If you’re into note-taking and writing, then you are in a great space between what is available between the Mac, iPad, and iPhone. There are so many choices, and almost all of them are good. This wealth of choice allows us to divide the categories of apps that we use and make finer-grained distinctions about which app is best for each use case.
We are asked pretty often which app is best for writing, which app is best for note-taking, and which app is best for research. Some people are able to use the same app for all of the above, while others use a combination of these apps to get their work done:
- Shawn Blanc uses Ulysses for research, for saving ideas, quotes, and other miscellany, for writing, and for publishing.
- Chris Bowler uses Ulysses for long-term research, Bible study notes, and for writing.
- Josh Ginter uses Ulysses strictly for writing and for publishing, while long-term research is handled in Bear, and journaling is handled in Day One.
There’s no right or wrong way to use any of the apps listed above, but the most common apps we use are Ulysses, Bear, and Apple Notes. Today we’re going to take a look at how each of these apps differ, how they’re alike, and see where each shine.
Overview Comparison of Ulysses, Bear, and Apple Notes
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Now, let’s dive into the specifics of each app’s strengths and weaknesses…
Ulysses is our writing tool of choice. We love it so much we have a whole course devoted to getting the most out of Ulysses. When it comes to organizing your writing projects, Ulysses is the best.
My Writing Workflow
I use Ulysses along with my three-bucket writing system. My daily workflow is pretty simple:
- Take one idea and move it to an outlined piece.
- Take one outlined piece and write it out, moving it into the written bucket.
- Take one written piece and edit the piece so it’s ready to publish.
This is very similar to the writing system Jeff Goins recommends, and it’s all easily doable in Ulysses because of the great keyword support along with groups and smart smart to help organize the buckets any way you see fit.
Keywords and Groups in Ulysses
Ulysses makes great use of keywords, with its keyword manager and color-coding. However, it doesn’t allow you to do much in the way of nesting keywords like Bear does. This becomes most problematic for me when I’m searching for a document. I may know that it’s an idea for The Sweet Setup, but since the keyword is idea, it shows up with all my other ideas for my own writing.
To get around this, I end up with two separate folders: one for my site and one for clients. Inside each folder I have ideas, which I have to further divide by clients that might match up to the idea I want to pitch.
You can quickly see I have to go through a lot of extra work to nest the “idea” keyword into different groups.
Bear tackles this in a much cleaner fashion with nested tags
#TSS/idea#. This method lets me search only for ideas that are inside the TSS tag.
Ulysses utilizes keywords and groups that are ideal for writing and moving sheets from one bucket to the next. However, for deeper levels of organization and research, I prefer Bear.
Using Ulysses for Publishing, Automation, and Export
Ulysses truly shines in its publishing and automation options, offering publishing options like WordPress and Medium, but you can also combine it with Shortcuts to publish Markdown directly out of Ulysses to a Jekyll-based blog just like our very own Josh Ginter does.
You can also exportr your words in PDF, RTF, DOCX, Plain Text, ePub, and a number of other text formats. The only option I’ve ever wanted in addition to what is provided is a native Kindle export when I publish books on Amazon.
Ulysses’ Writing Goals and Deadlines
For writers, Ulysses has great support for word goals and deadlines. I use them for every article I write so that I have a running indication of my word count.
Where Ulysses Falls Short
As mentioned above, other app options such as Bear or Keep It offer more than Ulysses in the pure research department.
Ulysses allows you to add images, PDFs, and other text notes, but there a lot of other information and media types that I use when I’m writing, which Ulysses doesn’t support. I loved this interview with Neil Gaiman and wanted a copy to keep long term for my reference, but I can’t store it in Ulysses even if it relates specifically to a current writing project. This same limitation extends to anything that’s not an image or PDF.
Probably the most frustrating things I experience with the items you can attach to a Ulysses document is when I add a text note. I almost always forget about text notes, and then they end up as the excerpt in my WordPress article when I publish a post. Not once have I wanted this, and I probably have to go back and clean it up every other week.
One of the final areas that Ulysses simply doesn’t cover is support for the Apple Pencil as an input device. I can’t fault them for not doing handwriting support, since they’d also need to translate that into characters for output to your site. I’m not sure I even want to fault the application for not allowing you to create a quick sketch without leaving Ulysses, but it’s always nice to do everything in a single app.
