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If you are a professional writer – i.e., if someone else is getting paid to worry about how your words are formatted and printed – Emacs outshines all other editing software in approximately the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish.

– Neal Stephenson, In the Beginning … was the Command Line

I’m an Emacs user and I’m proud of the fact. I know my reasons for using (and loving) it for many years now. Many, however, people don’t. I often get asked the same question - “Why should I use Emacs? What makes it better than Eclipse/IntelliJ/vim/etc?”.

While I wouldn’t dare to claim that Emacs is better than all the IDEs and competing editors, I’ll share here the things that I think are making it great. But first…

A Text Editor in 2011 - Are You Mental or Something?

The simple fact is that the popularity of programmer’s text editors is not as high as it once was. With so many integrated development environments (IDEs) flying around traditional text editors like Emacs and Vim seem to have fallen out of grace with the mainstream users/programmers and are mostly used by enthusiasts and old school hackers these days.

For all the good things IDEs have brought us (smart auto-completion, nice visual debuggers, semantic analysis of the source code, etc) they have totally forgot about the most crucial part of software development - it’s mostly about editing text. And all the IDEs I’ve used have extremely poor text editing capabilities compared to the likes of Emacs and vim. A very trivial example is the fact that most IDEs don’t even have keybindings optimized for touch typing - they require you to move your hands often away from the home row (such a waste) and have mouse-centric UIs.

A programmer’s editor might not have all the fancy bells and whistles of an IDE, but it has the one thing that matters (should matter?) the most - a good editing experience.

The Road to Emacs

I was not always an Emacs user. And wasn’t always an Unix user either. My journey to computing started in the nineties when I was doing some basic programming with Pascal in the Turbo Pascal environment, notorious for its horrible editing features. Afterwards I was drawn to the allure of C and C++ combined with Microsoft’s Visual Studio IDE. At first I felt it was like magic - so much of the source code got generated by various wizards and I felt productive. Felt is the key word here. At some point, however, I noticed that all the wizards started to become annoying - I already knew what they were about the generate and sometimes I even had a better idea about the details of a particular piece of code. Writing code manually at some point always becomes more productive than clicking through wizards.

Then I’ve started my first professional gig in a company solely devoted to FreeBSD, C and Perl. I had never used an Unix system before and I was captivated by the fact how much of its internals were open for the user to tinker with and how many small tools were working together to achieve a greater goal. I was also captivated by the editor that all my colleagues in the company were using - vim. It was both simple and profound - minimalistic UI, handy terminal support, plain-text configuration, keybindings 100% optimized for touch typing and it had so many cool editing features. I used vim for a couple of years, but two things about it always bothered me:

  • dealing with many files was no fun (at least back than - as far I know vim 7 has made some improvements in the area)
  • vimscript (the extension language for vim) simply sucked.

I had often heard rumors of a mythical editor so powerful and so infinite in its capabilities that people were afraid to approach it. That editor’s name was Emacs. When I first started using Emacs I had absolutely no knowledge of Lisp what-so-ever, so dealing with its configuration in the beginning was a bit hard - I often copied some bits and piece of code that I didn’t fully understand and when there was an error within some of those snippets, I was having a really hard time figuring out how to do. Luckily for me I found a copy of Learning Emacs - a nice (but not great) book that gently guided me through the maelstrom of Emacs features. At first I was hardly efficient in Emacs, but my proficiency in it quickly grew.

I had a bit of luck that I switched jobs and went to work in a company where Emacs had God-like status. All the cool devs there were using it and they were also hardcore Lisp hackers. There I learned the true power of Emacs, there I got hooked to Lisp and there I truly understood what Emacs is about.

Emacs is what you want it be. Emacs is power. But with great power, comes great responsibility - the responsibility to think.

Why Emacs?

real programmers

Enough small talk, let’s talk business… Here’s a brief overview of the things that make Emacs special (at least to me).

Divine Editing Experience

You can easily navigate around text buffers, perform all sorts of editing operations with a snap, without ever leaving the comfort of the home row of your keyboard.

Emacs has support for some pretty fancy stuff like rectangular editing, kill-ring (something like an internal clipboard history), mark-ring (you can set points of interest in a buffer you can later revisit), etc.

Everything is Possible

Emacs has got a mode for that!

– Unknown Emacs Hacker, The Collected Emacs Sayings

Naturally every popular programming language is well supported under Emacs (with the notable exception of PHP, which has once of the lamest Emacs modes I’ve ever seen). Most not-so-popular programming languages are well supported as well.

