Bear Is My App of the Year
Product: Bear - beautiful writing app for notes and prose on the Mac App Store
Price: Free with in-app purchases ($1.49/month or $14.99/year)
Bear is a note-taking app for macOS and iOS. It just got an App of the Year Award from Apple and is being featured in the App Store. There is a buzz around this product and I thought that I needed to get on the record with my take on it.
Proprietary Database or the Absence of Text Files
I struggled with this one. I stay away from applications which use a proprietary database to keep its files together. Bear maintain its data in a sql file and that alone disqualifies it for my use. I like text files. Text files give me the ability to use whatever program I want to edit and work on my files. They also ensure that I am not tied to any one program for my work. Bear uses a database file to make it possible to use inline images. This is a feature I don't care about. So, Bear is not a program which I should be excited about at all.
So why am I writing an article on it? Why am I using it? It is the feature list which got my attention. The proprietary database is painful for me, but the program makes up for it in various ways.
Bear has a robust export system. It gives you the ability to export your file with a plethora of options. You are given the ability to export as txt, Markdown, Text Bundle, Bear Note, RTF, PDF, html, DocX, and jpg. So you are not stifled by Bear in any way when it comes to file formats. Before moving away from this point, I would like to praise the developers of Bear, Shiny Frog, for supporting the Text Bundle format. Text Bundle lets you transport a Markdown text file along with its linked media files as one file. I wish more programs supported this innovative format introduced by Brett Terpstra and the Ulysses folks.
The proprietary database to keep its files is mitigated by the plethora of export options and the other features that Bear brings to the note-taking genre.
Bear has its own markup system if you don't like Markdown. Truth be told, it is very similar to Markdown. I am not interested in learning another markup language, so I am going to stick to Markdown. Bear implements the CommonMark specification. I like the opportunity to assign a keyboard command to make a new note.
The program ships with a few themes which are available to subscribers. I am happy to see my favorite theme Solarized included. The screenshots you are seeing are with Solarized Light as the active theme. An area of improvement would be for the developers to give subscribers the ability to design their own themes.
I love the control Bear provides to ensure that you get the look you want. This is important if you want the user to be using the product for hours on end. Of course, an area of improvement would be to give the user the ability to use their own font. The inbuilt choices are nice but I prefer Operator Mono and miss it when I am in Bear.
Features Which Make Bear Useful
Bear is feature rich for a version 1.0 release. It seems that someone looked at the feature requests of note-taking software, made a list of them, and then included them all in Bear. I am going to talk about some of the features I find useful.
Highlighting Support for Code: Bear provides highlighting support for over 20 programming languages. So your code snippets are syntax highlighted.
Note Linking: You can link notes to other notes. In the note list column, ⌃Click on the note and select Copy Link to Note. Paste in the path to the body of the note you are linking from and you are set. You can also create a note link by just typing in the note title enclosed by four square brackets. This is a feature much requested by people who are serious about their note-taking. I am glad to see it implemented in Bear. This can be used to make a wiki-style knowledge management system in Bear.
￼Todos: You can add to-do items to individual notes to keep yourself on track. For instance, in this review I want to talk about Bear's subscription service, and advanced search abilities, later on in this review. To remind me of that I am going to place a couple of to-do items at the start of the article.
Tags: The search function and the organization function is built around tags. You use hashtags to denote tags and they can be nested. For instance, I have a hierarchy of tags to manage my blog articles:
Ideas I have about articles I am going to write are tagged with
#blog/idea. Articles I am working on actively are tagged with
#blog/wip. Once they are finished, their tag is changed to
#blog/ready. Finally, when the article gets posted, the tag is changed to
#blog/posted . The ability to use tags and the introduction of nested tags makes the idea of folders unnecessary to the management of documents in Bear. This is a good implementation of a tagging system and it helps me manage my files and workload.
Full Screen: I like working in full screen mode in Bear. The experience could be improved by incorporating typewriter scrolling. I am not fond of looking at the bottom of the screen when I write. The ability to focus on a paragraph or a sentence would make the environment for writing better.
Syncing: Bear provides its multi-device sync through iCloud. In my use so far, this has been instant and reliable and I am happy with it.
Browser Extensions: Bear provides extensions for Safari and Chrome browsers here. Makes the task of adding content you need from the web easy and simple. The extensions give you the choice of keeping a markdown formatted view of the whole page, or just the selected text, or just the title and the URL. This was designed by someone who takes notes themselves.
Copy portions of notes as HTML, RTF, TXT or Markdown: You can highlight a portion of your document and ⌃Click to the contextual menu. The Copy As menu option gives you the ability to copy the selected text as Plain Text, Markdown, Rich Text or HTML. Useful to share small segments of a larger document.