Side note regarding Ulysses: If you want to level up your usage of Ulysses — as well as get some best practices for how to organize your notes and your writing, then you would love in our in-depth training course, Learn Ulysses.
If I pick up where I left off with Ulysses, Bear is a great research tool. That same Neil Gaiman interview can be added to Bear and then I can tag it with multiple author names and even take notes below the file so that I have a quick summary of the audio without needing to listen to it.
Tags, Organization, and Media Types in Bear
I’ve already mentioned the nested tags that Bear lets you use, but I have to admit that I didn’t like how Bear deals with tags at all at first. Something about the method rubbed me the wrong way initially, but I’m totally converted. From nested tags, to being able to have multi-word tags by wrapping a tag in the
# symbol (like
#tss ideas#), Bear handles tags well.
Bear also handles pretty much any file type you want. From DOCX to PDF to video files, you can drop them all into Bear to save for later. Even cooler is the way that Bear lets you append or prepend text to a note. I’ll use this when I open Bear to listen or watch something that needs to be cataloged while I use Drafts in split view mode.
As I listen, I’ll use Drafts to take my notes and then share from Drafts to Bear and append the text to the note that has the audio or video file already attached. This simply can’t be done with Ulysses because it doesn’t allow the addition of audio or video files, nor does it allow you to easily append or prepend text to an existing note.
Compared to Ulysses, Bear takes a step forward in support for the Apple Pencil by allowing you to add sketches to your notes. This can be helpful if you want to copy out a quick diagram in a meeting or conference. Instead of a fuzzy picture, you can capture exactly what you want and then add any other notes around that sketch to enhance your understanding. This feature alone makes Bear stand above Ulysses if you’re looking to take notes during a presentation or workshop.
Writing, Exporting, and Publishing with Bear
While Bear sells itself primarily as a note-taking app, it’s also entirely possible to write with Bear like you would with Ulysses or any other text editor or Markdown app.
Bear currently uses its own version of Markdown to format text, but some of the keyboard shortcuts and syntax differ ever so slightly from original Markdown syntax. The same can be said about Ulysses, but we feel Ulysses does a better job of hiding syntax, bringing out only the thoughts and ideas in your written text. Bear does a good job of maintaining simplicity when writing, but we prefer how Ulysses handles the writing process.
While Bear has solid export features for your notes, it isn’t quite up to the level that Ulysses sets. Using Bear, you can export into many file types, like:
- and JPG
Unfortunately, unless you’re going to build your own integration with Shortcuts, you won’t be publishing directly out of Bear to WordPress or Medium.
Some Other Areas Where Bear Falls Short
Saved searches is another place that Bear could take a note from the Smart Groups that Ulysses offers. Where Ulysses allows you to have many different parameters factor into your search via a graphical interface, Bear provides you with a number of advanced search operators. You could accomplish many of the same searches in Bear that you can get in Ulysses, but none of them are going to be saved. Each time you want to find the same collection of documents, you’ll have to build the same complex search again.
The final area that Bear doesn’t stand up to some of the competition is the ability to OCR a PDF document. If that’s something you need, you should look at something like DevonThink or Evernote. Because Bear doesn’t support OCR for documents, you must ensure that anything you may search for about a document is written out in text inside the note.
For non-power users, Apple Notes is a great option. Despite me making suggestions to my wife about other note-taking apps, she is quite happy with Apple Notes, and I also love it for some purposes.
Shared Notes in Apple Notes
The biggest thing that I use Apple Notes for is dealing with shared notes. Neither Bear nor Ulysses support shared documents, so this makes Apple Notes an essential app, regardless of your other writing, researching, or note-taking workflows.
When my wife and I have a sick kid, we like to pass information back and forth. We have a shared note for each family member and when any medication is given or temperature taken, we add it to their note with the date and time on it.
This way it doesn’t matter which parent ends up going to the doctor with the sick kid, we all have the same basic information about what was going on. Even if I worked all day, I can tell the doctor how much medication was given, how many trips to the toilet were needed, and what happened during them. (Being a parent allows you to talk about these kinds of things with a perfectly straight face.)
Making Lists in Apple Notes
Outside of our shared notes, I’ll use Apple Notes when I need to make a quick checklist for errands. This might be a grocery trip or a trip to the building supply store for some nails and screws. Dropping this checklist into Apple Notes is the fastest way I’ve found to get a list going that I can delete later without really thinking about what I need to do. You can create tappable checklists like this in Bear, but Apple Notes’ implementation is smoother, more efficient, and more user-friendly.
