When it first launched, Bear was an intriguing alternative to bloated note-taking apps like Evernote and OneNote, but it was still a little too new to dive into. After a couple of minor iterations, I'm convinced it's a worthy alternative for those sick of the bloat of other notes apps and for those who like the take-home simplicity of plain text. Provided you're in the Apple ecosystem, anyway.
iOS/Mac. There's certainly no shortage of notes app out there, but Bear's an app that manages to toe the line between a few different popular styles, and might suit you if you need more features than plain text offers, but not as much as something like Evernote.
Bear is a notes app for Mac, iPhone and iPad that also happened to win Apple's Best Of awards last year. The lack of a Windows, Android or web client is a bummer in this day and age, but if you're in the Apple ecosystem this shouldn't matter much.
Bear sits between plain text and Evernote, between minimalism and bloat. It targets a very specific subset of people, who I'll call Plain Text, Organised. I've long been an advocate of plain text, but there's no denying that it's hard to keep organised or use for complex research. In Bear's case, it utilises Markdown so you can format text easily while still maintaining plain text portability. Bear has recently become my notes app of choice to accompany my favourite long-form writing software, Ulysses.
Bear also has an interesting pricing scheme that's worth talking about up front. It's free if you don't need to sync between devices or use custom themes. If you want that syncing, Bear costs $21.49/year. While that's a turnoff for people who are used to getting software for free, it does mean that Bear has a sustainable business model. This hopefully means Bear will exist and be in development for years to come. You can try Bear out without syncing for free, or get a free month trial of the premium subscription if you're still not sure about it.
With that, let's take a look at how Bear holds up, what makes it different, and how I've been using it.
Plain text has long been a favourite here at Lifehacker, but over the years most people have moved away from it in favour of specialised to-do apps, notes apps, writing apps or whatever else. I still use plain text for just about everything, but never thought much about why I do. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that snazzy features aside, plain text is still king for portability and simplicity.
Bear Organises with Hashtags, Not Notebooks
Bear does not use a notebook or folder system to organise notes. Instead, it just uses hashtags. This is great for me because hashtags have long worked better for my workflow.
Instead of creating a notebook, then creating notes inside of that, hashtags are a more flexible -- a note can exist in two places at once. Just type a # followed by whatever tag you want, like
#potentialcaves, and that's automatically parsed in Bear's sidebar as a tag. You can give a note an unlimited number of tags, which is great when you want to a note to appear in multiple places at once.
Even better, you can nest tags using a forward slash. This creates a more traditional looking folder structure. For example, you can do a tag like,
#book/interviews to create a book tag with three subdirectories -- research, notes and interviews.
Of course, many other notes apps use this system too, including Evernote and OneNote, so this isn't some crazy new feature. But this is Bear's only method for organisation, so it's good to learn how to use it and pick an organisation method that works for you.
Pretty much every notes, journal, to-do app and writing app has a tagging system now. With it, you're supposed to be able to easily organise everything so you can find it instantly, but tags are a bit of an ambiguous idea that are hard to really use well. I did it wrong for years, but I've finally come up with a system I like.
Bear's Note Linking Is A Feature I Never Realised I Wanted Until I Used It
Bear has a system built into it where you can link notes together. When you do this, you can navigate between notes really easily. For me, it's essentially a system where I can create my own little Wikipedia.
For example, if I have notes on a subject or a person, I can right-click a note to copy a link to it, then paste that in a new note to create a link. Now, I can simply click on the link in the new note to go back to the original at any point. You can do this for as many notes as you want, creating a massive web of linked notes. It's sort of like making a little interconnected website that only you can navigate.
I didn't really understand why I'd use this until I started playing around with it. Now that I have, I've found that I use it most for notes about certain contacts or names I might not remember at first, for various code snippets that rely on other scripts, or for slightly complex sets of notes like travel documents where I don't want everything dumped into a single note. There are likely a lot more ways to use this I haven't thought of yet.
The one problem with this is that Bear lacks a back button, so getting back to your original note take more clicks than it feels like it should, but you get used to it after a little while.
Bear Has a Few Clever Formatting Tricks
Since Bear works on a slightly different version of Markdown, it has all those formatting tricks built into it, including the ability to make lists with check boxes and add in quotes, and it supports a variety of heading sizes. Bear has a few of its own little special tricks too.
My favourite of those little tricks is support for code snippets. So if you're a coder, you can drop in a code snippet and it's formatted properly with optional syntax highlighting. Just right-click, then select Paste From > Code. This is super useful for people like me who spend most of their time breaking code and then testing out dozens of idiot solutions.
Bear can also recognise certain types of data and format them automatically. It recognises addresses and turns them into links, it recognises links and email addresses and makes them clickable, and has inline support for images.
There's a Web Clipper, If That's Your Thing
If you use the web clipper to save articles or portions of web pages in OneNote or Evernote, you'll be happy to know that Bear has that capability as well. Just download the browser extension for your web browser and you're all set.
This works pretty much as you'd expect. Click the Bear extension to import an entire page into a new note, or highlight a block of text, then click the Bear extension to import a specific selection. It's nowhere near as robust as Evernote's web clipper, but it does the job.
Bear Just Looks Really Good
Look, I know this doesn't matter from a usability point of view, but Bear looks really nice. It's simple, has a few colour theme options to choose from, and just generally goes for a minimal approach.
I've always hated Evernote's awful green and OneNote's garish purple, and while some oddball colour choices certainly aren't enough to keep me away from a good app, it's nice that Bear bucks this trend and looks good. Obviously, this doesn't matter to everyone, nor should it, but it's still nice.
What Bear Still Needs
Bear isn't perfect, and it's missing some features people find essential. The most glaring problem is that it's Apple-only. A web app is supposedly in the works, but until then Bear's usefulness will be cut short.
Bear also doesn't have collaboration or publishing features, which could be a turn off for some. I personally never use either of those features in other notes apps so it doesn't bother me, but it certainly prevents Bear from being an option in the workplace for a lot of people. It's also lacking password protection. Again, this is a feature I'd never use, but it's something to consider if you lock your notes away behind a password.
Bear is also missing the more techy features of Evernote and OneNote like document scanning, voice recording, reminders and dictation, though based on the general functionality of Bear, I'd argue that most of those don't really belong here.
If you're even remotely interested in Bear at this point, I recommend just giving it a spin. Bear supports a ton of import options, including Apple Notes, DayOne, Evernote, Ulysses and Vesper, so it's easy to take it for a test drive without starting over from scratch. If you end up wanting to leave Bear at any point, they make it easy. You can export your notes to just about every format you could possibly need, included TXT, RTF, HTML and DOCX amongst others. It's a strong alternative when you can't bear the bloat of other apps.