Visually, this app is hard to beat because it's beautiful to look at. It's a relatively new entry to the world of macOS and iOS note-taking but it's already highly-rated. It uses a tag-based organisation system that works much better than you might originally think.
Bear Writer is a relatively new application by a company called Shiny Frog, which, as far as I can tell, consists of three software developers from Italy. They have a couple of other apps besides Bear Writer (which from now on I’ll simple call Bear) but I’d never heard of any of them.
I came across Bear as a result of reviewing my GTD (Getting Things Done) processes where I set about trying to improve them.
Shiny Frog describe Bear as:
a beautiful, flexible writing app for crafting notes and prose
And, for anyone in a TL;DR mindset (shame on you) who doesn’t want to read any further, this seems like a reasonable assessment based on my experience of the application.
The application is free to download for both MacOS and OSX but if you want the full metal jacket — which includes things like synchronisation, themes and exporting — you need to buy a subscription to the application. This, I know, rankles with many people. There exists a large body of people who only want to pay once for an application (or preferably not at all) and then expect lifetime upgrades for free. I really don’t know what such people expect software developers to live on. Just air, presumably.
Personally, if I’m going to commit to some software, I want to know the developers will be around to support and improve it in future years. Nevertheless, I suspect the subscription model will halve the potential customers for Bear, such is the way a lot of people think these days. It is hardly a bank-breaking fee in Bear’s case; we are talking about $14.99 a year, which is roughly £11.50 in real money, and that covers use of the application on all your platforms. That’s less than the cost of three pints in my overpriced local.
The Main Screen
By default, the main screen presents three panels. In the left panel there’s a list of tags that acts as a sort of pseudo directory, which I’ll explain more about in a moment. In the middle there’s a list of notes, organised either by creation date, modification date or title depending on what you select in the preferences. And the right panel is essentially where you type.
You can adjust which panels you see via the ‘View’ menu, losing first the tags panel and then the notes panel so that you’re left with just the writing panel.
Bear doesn’t have things like folders or directories such as you’d see in a lot of writing apps (Scrivener or Ulysses, for example). Instead they simply use tags and you can apply a tag to a post by typing “#tag-name” — Twitter-style — anywhere in the post.
Tags can have sub-tags too, so for example “#blog/gordy” would create a ‘gordy’ sub-tag inside the ‘blog’ parent tag. The tags show up in the left menu and, with the use of sub-tags, it emulates a sort of directory/folder/category (whatever you want to call it) structure. That’s way I see it, anyway, but I’m just a rampant anarchist like that.
Once you get used to it, it’s pretty good. The only paradigm shift you have to make is that a post can have many tags and can thus appear many times in your pseudo folder/directory listing in the left panel.
One bit of advice I will pass on is that I recommend you think about the tagging system you’re going to use at the outset. Tags can easily be renamed and deleted in Bear but it could be messy to rearrange a poorly thought out tagging system somewhere down the line when you have a lot of notes.
The editor is Markdown-based but Bear applies a little formatting to your Markdown as you type to make everything look a bit prettier. By default the editor actually uses a superset of Markdown that the developers call Polar Bear Markup Language, but you can change it to pure Markdown via the preferences if you wish.
Some people like Markdown and some don’t. It is a very popular format these days and I think the balance Bear has — Markdown with as-you-type prettifying — works well.
Suffice it say that you can import for various formats and export to various formats (text, Markdown, RTF and, with a subscription, PDF, HTML, Docx, TaskPaper and others). You can also synchronise between platforms, add freehand sketches to your notes (in IOS only) and perform a wide variety of searches.
Bear has many of the things you’d expect with writing apps: word counts, targets, themes and of course there are versions for both MacOS and OSX.
There are a couple of features that go beyond a lot of other writing apps too. There’s cross-note linking and a handy tick-box feature, which allows you to create simple to-do checklists.
It also supports the X callback url Scheme, which allows other applications to call into Bear and perform many tasks automatically. Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about this, just take it from me it’s a good thing.
One criticism I have is that Bear stores all its data in an SQLite database and I’d prefer to work with flat files. I can see how it might be tricky to use flat files with the features Bear offers, but I’d nevertheless prefer to work directly with the file system. Bear’s notes are however stored as plain text within the database and exporting is easy, so you’re not too entangled with the SQLite database Bear uses.
It would be nice if Bear could at least open file system documents, allow you to edit them and then save them back to disk, albeit without saving any metadata such as tags.
My final criticism is that whilst tags certainly can be seen as folders, particularly with the multi-level tagging Bear provides, I’d really like both tags and folders. It would just fit the way I work a bit better and would allow Bear to expand from merely being a note-taking app to being a more extensive, full-blown writing app.
Despite the criticisms mentioned above, it is an application I quickly gelled with. I have written this review in Bear, as it happens, and it was a pleasing process in general. Bear is certainly gorgeous to look at.
I really liked Bear but it just wasn’t quite everything I was looking for. At least not yet. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on it to see how it develops in future upgrades.