Apple Pencil Support in Apple Notes
Out of all the apps today, Apple Notes has the best support for the Apple Pencil by bringing you the full markup pallette that is native to iOS. With a simple tap you can bring up your sketching window and take handwritten notes or add a sketch as you see fit.
Apple Notes won’t take this text and turn it into any type of searchable content, but if you’re looking for integrated sketching ability, then Apple Notes has the most robust features of the apps we’re comparing here. Apple Notes also surpasses Bear in the way it embeds your handwritten notes. Where Bear embeds a smaller version, Apple Notes shows you the full-sized version inline.
Where Apple Notes Falls Short
Apple Notes has the least amount of export options if you need to get your notes out. Really, there are no export options built into Notes outside of what comes in your Share Sheet. You could likely build some fairly interesting stuff if you integrate with Shortcuts, but both Ulysses and Bear have so much built in already. If you need to get your text out in multiple ways, then Notes is not a good option.
Another thing that Notes doesn’t have is any sort of tagging. You can create different folders inside Notes to categorize your notes, but those folders are the only available option for organization. This lack of organization is compounded by the fact that Notes has only the most basic search functionality.
You can’t search by nested tags like Bear, and you can’t have multiple parameters that build a search like Ulysses. All Notes offers is a basic text search that you can’t save for later.
Ulysses and Bear allow you to attach documents to a file from within the app itself, whereas you have to send a file into Apple Notes if you want to attach it. You can import some types of files to turn them into a native Notes document. And while you can attach an MP3 or a PDF to a note for later reference, it has to be sent into the app. If you are already in the Notes app and you want to add an attachment, you can only add document scans, photos, videos, or sketches that you take right there.
To add a PDF or MP3 requires either a Drag & Drop action, or to “share” the file to Notes from its native location, rather than a direct file addition through the default “+” menu within the Notes app.
Features Shared by Ulysses, Bear, and Apple Notes
Despite all the differences between functionality and perks, there are also several features that these three tools share in common. Possibly the most important feature for any app in 2019 is a strong synchronization engine. In this case, all three of these apps excel. Making a change on one device appears on other devices in milliseconds, which is something you really come to appreciate after dealing with apps that have not-so-great sync services.
Ulysses and Bear both support Markdown, but Apple Notes does not. At least you won’t get any native formatting out of Apple Notes when you type text with Markdown syntax like you do with Bear and Ulysses. In many ways, we’ve been spoiled by our text editors that support Markdown formatting, but I would never want to go back to plain text Markdown.
Finally, each app also integrates with Shortcuts, though Ulysses and Bear have more direct integrations than Apple Notes. This is an area that we would love to see Apple improve on, considering it has the first-party app advantage. The innovation and creativity displayed by Ulysses and Bear in this area sets a great example and high bar that other app developers (including Apple) should strive to achieve.
Which Should You Choose? Ulysses, Bear, or Apple Notes?
Which app should you choose? As with many things, the answer is: “it depends.” (We also wouldn’t blame you if you decided to use all three of these great apps.)
Pick Ulysses if… you’re looking mostly for writing app. Especially if you want to then publish your writing — Ulysses has the smoothest integration with WordPress as well as the widest array of export options — PDF; ePub — with specific features that writers will want, like a word count goal, and deadlines for projects.
Pick Bear if… you’re looking to store a bunch of notes and files for later reference. Because of its wide support for different file types as attachments, Bear can be quite versatile. If you’re thoughtful about your tags, then you can often find the exact file you need with ease (and an advanced search).
Pick Apple Notes if… you need shared notes and lists (as Apple Notes is the only option for this amongst these three apps. As I said, for users with light note-taking needs, then Notes is fast simple and comes already installed on your device. This makes it an ideal option for non-power users.
It’s never a simple task to compare three applications that all share similar functionality and take different approaches to solving UX and usability challenges. This certainly puts the onus of choice on the user, but we are incredibly lucky to have so many excellent choices available. And, as with all software, things are constantly evolving and improving, which makes us excited for the future and to see what lies around the next release bend.
If you want to level up your usage of Ulysses — as well as get some best practices for how to organize your notes and your writing, then check out our in-depth training course, Learn Ulysses.
Stop losing your ideas and notes to multiple apps…
An online course to help you save time, organize your notes, and master the best writing app for Mac and iOS: Ulysses.