Four databases for iOS: Two good, two meh

I'm trying to automate my beloved's business and, to this end, I need to create a system to generate receipts and trap client data. What I want to give her is a forms-based application that can run on an iPhone and or an iPad without being connected to the Internet.

I looked at several solutions, including Filemaker's Bento, but until the other day, I hadn't found quite what I was looking for.

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Before we turn to the product that looks like it will do the job, I have to note that Bento is a terrific personal database application. Running on both iOS and OS X, Bento delivers a very slick user interface, but it has two problem as far as I'm concerned: First, it's too easy to make changes to a database and, second, you can't "lock down" the user interface. Let me explain ...

With Bento, databases are called (for no good reason and somewhat confusingly) "libraries." You select which library you want to use or create a new one and then, by clicking on the pencil icon in the tool bar, you can ... all too easily ... go into the database, er, sorry, library and make any alterations you please. These alterations can change the visual "theme" or modify the fields used in the collection.

On a device like the iPad, Bento's themes, some of which use photorealistic user interfaces such as notepads, clipboards, and paper textures, look great and provide a usable and friendly interface. But, while giving the user the power to change the theme is not a deal breaker, it also isn't always what you want when the database is intended to only do a specific job.

On the plus side, Bento does work in offline mode on iOS and, when it's on the same Wi-Fi network as an OS X version, it can sync its libraries with the desktop system.

That said, my big problem with Bento is that there's nothing to stop a library's structure from being modified. Should you or your target user decide to modify the fields in a library you could wind up deleting a field and you may well find that you also delete all of the data associated with that field. Even though you are warned this can happen, this degree of flexibility without the ability to prevent the user from seriously screwing up existing records means that Bento is really very much a "personal" database.

At $4.99 for the iPhone, $9.99 for the iPad, and $49 for the Mac version, Bento is very good and gets a Gearhead rating of 3.5 out of 5, but it's not quite what I wanted.

I also looked at HanDBase for iPad, but the user experience isn't great and even though it's been around for a while, the code is disappointingly unstable, so HanDBase doesn't get a Gearhead rating.

Another database app that fails on the user experience but is actually somewhat more stable (though not perfect) is Database for iPad. It's not production quality, but could morph into something useful. Again, no Gearhead rating.

So it was that after checking out all of the above, as well as several other apps, I finally found something that can do the job: Forms, published by Polar Bear Farm.

What really impresses me about Forms is that it has a really clever architecture. With the app running on your local network you can click on the "Settings" button, which enables the app's built-in Web server and, on the iPad, the app displays the Web server's local address and port so you can access the Forms Builder from a browser on your network .

The Forms Builder is a graphical database and GUI builder written in JavaScript that allows you to create databases, define tables within the databases, relate tables, and add resources which all reside on your iPad.

All of the databases and configuration files are stored on the iPad and, in a running system, that is, an iPad or iPhone with a Forms database application, you have a system that meets my criteria: It doesn't allow random editing by the user, works offline, and delivers a great user experience.

Features include a fully relational database with single user local tables, calculation columns, summary columns, auto-enter column properties, and auto-update column properties.

The user interface supports customizable visual layouts, text fields, pop-up buttons, checkboxes, radio buttons, related lists, media views, data formatters for displaying dates and numbers in user friendly formats, customizable buttons, dynamically generated pop-up list values, and support for searching. You can also print records and record sets wirelessly using AirPrint; email records and record sets as PDF, CSV or JSON files; and export tables as CSV files.

In short, Forms by Polar Bear Farm is pretty much everything I was looking for. I've only had a few hours to explore what Forms can do but, so far, I am really impressed. This is a really clever, elegant architecture that is way ahead of any other iOS database system I've seen so far. Forms by Polar Bear Farm, priced at a measly $9.99, gets a Gearhead rating of 5 out of 5.

Gibbs is happy with his data in Ventura, Calif. If you have a better solution let him know at gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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