Considering the initial acclaim Evernote received when it first released, I’m often surprised there haven’t been more contenders entering the note-taking and syncing arena. Roads to innovation in this category largely go unpaved. The note-taking app simply known as Bear, for macOS and iOS only, is at least giving it a go. Bear aims for simplicity by doing away with folders, notebooks, and elaborate text styling, giving you a place to simply create notes and store them. It supports Markdown and uses tags for organization, but doesn’t have too many tools and features aside from that. The Pro account, which you need for syncing among devices, is cheap. Unfortunately, Bear comes off as being too lightweight.
Sure, it ditches advanced features that many Evernote users probably don’t even know exist. But it also skips some essential tools. And forget about it if you use more than just Macs, iPhones, and iPads. Bear could be a reasonable option if you are an Apple-only user and you need only the most basic capabilities in a note-taking app. For everyone else, Evernote continues to be the app I recommend most. It’s the Editors’ Choice.
Pricing and Plans
Bear’s pricing and plan options are simple and straightforward. There’s a free version that comes with limitations—the most significant one being that you can’t sync data across devices—and a Pro version that’s fully functional. Pro costs $14.99 per year or $1.49 per month, billed through iTunes.SEE ALSO: 7 Reasons to Actually Start Using Google Keep
Two other limitations in the free version are 1) only getting two choices of visual themes for the interface and 2) not being able to export to .docx, .html, .jpg, .pdf, or TaskPaper. There’s no way to try out the Pro features without putting your credit card on the line, although every subscription includes a free trial period: one week for a monthly subscription, and one month for the yearly. If you cancel before the week or month is up, you won’t be charged.
Compared with Evernote’s paid accounts, Bear’s price is a bargain. Evernote offers three tiers of service: Plus ($34.99 per year), Premium ($69.99 per year), and Business ($12 per month per person).
Other apps offer completely free service, including Google Keep, Zoho Notebook, and Microsoft OneNote. OneNote is the most powerful of the free options. It comes with no restrictions, although you need to sign in with a Microsoft account to use it. Microsoft accounts can be free (Outlook.com, Windows Live, etc.), too, or they can be part of a Microsoft plan, like Office 365. Free users get 5GB of storage space, whereas Office subscribers get 1TB of storage, but it’s shared among all their Office Online apps.
Bear in Action
If you’re unfamiliar with note-taking and syncing apps, they allow you to create notes that are synced across different devices you use where the app is installed. Notes are often text-based, but they can also contain uploaded files, such as images, documents, PDFs, and audio recordings. There are no rules as to the content you can store. Note-taking apps are handy for storing practically anything, from recipes to lists of movies worth watching.
Upon installing and launching Bear for the first time, its lack of features becomes apparent immediately. It’s sparse. A series of introductory notes show up in your app to explain how Bear works. There are no folders or notebooks for organizing notes, only tags. There is no rich formatting panel, only support for Markup and a handful of menu options for applying styles when you don’t know the keyboard shortcuts.
Markdown is a simplified solution to styling text. Instead of having menu bars full of fonts, point size, bold, italics, and so forth, simple codes indicate style. For example, placing asterisks around a text makes it bold *like this*. People who opt for apps that use Markdown generally enjoy minimalism and appreciate that there are fewer distractions in their interface. Frankly, Markdown is not for everyone. I sometimes find the Markdown codes themselves distracting. But if you like it, Bear has it.
Like any other note-taking app, you use Bear to create whatever kind of notes you want, whether poems, recipes, diary entries, snippets of code, blogs, or whatever else you want. Notes can include images or other files that you attach to a note. In the iOS app, Bear supports drawing, too.
Bear can import notes from other services, including Evernote, making it easy to jump ship and switch apps. To test Bear’s importing prowess, I exported from Evernote a Stack of Notebooks containing 155 notes all pertaining to food and drink. They imported quickly and easily into the Bear Mac app, complete with their images, links, and text styling correctly translated to Markdown. Any tags I had applied in Evernote did not transfer to Bear, however, and a table didn’t make it either. All the contents of the table came across, but the formatting was lost.
Once my 155 notes had been imported into Bear, I promptly panicked that they were all just jumbled together into the app with no order. In Evernote, they had all been part of the same Notebook Stack, but I had further organized them into Notebooks. One was called Recipes: Sweet and Baking; another was Recipes: Savory. I keep notes about cocktails separate from notes about wines. In Bear, they were all lumped together because they didn’t have any tags.
So, I began adding tags to my notes using hash symbols and forward slashes to organize them. Within a few minutes, I had devised a system that seemed good enough. #Recipes/sweets and #recipes/savory was a good place to start. #Wine/red and #Wine/white made sense, too. Then I got greedy and started drilling down, adding more tags for cuisine, like #recipes/malaysian and #recipes/italian.
