powered by text files


Emacs or Vim

After over 12 years of using Vi(m), and a brief fling with TextMate, I started using Emacs as my primary editor.


The switch has been very positive. The learning curve has been relatively steep, as my expectations from a text editor are quite high.

Emacs strength (and weakness) is that it is incredibly extensible. Where I’m finding Emacs a win over Vim is that I don’t have to leave Emacs to get things done. With Vim, I tend to use more of a mix of terminal windows and the editor.

I began by using the starter kit to get going with Emacs configuration. This made it quicker to get moving, but added a lot of things I ended up not needing. After getting more comfortable with elisp, I started from scratch and rebuilt my emacs.d folder.

To jump in quickly, I also purchased the tutorial video from Peepcode. This certainly helped as emacs is a mental shift coming from Vim.

The big benefit I have found with Emacs is the extension packages. These can be installed from the ELPA repository, and include a range of different modes.

Some of my favourite modes include:

On the Mac, I’ve been using Aquamacs for most of my text editing, and used macports to install the command line client.

I have yet to try Emacs on Windows, as I haven’t been using Windows much at all. There is a release available here.

After cleaning up my .emacs.d configuration, I’ve now started using Emacs on Linux servers I use regularly. For temporary servers, I’ll fallback to Vim as Emacs is often not installed.

If you want to improve your emacs skills follow @emacs_knight.


To get started with Vim, it is worth reading The Vim Learning Curve is a Myth.

Over the years, the popular mythology around vim has become that it’s insanely difficult to learn; a task to be attempted by only those with the thickest of neck-beards. I’ve heard dozens of times from folks who are convinced it will take them months to reach proficiency.

These beliefs are false.

My feeling is that Vim is unrivalled for the simple task of text editing. Even after a day or two of learning, you will be faster.

Where things get a bit more complicated is when you start to realise that text editing isn’t the whole story for a text editor.

Platform support is superb. The first thing I do to a Windows machine is install Vim. It is rare for an application with a Unix heritage to be so comfortable on Windows.

Historically, I hadn’t been a fan of the graphical version of MacVim. This is something that is much better in recent releases. Load times are much improved.

Integration into external tools is where I feel Vim is lacking a bit. With the number of developers migrating from TextMate to Vim, this gap is being rapidly addressed. However, Vim isn’t as extensible as some other editors.

I really noticed this when trying out Clojure programming. If you are dealing with a REPL based environment, Vim has a way to go.

Closing Thoughts

If you aren’t using either of them, it’s not too late to start. You can’t make a bad choice.

If you are already using either Emacs or Vim, enjoy!

Both are great editors that allow you to be incredibly productive at working with text. Try learning a new feature each week. You use your text editor so often that a small improvement is a major payoff.