On Note Taking Tools
I have settled back on Bear as I kept coming back to it and the new Bear 2.0 looks amazing 🤩
I have always been a bit of a bike shedder regarding productivity apps, and note-taking apps are probably the most bike-shedded. Personally and professionally, notes have been integral to my learning journey since I was in University when I started to use them thoughtfully.
In this post, I will compare various note-taking tools I have used. I will not list the pros and cons per se, but rather my take based on my use cases. The views are anecdotal, and I wish to evaluate them all subjectively.
Apple Notes #
The humble Apple notes was my first proper foray into a note-taking app that wasn't a bunch of text files synced through my dropbox.
I loved using it. Being a native app by Apple, it was snappy and free. I viewed the lack of too many features and stripped-down formatting as a plus. The table feature was a game-changer for me since I tend to organise quite a few things in a matrix-like format. The collaboration and the recently introduced tags were also excellent, although I had already moved on from Apple notes by the time tags were introduced.
However, as much as I liked using it, I soon ran into limitations with the interface. The search seemed lacking; a simple text search wasn't cutting it for me. As a software engineer, I also store a lot of code snippets in my notes, which Notes does not support. I also am pretty used to the quick formatting offered by markdown-based tools, which in Notes takes several clicks or keyboard shortcuts to remember. The lack of wiki or backlinking is also a big downside for me as it's a vital tool to add structure to my notes sprawl.
I confess that I jumped on the Evernote bandwagon quite late. I tried Evernotes briefly in 2016 and stuck with it for six months. I tried it again in 2021, but this time gave up in less than a day. Both times it failed me on my single most important criterion of note-taking apps: speed.
Writing in Evernotes felt laggy and devoid of any simpleness to it. I also felt that Evernote was trying to be a kitchen sink for everything productivity-related (tasks, calendars, project management etc.) but with a janky UX. I admit this works for many people, and I know colleagues that breeze through their documents in Evernote like it's nobody's business. But, for me, it was a chore.
I started using Bear about four years ago, which was love at first sight. It felt like a breath of fresh air compared to anything else I had tried. It hit all my standards, and I was sold on the tag-based organisation, so much so that I can't imagine using anything else to organise my notes anymore.
Another plus for me was the seamless markdown editing experience. It feels well created and gets out of your way when you need it to but is readily available when needed as well. It's easy to tell the amount of love and care that has gone into the editing experience for Bear. Bear also has powerful search macros like
@todo to find all notes with open checkboxes and
@today to find all notes created today. I tend to use them quite frequently. Although not as powerful as something like Roam Research or Obsidian, the wiki linking was good enough for my use case, which involves structuring notes that have accumulated a lot of cruft - to tell an unbroken story as much as possible.
However, it hasn't always been smooth sailing with Bear. I miss tables that are almost table stakes ;) for most note-taking apps these days. The wiki link, as good as it may be, I wish it had backlinks and, perhaps even better, a graph view similar to Obsidian or LogSeq to understand and consolidate bits of knowledge that get scattered across multiple notes. The app also hasn't seen any significant changes in the time I have been using it. Bear is good if you want a Markdown-based alternative to Apple Notes, but it was not suited to my workflow for anything more complicated than that.
I tried using it for the first time three years ago, in 2019. I drank the kool-aid before it became hip at the start of the remote work wave. At that time, I felt like I was doing too much, or maybe Notion was not sure.
Whenever I tried Notion, I kept wasting time trying to work out the compelling features under the hood. I would start with a basic template and then get carried away trying to waste too many hours thinking if what I wanted to put in the tool was a database or not. The constant needing to curate rather than create was a drain. The UX also felt a bit slower than the plain text note-taking, and the no offline access was a pain when I put some camping recipes in it, and I didn't have access to it when I reached the actual campgrounds.
However, having given it a go over the last few months, I can conclusively say Notion is on track to be my second brain for the foreseeable future. The thing where I went wrong with Notion was focussing on form over function. These days I write whatever, wherever in Notion and every two weeks, I review my newly created pages and structure them. I heavily use the database function to track my projects and things such as subscriptions, finances and an upcoming Europe trip. This workflow allows me to get stuff in Notion without worrying about where it needs to go but also provides a framework for patterns to emerge organically.
I must have been living under a rock since I only learnt about it from a friend who uses it religiously. Notes get stored in plain markdown, which is a plus for longevity, and even though it's an electron app, I never felt it was slow for day-to-day use. The most robust feature for me was the graph view which automatically finds links between notes based on words and phrases written in other notes. This type of Omnidirectional note linking is advantageous if you are practising the Zettlekasen method of note-taking.
I stuck with Obsidian for a while but found it unsuitable for me in a few but essential ways. Firstly, the search was lacklustre and confusing even. Compared to searching in various note-taking apps, the search in Obsidian tends not to find what I'm looking for most of the time. Another drawback for me was viewing inline images. I like having images in my notes as I am a visual learner. However, there's no way to view pictures while editing in Obsidian notes. Last but not least, the mobile app, while well designed to handle the complexity of the problem Obsidian is tackling, seemed cluttered for my day-to-day use and didn't have the seamless feel I had with other markdown-based apps (like Bear).
I started using Craft after I got frustrated using Notion. Craft pitches itself as a fast and native alternative to Notion. First impressions were good, it was fast, and the writing felt fluid. It also had tables (hell yeah) and the ability to track Daily notes as an inbuilt feature. I liked that I could also link my calendar and take meeting notes within the same app.
However, it didn't work out for me long term. First, Craft may be fast, but it doesn't match the ease of editing and wrangling text of a simple markdown text editor. The choice of block system (same as the one Notion uses) caused a lot of friction when editing and moving around text which happens a lot when I'm in the first few fluid stages of a new note, especially on mobile. I also found that a big emphasis for the tool was to make text look pretty, which is not a wrong goal, but it seemed to be at odds with how I take notes constantly. I also came spoiled by the tag-based approach to note-taking that started with Bear and not having that shackled my workflow. With all these limitations and a hefty price tag (and probably well-deserved price tag, good native/cloud hybrid apps aren't cheap) - I decided it was not worth it for me as a long-term tool.
I learnt about Drafts through one of those Apple app store stories. After trying it for a few weeks and reading this detailed review, I knew this was it. Drafts now serve as my hub for daily notes, random snippets of text, unformed thought, and anything that's not fully formed yet in my knowledge base. It also has tags that work best for me as an organisation system, and I can quickly jump to different categories of notes. I love the powerful integrations and the uncluttered interface to get some text on the screen as soon as possible.
However, in saying that, it might not be the app for everyone. Drafts also doesn't have a polished look that some others like Craft and Notion have. It can be a bit disconcerting to land on an empty note every time.
Over the last few months, I have decided that a single app won't work for me for my use cases. So, I have decided to adopt a workflow that involves two different apps. All my thoughts, random todos, small and big ideas and initial inspirations of text land in Draft. It has become my most used app, and for a good reason. It's so simple to defrag my mind and drop everything there. Periodically I look at the notes accumulated in Draft and use the extensions to move data across to Notion or Things (my task management app).
Notion has become the central hub for my PKM system. All my long-term notes and projects live there, and I actively use them to collaborate with my family.
The choice of using two apps helps me optimise and use the benefits of both of them together. Drafts with its quickness and rich sharing support for daily things and Notion with its structure and built-in backlinks, as well as database support for long-term storage.