I got through about half my notes before I looked over at my master list of tags and realized there were too many of them to make sense. It was an overwhelming amount of clutter, which is exactly what Bear is supposed to avoid. Cleaning up the tags would be a pain in the neck because it takes a ton of manual work. With a notebook system, you can simply bulk select notes and move them where you want. Or you can just rename the notebook. With tags, you have to add, remove, or change the tag in every note where it appears.
When I first started with Bear (an update has since fixed this particular problem), there were no typeahead suggestions for tags I created, which resulted in my making erroneous duplicates like “sweet” and “sweets.” Thankfully the latest version of Bear now includes suggestions when you start to type a tag, which is a huge relief.
One problem with minimalism in apps is that sometimes important features end up hidden or omitted. For example, I wanted to sort my notes in reverse chronological order and spent more time that I should have looking for how to do it. The option is in the Preferences pane. It should be in the main interface. Bear doesn’t have a web clipper, so you’ll have to come up with your own solutions for saving articles you find online into the app. It also lacks note counts in the sidebar, meaning a number alongside each tag showing how many notes use it. Wouldn’t it be helpful to see when only a single note uses a particular tag so that I could review the contents and perhaps tag it more appropriately?
An alternative app that’s also for Apple devices only and takes a minimalism approach is Apple Notes. It doesn’t give you tags, but it does offer folders and subfolders. It’s similar to Bear in that it doesn’t provide many features for being productive.
Features and Details
The way Bear angles at simplicity didn’t quite work for me, but I can see how its pared-down nature appeals to others. The search bar is fast, and you don’t have to specify which notebooks you want to search. The exporting options are complete, without going overboard in thoroughness. Bear exports to .txt, Markdown, text bundle, Bear Note, and .rtf, plus the other formats I mentioned previously if you have Pro account (.docx, .html, .jpg, .pdf, and TaskPaper).
A stat box for each note easily sits within reach and includes not only word count and character count, but also estimated read time, number of paragraphs, and creation date. The additional visual themes that you get with a Pro account are nice to have. Just the other day, I read a longer article that I had saved to Evernote while I was on a long-haul bus at night. The white background and black text made it really difficult on my eyes. I searched everywhere for some kind of dark theme or inverse color scheme and couldn’t find one. Bear Pro has several to choose from.
Bear allows you to link notes, which means simply that you can put a hyperlink into your text and direct it to go to another note in the app. There are no restrictions on storage or uploads because everything is saved locally. Whether that’s a boon or a bust depends on how many notes you create, what’s in them, and the space on your devices. In the mobile app, there are no options for selective syncing, though representatives say it’s a feature they are aware is in demand. Right now, however, the syncing setup is all or nothing.
What Is Bear Missing?
If you’ve never been a power user of a note-taking and syncing app, you may wonder at this point what you could possibly be missing. The honest answer is: A lot.
Beyond all the tools you get for organizing your notes, there are features found in other apps, notably Evernote and OneNote, that don’t necessarily become apparent until you need them. Evernote, for example, is adept at helping you scan documents using a smartphone camera and then turning them into searchable PDFs. That’s something you might not even realize a note-taking app could do, but it can, and it can be a life-changing feature. (Okay, maybe not life-changing, but productivity-changing for sure.)
Now imagine this: Take a handwritten note, scan it using your phone, and make the handwritten text searchable. Evernote can do that, too, if you have the right account type. Bear cannot.
Bear doesn’t have any features for recording audio, although you can record anything you want in another app and upload the file later for safe keeping. OneNote and Evernote offer the option natively. The next time you’re in an important meeting, you can open your note-taking app to take notes and record the conversation while you’re at it. Handy, right?
Evernote, in particular, has many more features, like Work Chat if you use it in a business setting, which is essentially a way to instant message with colleagues. The app can suggest notes that might be related to what you’re working on at the moment, given keywords and other metadata. You can automatically tag notes with your geographic location when you take them, which becomes invaluable for people who travel often and have an easier time finding information based on where they when they wrote it down (or scanned it, or took a picture of it, or make a voice recording of it) than the content and keywords used to organize it.
Bear Essentials (but Little Else)
Some Bear enthuiasts (Casey Newton at The Verge comes to mind) claim the app offers everything they need, and hey, congratulations to them. If the simplified feature set and Markup tools satisfy your note-taking requirements, and you’re an Apple-only kind of person, then Bear may very well get the job done. If you ever were a power user of another note-taking app, you’ll quickly see where Bear comes up short. While Evernote is expensive, I have yet to find an app that rivals it in both features and looks. Microsoft OneNote comes close to offering as good a service as Evernote, but it’s clunkier and slower. I recommend OneNote, however, if you are in the market for a free service, but Evernote is still the app to beat for those who are willing to pay.
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