With new versions of its entire FileMaker product line (FileMaker Pro, FileMaker Pro Advanced, FileMaker Server, FileMaker Server Advanced, and FileMaker Go), FileMaker, Inc. extends its dominance of the Mac OS and iOS database world by offering improvements that will be valued by every type of FileMaker user: end users both in the office and out, and developers of every level of ability, from amateurs to aces.
Three years ago, I detailed the differences between FileMaker Pro and its big brother FileMaker Pro Advanced; much has changed in the subsequent versions but the basic comparison is a good refresher of how FileMaker Pro and FileMaker Pro Advanced are different. In a nutshell, FileMaker (standard) and Pro Advanced are 95% identical, but Pro Advanced provides a few crucial extras. Pro Advanced is for serious developers, especially those who do a great deal of scripting. Everything in this review applies equally to both FileMaker Pro Advanced 12 and FileMaker Pro 12, and I will use the name FileMaker Pro to stand for both products.
Extreme makeover done extremely easily
The most obvious improvement in FileMaker Pro 12 is its library of 40 fresh layout themes. A theme controls the initial appearance of objects on a layout: the color scheme, the shape and style of buttons, the text formatting and borders of data fields. I never made use of FileMaker's themes in the past; the old themes were somewhat homely, and a theme could only be applied at the moment a layout was created and couldn't be changed. However, I may reconsider my avoidance of themes. The new themes in FileMaker Pro are fairly attractive, and it is now possible to switch to a different theme later. You can even start a layout without a theme and apply a theme afterwards--that's what I've done with some of my own old databases. It's a quick and remarkably effective way to perform a facelift on your databases. My one regret--one I suspect a lot of developers will share--is that it is still not possible to define and save custom themes.
The new themes library includes a number of boffo themes designed specifically for use on the iPad and iPhone. The interoperability with FileMaker Go is the most exciting part of the FileMaker 12 release, and with the themes for iOS, even beginners can create great looking apps for the iPad and iPhone.
The snazzier aspects of the new themes are made possible by new layout options, such as the ability to add gradients to almost any layout object, the ability to change the look of buttons by controlling corner radius precisely for rounded buttons and the ability to highlight buttons differently when users mouse over or press them--behaviors we all expect from well-designed websites. There are many other new design enhancements in FileMaker Pro 12, and one of my favorites is the option "Delineate fields on current record only" in the Layout Setup dialog. You can highlight the selected record in a list simply by putting a check in a box. In the past this required advanced techniques (capturing record ID with a script trigger and using conditional formatting based on a calculation).
Two other changes in layout mode may seem awkward to experienced developers for a while, until old habits give way to new. Layouts in FileMaker Pro 12 now have explicit widths and expect to be used within windows of a certain size. This change is part of FileMaker Pro 12's much better support for different types of displays (desktop computer, iPad, or iPhone, and iPod touch) and is complemented by the new screen-size guides or "stencils" that make it easy for you to tell if a particular layout will fit on a particular screen.
As a longtime FileMaker developer, I found it difficult to adjust to the new way objects are selected in layout mode. In the past, you drew the selection rectangle completely around the object (say, a field, or field label, or button) to select it. In FileMaker Pro 12, objects are selected if the selection rectangle touches any part of the object. The new behavior is consistent with Apple's user interface guidelines--it's how selection works in the OS X Finder, for example. And whether you're an old hand or a tenderfoot, the new behavior certainly makes it more difficult to select one object in a crowded group. Fortunately when you really need it, the old behavior can be recovered by holding down the Command key while selecting.
FileMaker Pro for amateurs
What about the database amateur, the non-developer or the person who just doesn't have a lot of experience creating databases? Too timid to enter layout mode? Not to worry. FileMaker Pro 12 still has lots to offer you, too.
There are starter solutions: 16 diverse, professionally designed, ready-to-go databases for inventory, to-do lists, personnel, scheduling, time and billing, research notes, and more. The starter solutions make use of the new themes and include layouts optimized for FileMaker Go on iOS devices, as well as layouts for desktop computers running FileMaker Pro. These solutions are fairly generic, of course, but the ones I have played with are pretty slick. If you are in need of one of these solutions, you can get it at no extra charge. They come with every copy of FileMaker Pro 12.
And you might become a developer yet, or at least a dabbler. They're called "starter solutions" for a reason--you're expected to tweak them to suit your own needs, and if you can resist the temptation, you're stronger than me. Want to learn your way around FileMaker Pro in a hurry? One of the best things you can do is take a starter solution apart.
Interesting odds and ends
FileMaker Pro 12 contains scores of enhancements that are beyond the scope of this review--new functions and script steps and many other improvements. But there are a two items that deserve special mention.
Container fields in FileMaker Pro 12 are greatly enhanced. Some of the improvements are a bit esoteric (scripted handling of the installation of plug-ins) but one that many will appreciate is the ability to handle certain kinds of dynamic content. You can now read a PDF right in a container field, moving from page to page, even searching, without having to extract the document from the field.
The Chart Setup dialog has been improved and several new chart types have been added. Saving a chart still requires developer access to the file, but it's now possible for ordinary end users to create ad hoc (temporary) charts, even without any special privileges. Sweet.
What's the catch?
This is a major upgrade loaded with improvements to a product that was already best in class, so you will want to place your orders immediately, right? Right, but there is a catch: The file format for FileMaker Pro databases has changed.
The last five versions of FileMaker Pro, since the release of FileMaker Pro 7 in 2004, have used the same file format, distinguished by the file type extension .fp7. For almost eight years, it's been possible to open any FileMaker Pro database with any recent version of FileMaker Pro, or even to open a new database with an old version, provided the database didn't make use of features introduced after the release of the version of FileMaker Pro used to open it. All this backwards and forwards compatibility was great while it lasted.
FileMaker Pro 12 has a new file format with the file type extension .fmp12. The new format was necessary to support the new themes technology. If you want to use an old database in the new version of FileMaker Pro, the file will have to be converted to the new format. (Conversion is a breeze and is done right in FileMaker Pro 12.) If you work by yourself, by all means, upgrade. But if your databases are shared--with 100 other users or just one--be aware that it will be necessary to upgrade to FileMaker Pro 12 on every computer that must access the files. iOS users of FileMaker Go must upgrade to FileMaker Go 12. And if the files are shared with FileMaker Server, you'll have to upgrade that software too, to FileMaker Server 12 or Server 12 Advanced.
The good news is that the pricing for the principal FileMaker products (Pro and Pro Advanced, Server and Server Advanced) has not changed. And as of version 12, FileMaker Go is now free. Finally, although you will have to uninstall FileMaker Server 11 (or earlier) before you can install FileMaker Server 12 on your server machine, customers upgrading to FileMaker Pro 12 from FileMaker Pro 10 or 11 may use their previously licensed older version alongside FileMaker Pro 12 on the same computer, while databases are migrated to the new version. They simply won't be able to enable file sharing in both versions.
I upgraded a dozen legacy databases of my own, some of them moderately large and complex. The conversion process couldn't be easier and I encountered not a single problem.
Macworld's buying advice
It is easy to say that this is the best version of FileMaker Pro yet. That is almost always the case with a new version. Though I wish I could create and save my own layout themes, my other complaints are minor and involve changes that I recognize were probably necessary. If you are one of the millions already using FileMaker Pro, the only reason not to upgrade immediately is the change in the file format, which requires a little planning and perhaps some budgeting. If you are new to FileMaker Pro, this version is the easiest one ever to recommend.
William Porter is an independent software developer, writer, and event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.
This story, "Review: FileMaker Pro 12 and FileMaker Pro Advanced 12" was originally published by Macworld.