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Which database application is best for you: FileMaker Pro or MS Access?

Updated on March 28, 2011

FileMaker Pro vs. Microsoft Access

FileMaker Pro is a cross-platform (Mac-PC) database application that has been around for many years. This article is for anyone who is considering migrating from Microsoft Access (PC-only) and would like an overview and comparison of the two database aps. Read on for an experienced database end-user's comparison for of FileMaker Pro and Microsoft Access database applications.

Comparing the Two Leading Database Applications

Microsoft Access and FileMaker Pro are both industry-leading database management software products. They share a few similarities as well as some striking differences as platforms for data management and reports. This article focuses on comparing the two products. It is intended for the end-user who must use the software "out of the box." The more advanced aspects of each, such as applying Visual Basic for MS Access or using heavy scripting language for FileMaker Pro, are outside the scope of this article.

Cross-platform compatibility: The biggest difference

Simply stated, FileMaker Pro is both compatible with Windows and Mac. FileMaker Pro can either be installed on a PC or Mac. Likewise, any database file produced by either platform can be loaded and used by the other.

Not so with MS Access. The best compatibility available is that MS Access data tables can be exported as a spreadsheet and imported to FileMaker Pro on Mac (and vice versa).

Cost: The second-biggest difference

New users for FileMaker Pro can expect to shell out as much as $299 for the basic software package (about $179 for an upgrade to the current version 11). FileMaker Pro also comes in advanced and server versions for heavy-duty use by application developers. The basic version, however, is quite suitable for everyday, end-user needs.

Microsoft Access, on the other hand, is more reasonably priced at from $117 for a single copy. Access also comes with the Microsoft Office 2010 Professional version packaged in a suite of office applications that include Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, and OneNote). The Microsoft suite can cost anywhere from $499 retail to under $100 for qualified studies and academic staff people.

The database-building approach

Both products use roughly the same approach in building a basic database with its tables, forms, and reports. FileMaker does not differentiate between forms and reports; it relies of "layouts," which are a combination form and report. FileMaker layouts that serve as reports have the advantage of easier accessibility and changing "on the fly."

The database table and fields

Each application requires the user to define the database fields that make up the data tables. FileMaker is slightly more elegant and intuitive and allows the user to immediately imbed calculation fields from the outset of the database-building process. Also, FileMaker has a more flexible field-changing process. Changing field attributes after the database is up and running can be problematical with Microsoft Access, especially if the changed field has already been imbedded in forms, reports, and database queries. No so much with FileMaker, which has a better integration of data fields into its layouts.

Queries vs. Scripts: The third-biggest difference

Without being overly technical here, MS Access shakes out its custom tables and reports through its query language (SQL). Through a variety of query types, the MS Access end-user feeds data into forms and tables, tables into reports that contained grouped information and calculations.

FileMaker Pro, on the other hand, relies on layouts that are fed off of tables that already have the calculations specified. The layouts and their presentation of data fields are heavily dependent on scripts. The scripts are essentially pre-programmed commands that are associated with how the layout launches, how the data is presented, and how the database behaves in when certain conditions are met. While layouts can be somewhat baffling to the newcomer, once mastered they provide an enormously flexible and powerful way to run a FileMaker Pro database.

Which is better?

The answer to "which is better?" would definitely depend on the needs of the end-user's needs and whether or not cross-platforms (Windows/Mac) are involved. The main advantage of MS Access is its integration into the Microsoft Office suite. For example, Access users can import and export data between Access and Excel, and export data to Word.

On the other hand, as discussed previously, "Mac-heads" who need a database program that can share files with PC customers, can take advantage of FileMaker Pro's power database capabilities as well as an excellent online support network. Like MS Access, FileMaker also comes with some handy database templates for a quick start.

Tell me what you think! Comments/suggestions welcomed!

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      cjsmuz lm 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Glad you enjoyed the article. I've never used Tableau, which I understand is strictly a Windows platform. Its relatively small application size (<100 mb) and emphasis on charting appears to be centered on analytics -- charts, graphs, etc. -- more than a packaged application approach.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Good review, especially for the layperson. It seems to me that FM Pro is more user-friendly, which is consistent with the OS platform inter-operability. One thing I'd like to see is a comparison of FM PRo with Tableau; from what I've seen so far, FM Pro started a long while ago as a database and has developed graphical options, while Tableau did things in the reverse order, more recently. Any suggestions?