Vim vs. Emacs (Part 2)

As I noted in part 1, I have decided to switch to a command line text editor. I decided that, to be fair, I would try both vim and emacs. And to force myself to learn them, I decided to use them cold-turkey.

Since I’m going cold-turkey, I am doing this over my break from classes, so that I can weed out any difficulties during a period when I can live with slow text editing if necessary. This is a one month break. I have reached (roughly) the half way point. For the first half, I used nothing but vim to edit text. Now, I will use nothing but emacs.

Now that I’ve stopped using vim (for now anyway), my view of it isn’t much different from what I wrote in the first part. A lot of things there were addressed by commenters (or rather commenter). I still feel that it’s not an a method of text editing that fits my head. My entire life, I’ve used text editors where typing inserts text, and various control characters do things like move around faster.

Enter emacs. It does exactly this. Also a ton more.

I’ve only been using emacs for two days, but here are my impressions so far:

  • The tutorial is better. When you start emacs, it tells you how to start the tutorial. Just type C-h t (if you don’t already know, in emacs C- means CTRL- and M- means ALT-). Like I said last time, the very first thing you learn is how to scroll by more than one line at a time. That turns out to be a very useful thing to do. Also, the emacs tutorial did a better job of explaining how to use multiple files at once in emacs, which is something that I still don’t really know how to do very well in vim.

    I have to give the vim tutorial some credit for one thing, though. It has better interactive examples. For example, in the vim tutorial, you have stuff like

      1. Move the cursor to the second line in the phrase below.
      2. Type  dd  to delete the line.
      3. Now move to the fourth line.
      4. Type   2dd   to delete two lines.
    --->  1)  Roses are red,
    --->  2)  Mud is fun,
    --->  3)  Violets are blue,
    --->  4)  I have a car,
    --->  5)  Clocks tell time,
    --->  6)  Sugar is sweet
    --->  7)  And so are you.

    whereas in the emacs tutorial, you just have

    >> Kill a line, move around, kill another line.
       Then do C-y to get back the second killed line.
       Then do M-y and it will be replaced by the first killed line.
       Do more M-y's and see what you get.  Keep doing them until
       the second kill line comes back, and then a few more.
       If you like, you can try giving M-y positive and negative

    which is a little more vague. So I have to give vim credit for that.

  • Everything’s a buffer. This line from the emacs tutorial really stuck with me: “ANY text you see in an Emacs window is always part of some buffer.” Emacs has really a awesome editing model, even simple things like M-f and M-b to move around words at a time, or M-DEL to delete whole words make things way faster. Vim of course has all of these too, albiet in a different way, but they aren’t everywhere. In emacs, everything is a buffer, which just means that everything supports all the standard emacs commands. So if you type M-x (roughly the equivalent of vim’s :) and start typing a command, you can move around and edit your command with emacs commands. One of the things that bothered me about vim was that when I was typing something with :, I couldn’t use vim’s text moving/modifying commands to manipulate the text. Typing ESC just canceled the command.

    Exceptions: There are at least two exceptions I’ve found to this rule. First, if you do a search with C-s or C-r, no control commands work. If you type a search string, and then type M-DEL to try to delete the last word in your search string, you will instead delete the word where the cursor is! The solution I think is to use something like M-x re-builder instead. This was a little slow in my tests.

    Second, the emacs manual is presented in the info program, which uses completely different key commands from every other program. This irked me quite a bit, because as soon as I finished the emacs tutorial, it pointed me to the manual, which was in info. Then, the first thing in info is a tutorial on how to use info! I opted to skip this. If I need any information on emacs, I’ll just do a Google search anyway, so I found this to be a waste of time.

  • It’s a little slower. I do notice a speed difference between emacs and vim. vim is much more lightweight, and it shows. Starting up emacs takes a second or two. Also, since a lot of the features are more interactive, they suffer from a speed delay. It’s not nearly slow enough to be a serious issue, though, and it’s still way faster than the GUI program I was using before (start up time).

    The emacs tutorial suggests using C-z whenever you want to only temporarily close emacs. This seems like a good idea, and has worked pretty well for me so far (though I still usually close the whole thing with C-x C-c out of habit).

    On a related note, I noticed that doing type-ahead while waiting for emacs to start up didn’t always work, whereas it always worked in vim (I do this, e.g., when waiting for the editor to start up when writing commit messages).

  • It’s way more user-friendly. Note that this is of course a relative term. I mean more user-friendly than vim, and pretty user-friendly for a command line program. Obviously, the most user-friendly text editors are the GUI ones used by the majority of the population (for that very reason). Actually, both vim and emacs are user-unfriendly in that if you accidentally open them and don’t know what they are or how to use them, you have no idea how to close them. But even less (i.e., man) is technically like this.

    I’m not even referring to the different editing “modes” of the two editors, though you could easily argue that emacs style editing is more user-friendly than vim style editing. What I mean here is that emacs interaction is nice. When you type : in vim, start typing a command, and type TAB, it enters the first completion, regardless if it’s unique. Pressing TAB multiple times give the rest. In emacs, if you type M-x and start typing a command and type TAB, it pops up a temporary window with the list of all completions. It even colors the next character, so you can easily see what to type next to get what you want. As soon as you enter the command, the window disappears. (yes, I know about CTRL-D in vim, but to me tab completion should always work like it does in bash: complete characters if and only if they are unique in the list of completions)

    By the way, when I said everything’s a buffer, I mean everything. If you want, you can exit the M-x entry (type C-g), type C-x C-b to show the list of buffers, C-x o to switch to it, scroll down to “Completions”, press Enter, and actually get in the completion list, as a buffer (there’s probably a less complicated way to get to it, by the way). You can then do whatever your heart fancies with it (save it to a file, copy it, whatever).

