Emacs: 7 months later

July 9, 2012

In my final post about my switching to Emacs, a commenter, Scott, asked me, “It has been a while since you started using Emacs. I’m just curious. How is your experience so far now that you have more experience and a more complete configuration?” My reply was getting quite long, so I figured it would be best suited as a new post.

The short answer is, mostly the same since I wrote that Vim vs. Emacs (part 3). Once you use something a lot, you notice all kinds of things that could use improvements. Some of them are just minor annoyances. For example, many interactive commands in Emacs (but not all!) require you to type out “yes” instead of just “y” as a confirmation. Others are more serious, like the need for a real replacement of SuperTab from vim.

I actually didn’t have much free time to work on configuring Emacs during the school year, and once the summer started, my computer died, and I’ve been working of an old laptop running Linux until I can get a new one. Fortunately, I had the foresight to put all my Emacs configuration online on GitHub, so it was easy to get my configuration again. I’ve noticed that in Linux, the Alt key (i.e., Meta) is used for other things, so it doesn’t work so well in Emacs (e.g., pressing Alt without any other keys sometimes activates a menu that removes the keyboard focus, and also C-M shortcuts don’t seem to work at all).

I’ve memorized very few keyboard shortcuts, even ones that might be useful to me (e.g., I don’t remember the shortcut to jump to a matching parenthesis). Usually, if I am using some mode or something and I want to know how to do something, I just Google it, and generally find the answer within a few seconds.

There are several major configuration issues that I’ve yet to address, either due to lack of time or because I couldn’t find a suitable solution. A SuperTab replacement is one. This is actually a big one, because scrolling through a file just to see what’s there is getting older and older, as is searching just to jump to a function definition. If anyone knows of a good way to do this, please let me know. I mainly need it for Python files, but having it other modes as well would be nice. Basically, I just want something that shows me all the class and function definitions in the file, in order, that I can easily select one and jump to it.

Related to searching, searching in Emacs sucks. I’m using isearch+, which is an improvement, but it still bugs me that search does not wrap around by default. Also, for some reason, pressing delete doesn’t delete the last character you typed, but the last character that it matched. That may sound minor, but I use it a lot, so it’s really gotten on my nerves.

Regular expression searching in Emacs is useless. I can never get it to work (usually because of differences between () and \(\)). What I really want is an interactive, user friendly, regular expression search/search and replace tool. There’s regexp-builder, but that’s useless because once you build the regular expression, you have to manually copy it and paste it into the real regular expression search function to actually use it. And it doesn’t work with search and replace.

This last semester I had a semester long project in C. For that, flymake-mode was a godsend. It requires a bit of manual configuration (you have to add something to your Makefile, and you have to add some stuff to .emacs as always to enable it by default), but once you do that, it just works. If you don’t know what this is, basically, it highlights the compiler errors in your source in real time, as you type it. So instead of doing something stupid twenty times, and then compiling and finding them all, you do something stupid once, see the error, and don’t do make the mistake any more. It’s also nice to close your editor and know that your code will compile.

The Python mode I am mixed about. On the one hand, it’s really awesome how smart it is about indentation. On the other hand, the syntax highlighting is just shy of what I want (granted, it’s pretty good, but I want better than that). For example, I want to be able to color docstrings, single quoted strings, and double quoted strings differently. It would also be awesome to get some coloring in docstrings itself. I’m thinking markdown mode for any text that’s in a docstring, except for doctests, which are colored in Python mode (or some variant).

Some things I’ve not really cared much about yet because I haven’t used that type of file yet. For example, I’m currently writing this post in Emacs, and just now noticing the deficiencies in html-mode (e.g., I want an easy way to select text and turn it into a link, just like in the WordPress editor).

Finally, I’ve been trying to write my own theme. That process has been slow and slightly painful. Emacs is currently in the process of moving to themes, though, so this is to be expected. When Emacs 24 is actually released I think it will be fair to judge how well this feature works.

That’s my wishlist (or most of it anyway). But there are positive things too. auto-complete-mode, which I mentioned at the top of my previous blog post, is absolutely awesome. I think this extension alone has made me more productive.

Some things I take for granted, like automatic spell checking of strings and comments in Python (not enabled by default, but not hard to configure either). Thanks to someone on an Emacs mailing list, I have the perfect automatic clearing of trailing whitespace, that automatically leaves your whitespace before the cursor in the buffer, but still writes the clear to the file (see my .emacs file from my dotfiles repo linked to above for details).

I’ve been hoping to learn Emacs lisp, so that I could remedy many of these problems on my own, but so far I haven’t really had the free time. Lisp is a very confusing language, so it’s not easy to jump into (compared to the language vim uses, which I found easy enough to hack on without knowing at all).

Ultimately, I’m quite pleased with how user friendly Emacs is, and with how easy it is to find out how to do almost anything I want just by Googling it. Configuration is an uphill battle. Emacs has a ton of great packages, many of which are included, but almost none are enabled by default. Just today I discovered Ido mode, thanks to David Li. I feel that in the long term, as I learn Emacs Lisp, I can make it do whatever I want. It provides a good baseline editing experience, and a good framework for configuring it to do whatever you want, and also enough people use it that 99% of the things you want are already done by somebody.


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