Bear 2 for Mac and iOS is here, with tables, GIFs, and more

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bear2.jpg
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Bear 2, the new note-taking app from developer Shiny Frog, is launching today on iOS, iPadOS, and Mac. It comes with lots of new features. You can now create tables in Bear notes. You can play GIFs, preview links and PDFs, scan documents, add footnotes and a table of contents, bring your own fonts, and more. You can also style your documents more easily: until now, using Bear required at least a passing knowledge of the Markdown language, but now it looks and works more like any other text editor. I’ve been using the beta for many months, and it’s one of my favorite note-taking apps for Apple devices.

The new version is a long time coming. It’s a complete rewrite of the app, Shiny Frog CEO Danilo Bonardi says, and has been a lot more work than the company expected. The underlying text editor, which the company calls Panda, has been in beta testing since early 2020, and users have been clamoring for Bear 2’s features for even longer. 

The first version of Bear launched in 2016 and was an immediate hit. It won Apple’s App of The Year award for the Mac that year and pretty quickly convinced lots of users (including some Verge staff) to switch from Evernote and other tools. Bear didn’t have tons of unique features, but it felt great to use. It was fast, it was stable, and it had lovely typography and a few beautiful themes. So many other productivity tools felt like work, but Bear never did.

Still, there were a lot of features missing and a lot that users wanted. Bear users also wanted apps for Windows, Android, and the web. So within about a year of Bear 1.0’s release, Shiny Frog began working on Bear 2. The team decided that in order to support all the new features it wanted, it’d need to build an entirely new text-editing system, which took the next five years.

Tables are the biggest new thing in Bear, and they flow right into the rest of your notes.
Image: Shiny Frog

“I think the main issue was the goal we gave ourselves,” Bonardi says. “We started writing that editor, but at some point, we had to scrap all that because we wanted something even more ambitious.” If you want a decent text-editing system, you’re spoiled for choice; you can use Apple’s tools for native apps or grab a web-based system like Draft.js or CKEditor that will work across platforms. But if you want a great text-editing system, there’s not much to speak of. Shiny Frog opted to build its own because nothing else had all the features the team wanted Bear to have: good export tools, full Markdown support, strong image integration, right-to-left language support, on and on. Each of those features has its own edge cases and complications and bugs to sort out. 

Bonardi is full of examples, but here’s a reasonably representative one: “We wanted tables to work natively inside the text view,” he says. That felt better than treating a table like its own element outside the flow of the text, which can make things awkward to navigate and edit. But if you have 50 columns, you need the editor to scroll right and left, but only for that part of the page. And when you search, you want the table to jump to the right cell in the table. None of that works out of the box. You have to build it bit by bit. Oh, and you have to do it all without any discernible latency whatsoever because people are incredibly attuned to any lag in their typing.

Getting text editing right was particularly important for Bear because so many of the app’s features are just text. There’s no separate system for tagging notes to organize them, for instance — you just type a hashtag into your note, and Bear recognizes it and files it as such. You style your page by writing in Markdown, so you bold by typing ** instead of hunting through a menu system. “Our very initial idea was this blank canvas where you can express yourself by writing,” Bonardi says. “You can sketch on the iPad, but the core focus is on writing and possibly not leaving the keyboard. So we have a huge focus on shortcuts and stuff like that.” 

In the meantime, as Bear was building its new editor, the whole note-taking landscape changed. Evernote went through leadership changes, product overhauls, and, eventually, an acquisition. Roam pioneered the idea of Wikipedia-style crosslinks in your notes, and suddenly that became a feature in lots of apps. Obsidian and Logseq turned productivity tools into operating systems, with plug-in stores and big developer communities. A segment of productivity aficionados got really into the Zettelkasten note-taking method, started referring to note-taking as “personal knowledge management” or PKM for short, and read books like Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens and Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte. Everybody’s seemingly really busy designing their Notion pages. Some of those users grew frustrated that Bear didn’t support the latest features and ideas about note-taking, and in general with the company’s glacial pace of progress.

Table of contents and backlinks are the kinds of power-user features that show up in Bear 2.
Image: Shiny Frog

Most people, of course, don’t care about any of the fancy stuff. They just need a place to write things down. They use tools like Apple Notes and Google Keep or just send themselves texts and emails. Bonardi is resolute about first being useful for those users. “We can’t really compete with the guys that do a lot of stuff,” he says, “and to be honest, we don’t want to.” He doesn’t want to turn Bear into an overwrought power user tool or become a corporate app like Notion or Airtable. But he’s also a little convinced he can have it both ways. “We really want to stay for personal use,” he says, “… but with some extra features for a little personal knowledge management.”

Bear has no interest in being an AI notes app, at least not yet

One thing Bonardi’s not interested in at all? AI. ChatGPT and similar tools are showing up all over the note-taking ecosystem, meant to help users brainstorm and summarize and make sense of all their notes. Right now, the Bear team views the whole thing as a privacy compromise above all else, but Bonardi says he’s skeptical in the long run, too. “It can work for some users,” he says, “but users that are like me and take heterogeneous notes like groceries, pieces of information, house stuff, and everything, it doesn’t work. It’s not structured — you take it, you scrap it after you’re done.”

In addition to shoring up the new app, the Shiny Frog team has spent the last few months working on migrating old users to the new app and figuring out a new business model. The Bear app is still free to download and use, but for sync and search and export features, you’ll have to pay $2.99 a month or $29.99 a year. (Existing users will be kept at the older, cheaper price.) 

Going forward, Bonardi swears it won’t be another seven years between major versions. The new editor is far more futureproof than before, he says, and is also designed to work on other platforms. Like the web, for instance: “I hope next year, we will ship the web application,” Bonardi says, which will also help Android and Windows users who want Bear access. He’s cagier about plans to build apps for those platforms, except to say Shiny Frog is considering it. He even says he’s curious to try Apple’s new Vision Pro because who knows if there’s a place for Bear there?

I’ve been using the app since the beta began earlier this year, and I’ve been impressed with it, even since the early betas. For the most part, it still feels like Bear — straightforward and fast like Apple Notes but with lots more features and much better export and sharing tools. In an ever-growing sea of notes apps for Apple devices, Bear is still as good as it gets.

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Abraham
Expert tech and gaming writer, blending computer science expertise