OFF-TOPIC: Taming the Bear

I like to be organized and generally in control of my life, both at work and the rest. This means that I keep a diary/calendar [an electronic one that I share with my wife and I can access from almost anywhere]. It also means that I need a means to keep track of stuff – documents essentially. In the past, the priority was for paper filing. Nowadays, even though paper has not quite gone away, electronic documents are the most common option.

Managing computer files is a non-trivial undertaking. When PCs first came along, MS-DOS allowed files to have 8.3 filenames [up to 8-character names with a 3-character extension] and no folders – the files were just stored on the [floppy] disk. The ability to create a folder [or directory] structure soon came along, but it took many years to have more flexible filenames, which arrived with Windows 95. This gave us the key tools to get documents organized.

However, in recent years I have felt the need for something more – a flexible and easy-to-use tool for marshaling files and information. I tried various software packages and eventually settled on Evernote. This enabled me to create any number of “notes”, which could contain plain/formatted text, checklists and images and other document files attached to them. A simple “folder” system, along with powerful search and a flexible tagging facility enabled any kind of organization that I could envisage. Links between notes added even more flexibility. I could access all of my stuff from apps on Windows, MacOS and iOS devices, as well as a Web app. This all suited me very well.

Over the last couple of years, I started to have challenges with Evernote. There had always been some issues with the apps on different devices being rather inconsistent. Each new release may have provided more functionality, but would commonly introduce new problems [or reintroduce ones that had been fixed before]. The annual charges for the “pro” service also escalated. This all made me start to consider the possibility of migrating to some other tool. My first though was Microsoft’s OneNote, as it appeared to be quite solid and had a nice organization structure. I then realized that there was a significant constraint: the Mac version only supported a single window and I could not tolerate that. Eventually, a new release removed that restriction.

I migrated some stuff to OneNote to see how I would manage. It mostly went well. The tool could do the job that I wanted. However, I found aspects of its operation rather “clunky”. On one occasion, it lost all of my attachments for no obvious reason; I found that rather scary. The main gripe was the inability to edit attachments “in place”. In Evernote, I was used to being able to simply open an attachment [with the appropriate app – Excel for spreadsheets , for example], make my changes, and save it back. With OneNote, I needed to detach the document, make the edits and attach it again. This was quite possible, but annoying and error prone. I was reluctant to migrate more stuff to OneNote.

Evernote made a major new release, initially to the iOS apps., which was supposed to be part of making everything more consistent. However, stability was severely compromised. The new apps were slow to start and synchronizing seemed to be very unreliable. I could no longer rely on up to date information being effortlessly at my fingertips. I started an urgent search for an alternative and identified a few candidates.

The app that stood out for me was Bear. This is a free app, primarily aimed at note taking [like Evernote and OneNote]. It is free for the basic version or there is a modest charge for the premium service. My initial impressions are very positive. Bear has no “folder” structure, but a hierarchical tag system makes up for that and gives much more flexibility. The powerful search facilities are incredibly fast, so getting to stuff is easy. It supports editing of attachments straightforwardly. It even has a very slick Evernote migration tool that works extremely well. Although I am stretching the tool beyond its designers’ intentions, I am told that there are no built-in capacity limits and I have not heard it squeak yet, so I am optimistic.

At this point, I have moved over all my everyday stuff and only open Evernote when needed – mostly to migrate more things. I know from experience that only time will tell whether the tool’s way of working and my own preferences line up.

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