaker Server. However, the Server model is not cheap. While the Server model is worth its weight in gold and worth every penny for a business that depends upon all of the value it brings, it’s out of reach for a family that is sharing their travel restaurants, or collections of books or records. This is where placing the database within something like a DropBox account is acceptable. There are no shortages of issues and problems with maintaining a database accessed from a DropBox account. Remember that while FileMaker Server can have 100 people concurrently using the same database all making changes in the data, regular FileMaker can only have one person (at-a-time) making changes in the data of a single solution. In fact, if you access a DropBox stored solution at home and leave it running, and then at work access the same solution and make a change, you will now have a problem with your solution. Nonetheless, you can access a solution from within DropBox on a desktop computer because the content of your DB folder is on your computer and FileMaker can access any FM document on your computer. What you cannot do is access a DB folder from within FileMaker Go. Of course you can always upload your solution to your mobile device either by direct connection or by simply emailing yourself the solution and opening it up from within FM Go on your mobile device. But to simply open a solution directly from a mobile device is not possible.

And that’s very frustrating.

In Short

For fans and users of FileMaker Pro, this is another great release, albeit with a few UI issues.

It’s all too common for some companies to make changes because they can, not because they should. A change should fix things, and if the original feature doesn’t have a problem perhaps it shouldn’t be changed. In this new release of FileMaker 14, all of the changes fixed things. Yes, a few new problems were created with the new format, but the change with the problem is better than what was there before, and none of the problems had issues that couldn’t be fixed in the future.

As mentioned, the new Scripting and Calculations layouts are a pleasure to use. I love the Placeholder text and the Top and Bottom Navigation. While I like the Button Bar a lot, the inability to copy and paste the Button Bar is adding a lot of work to the designer that shouldn’t have to be done.

FileMaker Go is much much easier to work with, and if you can afford it, WebDirect is fantastic.

The update for the FileMaker Pro 14 family is a very good update.

Apple Channel Rating A

Buy FileMaker Pro 14

Provides: Create and operate databases
Developer: FileMaker
Minimum System Requirements: OS X Mavericks or better; FileMaker Go requires iOS 8.1 or better
Price: FM Pro is $329 (upgrade is $196); FM Pro Advance is $549 (upgrade is $329). Monthly prices (software rental) are also available. Server prices vary depending on how many users will access the server. see See here for more details.
Availability: Now

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  • Michael J. Van Dyke

    Yea and they keep increasing the prices
    For FileMaker Go.

  • David Head

    “…you cannot copy a Button Bar and paste it into a different layout.”
    This can be done. Did you mean that you can’t paste the same button bar into another layout, then change it in one place for all layouts?

  • TangoArtist

    My biggest problem — and I could be wrong about this — is that unless you jump to the VERY expensive server software, one can no longer put a database on the web. . . even if the only one who’s using it is oneself. Is this wrong? It damn sure isn’t right! I don’t need to serve hundreds or thousands of users, just myself when I’m away from my desktop.

    The next biggest problem is the price. $549 for FMP Advanced?!? Really?!? Ridiculous. I like FMP but not enough to pawn my first child and mortgage my house.

    FMP used to be an inexpensive solution to a multitude of database problems. It’s a solution I simply can no longer afford.