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App Review: Bear

Overview

I am always looking for software that will help me be productive and refine my creative workflows.

I live a highly mobile life and am constantly on the go. In that context I prioritize applications that allow me a highly flexible creation surface.

I demo many apps that focus on manipulating text for content creation, but very few of those actually make the cut and end up being part of my daily workflow.

The biggest point of failure is consistently convenience. Or a lack thereof. An app can have many great features, but if the app is unwieldy or difficult to use then the feature set is of no value.

Give me something simple that works and works fast and integrates into my workflow. Complexity has little value in and of itself.

Bear is a content creation app that works on MacOS, iPad, and iPhone and that allows you to create, modify, organize, and export text documents. It is a highly mobile app, flexible, and usable in a wide variety of situations.

Versions and Pricing

In the end, a good app is all about the cost versus value equation so let’s start with the different versions and the price.

Like many apps Bear has both a free and paid version. The paid version is referred to by the developer as Bear Pro. This is the version that will be reviewed in this article.

The free version, while useful in its own right, simply does not contain the features that make the application useful on a professional level. Besides which, since the free version is, well, free, there isn’t much need for a review since you can simply try it out and see if it works for you. The free version of Bear certainly gives you a sense of the interface and the content creation environment, but the pro version contains the additional functionality that makes it such a great app.

I first tried the free version but choose to upgrade rather quickly, due to how impressively the app performed, The pro version upgrade was a reasonable cost. Bear Pro uses a subscription model for its version pricing. I’m now in year two of my Bear Pro usage. The yearly cost at the moment is $14.99 USD. As usual, I received a notice from the App Store about two weeks before my subscription renewed which gave me plenty of time to cancel if I wanted to.

Pro Features

Bear Pro provides access to the following features, all of which I consider essential in any sort of of content creation app that I will utilize for many hours in a variety of different environments:

  • A large number of excellent themes for the user interface. Both dark and light and low and high contrast themes are well represented. Theme quality is sometimes overlooked in application reviews, but in any sort of app where you are going to spend a large number of hours staring at the screen, a good selection of well-done themes is very important. There are plenty of much more expensive programs I have used have not only fewer themes than Bear but also of inferior quality.
  • The ability to export notes in wide variety different formats. As a content creator my text could be destined for many different mediums. The source text remains the same, but I may want the content in a PDF format for one use, plain text for another, HTML for a third, and Markdown for a fourth. Bear Pro accomplishes this quickly and easily.
  • The ability to share notes between devices. At this point with the almost complete priority of the mobile experience across all aspects of technology, any app that doesn’t let you move seamlessly between your desktop and your iPad and your iPhone is not very useful. Bear Pro is right at the top of the game with this, allowing content to be created in any mobile or desktop content and picked up on another device.

Interfaces

The interface design works well. The exact layout varies slightly whether you are using the desktop version or the iPhone version or the iPad version.

Desktop

On the desktop version the app functions in a three pane layout. that can be switched to either a two pane or single pane layout depending on whether you are working on content management or organization.

In the three pane mode the left pane is a list of all your notes and tags in a directory-type structure. The middle pane is a list of all your recent notes. The third pane is the editing window itself. In two pane mode the directory pane is removed and you just have a list of recent notes and the editing pane. In single pane mode the only pane open is the editing pane which allows for a more focused writing environment

iPad

I find the iPad version of Bear to be the most generally useful. Bear is a mobile app first and foremost and works best in that environment. My iPad Pro is large enough to take advantage of all the various features that Bear offers and allows for a reasonably rich AND mobile content creation experience.

On the iPad version there is a quick access formatting bar above the onscreen keyboard that allows easy access to formatting commands.

iPhone

The iPhone version of Bear is very similar to the iPad. The difference obviously is simply the smaller size of the screen. Bear handles content creation on an iPhone very effectively, but the experience is still somewhat hampered by the size of the screen and keyboard. This is not an issue specific to Bear and Bear handles it better than any app I’ve used. I do most of my writing in Bear on my iPhone, in fact.