  • Customization is harder. This was expected, since I already knew that emacs used lisp. vim uses a language that is really easy to understand. I was able to modify all the vim plugins I installed very easily. If you want to change a setting globally in vim, just Google it and add one line to your .vimrc. In emacs, everything is in Emacs Lisp. I suppose prior experience with Lisp would probably help here.

    In the vim tutorial, near the end, it told how to create a .vimrc file, and even gave a very useful sample one as a starter. In emacs, it took me a while to figure out how to do the equivalent (it took me a few Google searches just to figure out that the name of the configuration file in emacs is .emacs).

    Actually, the emacs equivalent is way better than in vim, but it isn’t really mentioned anywhere. It took me probably a dozen Google searches before I learned about it (granted, I was looking for things in the same way I did for vim, lines to add to .emacs). What you have to do is type M-x configure. This opens what is basically a huge preferences dialog for emacs. You can then go through and set just about every settable emacs setting from there. The interface is very nice, as it’s interactive and tells you all about each setting. And you never have to touch Lisp. I’m still going through it, so I can’t comment more on it yet. But I recommend doing M-x configure as soon as you have finished the tutorial and have gotten used to editing with emacs, as you are invariably going to want to change some things (though I should note that emacs generally has nicer defaults than vim).

  • Better text editing methodology? Like I’ve already mentioned a bunch of times, the emacs editing model seems to fit my head better than the vim model. In emacs, you type text, and it inserts the text. If you want to do some advanced modification or move around, you type a control sequence. In vim, you type characters, and it does modifications or moves around. If you want to type text, you type i (or one of a few other characters) and type it. Then, if you want to move around or modify the text, you have to press ESC. This so-called “modular editing” doesn’t seem to work for me. For one thing, I like to rapidly switch back and forth between these two “modes” (editing and inserting) when I write things. I type too fast and write something wrong, and have to delete some stuff. The M-DEL emacs command is probably my most used (this also works in Mac OS X text dialogs, so I’m used to it already). In vim, there is CTRL-w and a few others, but if I want to do something more advanced, like rearranging a sentence, then half of my key presses would be ESC or i, i.e., just moving between the modes. In emacs, I can always have my pinky by Control and Alt (especially as soon as I remap CAPS-LOCK to Control).

    Also, it really irks me how in vim, if you are at the end of a line and press l (or right-arrow), instead of moving to the beginning of the next line, it beeps! In emacs, if you are at the end of a the line and type C-f, it moves to the beginning of the next line (actually, it technically moves just beyond the line, in case you want to append, which is another annoying thing about vim: you have to use A, not i, to add text to the end of a line).

  • Well, that’s it for now. I will hold off on the questions until after I go through all the customizations, as it seems that, unlike vim, emacs has many things already built-in (but we already knew that, didn’t we :). So I have just one question for readers: does anyone know of a really good emacs cheatsheet? The one I used for vim was really awesome, but I haven’t found anything equal for emacs. I find myself searching the tutorial whenever I forget something, which is not very efficient, so I would appreciate something better. Otherwise, I’ll just find something decent and print it out, as it would be better than nothing.

    And if anyone cares, you can see what I’ve got for my .emacs file so far at


    12 Responses to Vim vs. Emacs (Part 2)

    1. Scott says:

      The FSF publishes a reference card for Emacs as a postscript file:

      It’s a little dated, considering it is for version 21. But the basics should work. Perhaps an Emacs user can point you to a more up-to-date version.


    2. saptman says:

      Regarding speed, you might want to consider starting emacs with the -nw option. This loads it up within the terminal itself.

      • asmeurer says:

        Yeah, that’s what I was doing from the start :)

        I actually have had to always use -nw ever since I compiled and started using the git version of emacs, as otherwise it just hangs (my X11 is broken). And the Cocoa GUIs suck by the way.

        It’s not super slow. It takes maybe two or three seconds to start. But that’s still annoying, especially when type-ahead doesn’t work reliably.

        I think part of the problem is the VC module. Or at least that’s what it says it’s loading. I’ll see if there’s a way to disable it. Also, I think I might be able to make $EDITOR at least faster by adding -q (I just use $EDITOR for writing commit messages).

        • saptman says:

          Oh btw, while you spend (waste? don’t worry, every serious emacs user does it ;) time configuring your .emacs, you might also want to take a look at magit which allows you to manipulate git repos right off your buffer. You could even install rope and get some cursory auto complete, although I find M – / quite adequate. Install mpdee while you are at it and use erc to chat. Frankly, I see no reason why you should have to spend any time outside emacs :D

      • ksadf says:

        Put (require ‘server) (server-start) in your .emacs and in bashrc put somethign like alias em=’emacsclient –no-wait –alternate-editor=”” “$@”‘ –starts instantly

    3. nobeep says:

      For some reason vim doesn’t beep for me. If it beeped then I would figure out a way to turn it off or I would switch to emacs.

    4. Rich Cheng says:

      Not really expecting to convince you to try Vim again–it sounds as though emacs is just a better fit for you, but just for posterity and other readers:

      1). You can edit the current contents of the command line by pressing ctrl-f to open the command window. See :help cmdwin.

      2). Use the ‘wildmenu’ and ‘wildmode’ settings to configure how completion works on the command line. See :help wildmenu

      3). Use the ‘whichwrap’ setting to specify whether or not you want various commands (including ‘h’ and ‘l’ to wrap over lines).

    5. […] time using them to do true editing work. My experiences are chronicled in my blog posts (parts 1, 2, 3, and 7 months later follow […]

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: