A plethora of note-taking apps

Despite my love of writing things down in lovely notebooks, I’m also a fan of electronic notes.

This is due to a combination of fear that I’ll lose important things written on paper and a (perceived) need to have access to anything I’ve ever written at any time or in any location.

Judge me. But keeping my paper notes scanned and backed up has saved my bacon on more than one occasion!

An Evernote aficionado

Evernote-LogoSo over the years, I’ve become quite dependent on Evernote. It’s an all round winner on the notes app front for me. Easy to use, multi-platform, scans docs brilliantly and, at least on iOS, is snappy and responsive.

I can draw notes and diagrams right onto my iPad screen with the Apple Pencil and I can record audio notes with it. I can scan from my desktop scanner (the amazing Scansnap) straight into Evernote and then use its Optical Character Recognition to later find the documents.

Recent developments have seen Evernote (the business) come into criticism from users for the apparent lack of development on Evernote (the app), as well as glaring inconsistencies between the app versions for different platforms. Their pricing structure has also come in for a bit of a hammering, too.

While the vast majority of my work-related notes still go into Evernote, I’ve been experimenting with using both Apple Notes and Bear Notes as alternatives.

Apple notes

notes-icon-ios-610x605Apple Notes is great for quick checklists for shopping and for sharing notes with @TheFrankFlyer, who doesn’t use Evernote or anything similar. The recent updates to the app make it a lot more useful than previous versions and the formatting capability means notes can actually look nice – which I feel is important.

You can also now gather notes into folders – though you can’t ‘tag’ notes with keyboards – and password-protect sensitive or private information. Just like Evernote, it syncs across all my devices pretty instantly. But when all is said and done, it’s still a very basic app.

So after tinkering with it for a few months, I’ve relegated it to the equivalent of a post-it note – a place where I have information I need to quickly access (e.g. a quick shopping list, directions to a new client’s office), don’t want to lose, but don’t necessarily need to keep forever.

Apple Notes definitely isn’t my note-taking app of choice. It’s quick and easy, but doesn’t have all the functionality I’d like. I’m still interested to see how it matures in future version of iOS, though.

Right now, I’m not even sure it’ll keep its place on the front screen of my iPhone…

Bear notes

1*U_XLzvOGrSUliPQJK44MvgBear notes won a design award from Apple in 2017 and I can definitely see why. It’s a beautiful note-taking app, but one that takes a different view of things. For a start, you use hashtags to organise notes, not folders. But you can have as many as you like, and you can also ‘nest’ them, one in another. This basically duplicates the functionality of folders or notebooks.

Secondly, you write in markdown. You can then export this in a variety of formats with the touch of a button, but if you’re not used to it, markdown can take a while to get used to. Personally, I love writing in markdown, especially when blogging. It’s a super-easy way of formatting and adding links and, in my opinion, far easier than HTML.

There is both a free version of Bear and a premium version, based on an annual licence. Personally, I’m a fan of the latter as it raises the chances that your developers will be able to continue work on their product. At $14.99 a year, it’s not going to break the bank. But if you baulk at paying this, you can either use the free version (missing some of the functionality, obviously) or just use the free app that came with your phone.

It’s hard to put into words (which is a shame, as this is a blog), but Bear is an absolute delight to use. It makes Apple Notes seem anaemic by comparison and highlights how Evernote has become a little bloated over time.

So. I’m a fan.

So what do I use now?

I actually use a combination of Evernote and Bear. Reference material, important checklists, scanned notes and PDFs…these live in Evernote, as before. Its search functionality is second to none, as is it character recognition, where I can search for things I’ve written by hand and scanned in.

I use Bear as a writing app, not a note-taking app. So all my blog posts (I write posts for a number of blogs now – I know it’s hard to believe – both personal and professional) and longer documents begin their life in Bear.

It’s the perfect (for me) writing environment – simple and responsive, plus it syncs seamlessly across all my devices. So I can start on my iMac in the study at home, continue on my iPhone as I stand on the DLR on my way into my office, and pick up again on my iPad over a coffee in Starbucks.

I can easily export something I’ve written in Bear into Microsoft .doc format for a colleague to critique and edit, or into PDF for easy sharing, or simply copy and paste into WordPress for online publication.

Each note also has a unique link, which I can copy and paste into other apps. For example, I have a marketing plan for my business, which I maintain in Trello. Each planned blog post goes in the plan as a Trello card, each with a link to the work-in-progress writing in Bear. Click the link in Trello and it takes you straight to the right note in Bear. Genius!

The biggest win here? The number of times I open the dreaded MS Word on any device has dropped significantly. And that can only be a good thing.

As an attractive and distraction-free writing tool, they don’t come much better. I’m more than happy to pay for the Pro version of this app and look forward to how it will develop in 2018.

Have you a preferred notes app? Or are you more of a paper person? Let me know and we can debate their merits in the comments 😜

  1. Ah note-taking: my favourite! I had (past tense) an Evernote account since 2008, and all of my non-work life was there. Ease of entry plus OCR of scanned documents were the killer features for me.
    However as other apps such as plain-old Apple Notes, plus iCloud Drive have improved over the years, Evernote seems to have stood still.
    I looked at Bear first in 2007, then looked again more seriously earlier this summer. The look and feel were spot on, but thr sheer inertia from leaving an all-in system like Evernote seemed too much.

    At the start of 2017 I began seriously using Apple Notes, and if Apple hadn’t broken Apple Notes with iOS 11 I would still be using it. However it has gargantuan performance issues (I think tables are the problem) and after putting up with 60-second timeouts once too often, I moved back to Evernote snarling “never again.”

    Next time Bear came up was in Ottolenghi in Spitalfields; you mentioned Bear was becoming your favourite note-taker. I know we have very similar approaches and thoughts on note-taking, and that did bring Bear back on my radar again. The beautiful “Filofax cotton cream” look, the simplicity of markdown, the *crucial* strength of Bear being a note-taking *throughput* device, not just input, the speed of searching… Too good not to look at again. I found a reasonably automated way of migrating my entire Evernote database over Christmas, and I’ve never looked back – it’s Bear for me from now on.

    I have looked at DEVONthink in the past, as I do have a reasonably-large note and file database (couple of gigs, around 9000 notes) however Bear + iCloud with SpotLight work perfectly, and the point is I *enjoy* using them.

    Now, at work, I have over 10 years of notes in Microsoft OneNote, and I would not be able to do my job without that app or its *amazing* search, nor its all-powerful, uber-flexible notebook / section group / section / page / sub-page / sub-sub-page organisation. Yet, try though I have, something about OneNote makes me *not* want to use it at home. It has amazing search and in-document OCR, yet I’m in no way inclined to switch to the Mac version.

    Of course, in all of these systems, I miss the beauty of a hand-written notebook, the extreme personalisation it offers, cotton-cream pages with pastel dividers. Yet the functionality of digital trumps paper, sadly. I do look longingly at Filofax.co.uk everyone now and again – I wonder will paper and digital?

    THanks for a great post idea!

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    1. Yay! Another Bear convert. And such an eloquent description of why. Seriously – your comment could replace my post! Glad you’re enjoying Bear. I think it’s a joy to use.

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  2. […] a bloated piece of crap. For getting words out of my head these days, everything goes into Bear Notes. Once I’ve edited, it will be exported as a PDF for sharing with someone for comments, or […]

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