Process Overview

The basic process for creating and editing documents is the same across the different devices and pretty much identical to most other writing apps. You create a new note or open an existing one for editing. There is an editor window which contains shortcut buttons for various formatting items such as headings and list and code blocks. You can push on the buttons to format the text. Keyboard shortcuts are supported. You can export the document as use it in other apps. The editor will flag incorrectly spelled words and initial double-caps. It will also auto-correct as well as offer predicative text options in the interface.

Features and functionality

Content Creation

Bear uses a simplified version of Markdown for it’s visual and semantic formatting. If you already know Markdown then there is basically o learning curve. If you’ve never used a version of Markdown before then you would need to spend a little bit of time getting up to speed with the syntax, but Markdown is very easier to learn and Bear’s simplified variant is even easier.

Web clipping

Like Evernote Bear Pro allows you to clip web pages and add them directly to your notes. This feature seems to work best in the iPhone and iPad versions most likely due to the tighter integration between browser and applications. I’ve had a couple situations where the clipper failed to send the web page into the app, but once I went into the app and accessed the previous note the clipping feature worked fine.

Organization

Bear uses a system of tagging to organize its notes rather than a more traditional folder structure. You apply a tag to your which is basically just a word or series of words preceded by a hashtag. Bear then groups all similarly tagged items together. I find this is generally easier to use than putting files into a directory structure since the location of the file is controlled from within the note itself. If you want to move a note from one category to another all you have to do is simply change the tag. Likewise, you can put the same note into multiple categories by adding additional tags to the note.

Content sharing

Because Bear is a unified app, you can stop and start your content creation on any of your apple devices. All content is saved to your iCloud account and can be worked on anywhere at anytime as long as whatever device you are using has internet access.

Exporting Notes

Exporting is for me one of the most important features in a content creation application. I often have need of the same text content in a variety of different formats for various usages. Bear allows you to export on wide variety of useful formats: html, pdf, rtf, docx, and even jpg.

Code blocks

This feature is a a big one for me since I do a lot of code wiring in everything from SQL to Python to PHP. Bear has support for both fenced code blocks as well as inline code snippets. This is a really great feature that is less common that one would think and makes the app immediately more appealing to anyone who spends a lot of time working with code.

Where the app seems to position itself

There are a lot of writing-note-taking-coding apps available for Apple devices. Many do the exact same thing. I already own or have owned at various time quite a few: Ulysses, Evernote, IA Writer, OneNote, Notable etc and so forth.

So where does Bear fit in to this particular application landscape?

For me, Bear is more generally useful than Ulysses which seems more suited toward writing large documents such as books or lengthy articles or papers. Bear is more functional than Evernote with better formatting and its use of markdown and availability of features such as code blocks and code coloring which Evernote lacks. Bear is less finicky and complex than a code editor like Textastic. It's ability to be used on iPhones, iPads, and Macs makes is it more useful, in this context, than say Atom or Visual Studio Code or others which can only run on an actual computer.

Who will like this app

Anybody who has to generate a large amount of text content on a regular basis knows what a time investment such content generation can require. Bear really helps in the process due to its flexibility and ease of use and great feature set. I think this app will be most useful to people like me, who spend a lot of time writing a variety of different types of documents most of which could go to a variety of different places. Everything from a WordPress blog post to an eBook to a PDF to be sent over email to an actual webpage.

Where this app is probably not useful

Bear is best considered a digital content creation app. And in that area it shines.

If you have to create lengthy documents for print this is not the app I would use. Yes, you can export to a PDF but creating any sort of reasonably complex layout is going to require something like Word or InDesign.

Also, the lack of any Android or Windows versions limits Bear’s functionality to users of the Apple ecosystem.

What could be improved

A few things that I can already see could be added would be the ability to select a previously type word and then convert the formatting on the using the keyboard rather than than the onscreen formatting buttons.

The desktop version of the app is a little wonky at times compared to the iPad and iPhone versions.

Wrapping up

Let’s face it: note-taking apps are some of the most common application types available both online and in the various app stores, and they all basically do the same thing. To some degree, an app choice in this area is more a combination of personal preference and what OS you tend to work on.

That being said, I find Bear to be a really great app that does everything I need in a highly mobile world of content creation. Since Mac OS and Apple are my work environments of choice, this is a perfect app for me.

And, given that context, I really can’t say anything bad about Bear.

I just highly recommend it for anyone who needs an content creation app that works across devices and is an Apple user.