Attachments: Bear notes can take attachments. Coming from the world of text editors I am not used to this feature, but I am growing to like it. In fact, if you are doing research on a topic and want to keep several files which are relevant to your topic together, this is a great way of doing it. You can add a file by dragging and dropping it into the editor or by selecting Format>Insert File (⇧⌘V). The only caveat is that attachments bigger than 250mb will not be synced between devices.
Preview using Marked: Bear is attempting to be a good software citizen by building in support for other software like Marked. I like this feature. Unfortunately Bear doesn't assign a keyboard command to this function.
I made a KeyboardMaestro macro to make it easier to use.
Note: The default keyboard commands to toggle the view of Tags, Notes and Editor conflicted with my assignment of keyboard commands to switch between spaces, so I changed the keyboard commands for Bear and that is what you are seeing different from your install.
Backup and Restore: For a program which uses a proprietary database, it is imperative that it provides a backup system. This is a feature which made it possible for me to trust it enough to move my work to it. Bear can backup all your notes to a single .bearbk file. The .bearbk file is just a zip file. It contains all your files in .textbundle format. This is a feature which provides me with peace of mind and lets me use Bear without worrying about the safety of my files.
x-callback-url protocol: Bear implements the x-callback-url protocol. For those of you who are particularly geeky, you can go to the X callback url Scheme documentation - Bear - Faq and support, and geek out.
Advanced Search: Another feature which is crucial to a note app is the availability of search. Thanks to its sql base, Bear does a good job of implementing search. If you want to search an exact words sequence you can enclose your sentence within two quote characters ". For instance, "Advanced Search."
Bear also comes with some special search tokens you can use to filter your notes:
- @tagged : shows the notes which have at least one tag
- @untagged: shows the notes without tags
- @images: shows the notes which contain images
- @files: shows the notes which contain files
- @attachments: shows the notes with files or images
- @task: shows the notes which include at least one todo element, either complete or not
- @todo: shows only the notes with not completed todos
- @done: shows only the notes with all the todos completed
- @code: shows the notes which includes at least one code snippet
The special tokens can be combined with any search term for more specific result: @images @todo “bear faq” will search for all the notes that have images, uncompleted todos and the text bear faq inside.
Keyboard Commands: Bear supports a full range of keyboard shortcuts to make it easy to work without taking your hands off the keyboard. You can find a list of them for the Mac here, and the iOS ones here .
Some Visual Aids: Bear has a couple of useful pop-up panes available in the editor window. One of them is the Information pane. It gives you a word, character and paragraph count of the note you are working on. The second one is a style bar which has the usual markdown elements and the keyboard commands associated with them. Makes it easy for you to learn the commands as you familiarize yourself with the program.
Pricing of Bear
Bear introduces an innovation in the field of note-taking software with its pricing scheme. You can use the program for free. The free version is not hobbled in anyway. It is very usable without paying for it. Paying for it gives you a few things:
- Sync between all your devices. If you intend to use the program across your devices, this is an essential feature. The sync works. Reliably, and instantly.
- Application themes.
- More exporting options.
It also means that the developers get to eat, live and work on making the program better. It is a subscription model. A monthly fee of $1.49 or a yearly fee of $14.99.
I don't like subscription models. I prefer the old system of pay a price, then pay a smaller price for major upgrades. But we live in a world dominated by the App Store and the App Store mechanics make it impossible to change an upgrade price, so I am happy to go along with this new scheme. Fifteen bucks a year for a program which has the potential of becoming central to my workflow seems fair.
Some Random Thoughts
I have been describing Bear as note-taking software. It can be much more.
- You can write anything you want in it. Blog posts like this one? Sure.
- You can create a wiki-style personal knowledge base in it.
- It can be the depository of all your writing. Reports, projects, novels, books, all of it. The tagging system and the robust export options will make it possible for you to write, manage, and export anything you want.
- I should be able to move lines around by using the standard macOS keyboard commands ⌃+⌘+↑ and ⌃+⌘+↓.
- Typewriter mode. Focus mode with a choice of focusing on paragraph or sentence.
- Ability to choose documents I want to sync and those I don't. Selective syncing will make it possible for me to have very large documents on the Mac and not worry about syncing those with the iOS devices.
- Let me use my own fonts.
- Let me design my own themes.
- Support table creation.
- I want to be able to use other writing software for specific tasks. I want to open the document I am working on in Bear in Typora. Create a few tables using the fantastic table editor in Typora and bring back the document to Bear. I want to open the same document in iA Writer and do a grammar check and final edit and bring it back to Bear. I can do that now, but it takes a few too many steps. I want it built-into Bear.
At this point, Bear is the best note-taking program in the marketplace. It is well-designed, feature-rich software which is a pleasure to use. I recommend it heartily for anyone interested in finding a home for their notes.
macosxguru at the gmail thingie