I wrote a little about this in iOS 11 Features for Product Managers, but the battle of Apple-centric note-taking apps deserves its own post. In one corner, we have the reigning champ that comes pre-installed on all of your iDevices and MacBooks— Apple’s Notes app (aka “Apple Notes”). In the other corner, the underdog from Italy — Bear Notes by Shiny Frog.
I’m currently a Bear fan, but Apple Notes gets better with every iOS and MacOS release. And while the two apps are similar, they differ in major ways that will probably influence your decision if you’re considering a new place to capture your thoughts.
At the top level, Apple Notes and Bear Notes have a similar three-pane view that’s simple to understand and organize:
Both offer standard formatting options including checkboxes and lists, ordered and unordered, though formatting happens in slightly different way. More on that below. Additionally, both allow you to get your sketch on.
When it comes to keeping all of your devices synced, both apps use iCloud, so there isn’t much of difference in that department…
…however, you’ll have to pay if you want to sync Bear Notes. It’s super cheap ($1.49/month), but it ain’t free.
And regarding that organization structure, Apple Notes uses old-school folders, while Bear is more contemporary with its tags/labels. In theory, I prefer tags, since a note can live in multiple categories. Also, Bear has nested tags, and that’s dope. That said, I’ve found that much like with my inbox, I’m not really using an organizational structure in Bear these days. I’ve been opting for ease of input and trusting that I’ll be able to search for what I want when it’s time.
About search — Apple’s is pretty basic. Just type the terms you’re looking for. That’s it. Once again, Bear is more sophisticated; it has advanced search operators. You can exclude search terms, look for notes that are tagged, notes with code, notes with incomplete tasks, notes with images, etc.
However, if all of your search action is from Apple’s Spotlight, then Apple Notes could be better for your workflow, because Bear doesn’t support Spotlight (yet).
Bear is waaay more flexible in its import and export options. For bringing your data in, it supports plain text, RTF, Markdown, files and formats from Evernote, Day One, Vesper, and TaskPaper. On the export side, there’s plain text, RTF, Markdown, HTML, Microsoft Word, PDF, and even JPEG.
Apple Notes, on the other hand, supports importing from plain text and Evernote. For exporting, you can push to whatever format you want…as long as that format is PDF.
Back to text formatting — Bear supports Markdown, so you can format as you type. If you plan to shoot notes into other applications that support Markdown, you’re good. One Apple advantage is that Notes allows for different font colors, and Bear doesn’t. That said, Bear’s final blow is its color themes. Did you notice my screenshots and how Bear looks more colorful and fun than the bland, legal pad style that Notes rocks? There are ten themes to choose from, and all of them look pretty good.
With all of that said, I have to admit (again) that Apple has been tempting me with its password protection, and as of iOS 11, its table format.
Even so, I’m not switching yet. It’s probably obvious to you, but I love me some Bear. I hope that Apple continues to iterate on Notes and eventually catches up. However, given Apple’s software update cycles, I doubt that Notes will ever truly catch up. So I’m really hoping that Shiny Frog adds password protection, tables, and Spotlight search to Bear Notes. According to their support forum, it’s all on the way — eventually.