The quality and the features vary wildly though - some modes like SLIME, cc-mode, js2-mode and cperl-mode are nothing short of magical and others provide only basic highlighting and indentation support.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg - in Emacs you can easily create beautifully typeset documents and books in LaTeX (with the help of AUCTeX mode), charts with graphviz-mode, you can check your e-mail with gnus (wanderlust and mew are other nice options), chat in IRC with ERC, run a terminal session or write your next great blog entry. And so many other things - there is even a coffee-mode that allows you to control certain kinds of coffee machines from Emacs.

I happen to write all the articles on my site in Emacs and I publish them to github pages using the excellent magit (git integration for Emacs).

No matter what the task at hand is - you can rely on Emacs’s superb editing capabilities.

Emacs is Extensible

The GNU Emacs manual describes Emacs as the extensible, customizable, self-documenting, real-time display editor. And for a good reason - it’s extremely easy to add new features to Emacs, due to its integrated Emacs Lisp interpreter.

While there are some core things in Emacs, written in C for efficiency’s sake, almost all the great modes and magic commands are written in a dialect of Lisp, called Emacs Lisp (that is somewhat reminiscent of Common Lisp, albeit lacking many of its features).

What this means is that you get the dynamic nature of Lisp development for all of your Emacs extensions - you can write a small bit of Emacs Lisp code anywhere, eval it and run it right away. There are no tedious compilations steps or huge interfaces that have to be implemented.1 There is virtually no ceremony. For instance:

(defun prelude-google ()
  "Googles a query or region if any."
    (if mark-active
        (buffer-substring (region-beginning) (region-end))
      (read-string "Google: ")))))

This simple bit of code adds to Emacs the ability to invoke Google queries from it (with the help of your favorite browser). After evaluating this code in Emacs you can simply type M-x prelude-google and this new command will be at your disposal.

In Emacs it’s easy to create modes that support programming languages, provide functionality such as instant messaging and email checking, etc.

Emacs Integrates Well with Lots of External Tools

Running a shell from Emacs is easy - M-x shell-mode. Running a terminal emulator in Emacs is just as easy - M-x ansi-term. And there is even a shell written in Emacs Lisp, called eshell, that you can use no matter what the underlying operating system is.

You need a file browser for Emacs - we have plenty! Dired is the tried and try option, but there are “more modern” solutions such as emacs-nav.

Version Control integration? You bet! CVS, SVN, bazaar, git, mercurial - everything is supported out of the box!

You want to invoke a shell commands on the side? Nothing is easier.

You want to invoke make/rake/whatever from Emacs? Done and done.

You can even use Emacs as a process manager (M-x proced).

Emacs Doesn’t Make You Repeat Yourself

Emacs supports everything in the playbook on DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself). Command repetition, prefix command arguments, keyboard macros, Emacs Lisp functions, etc. I use them all - and I love them all.

It’s Easy to Share an Editing Session Between GUI and Terminal

While many people prefer to do all their editing in the terminal or in a GUI application - I don’t. I spend most of my time in a GUI Emacs frame, but from time to time I occasionally fire Emacs from the terminal to do some quick edit.

Emacs doesn’t start up as fast as vim, so I would be pretty pissed if I had to wait for it to load every time. Luckily it has a feature called Emacs daemon, which allows you to start a headless emacs server to which you can afterwards connect to from both GUI and terminal clients:

$ emacs --daemon
$ emacsclient -c
$ emacsclient -t

emacsclient -c opens up a new Emacs GUI frame, while emacsclient -t fires up a new terminal frame. And the best part - all the buffers currently opened can be shared between as many clients as it pleases you.

You can push the idea a notch further and connect to an Emacs daemon running on a remote machine.

Emacs is Modern

Contrary to what some people say about Emacs, it is a pretty modern piece of software. On *BSD and Linux the GUI is implemented in GTK2/3, on OS X it’s using Cocoa, and on Windows - it’s naturally using WinAPI. Emacs integrates well with the OSes it runs on - for instance the OS’s clipboard is integrated well with Emacs’s kill-ring out of the box. Things like the Trash are also covered.

Emacs supports TTF fonts, has a built-in semantic code parser (called Semantic), features a package manager that allows you retrieve Emacs packages (extensions) from remote locations automatically (think of it as a tool similar to apt-get or brew for Emacs packages).

Emacs is Constantly Evolving

Emacs has literally evolved before my eyes - when I started using it 7 years ago there was no support for truetype fonts, no Emacs daemon, no built-in Semantic, no GTK2 UI, no package manager, etc. I cannot begin to imagine what exciting changes are about to come…

Other Prominent Tools Use Emacs’s keybindings

Most shells (bash, zsh, etc) use Emacs keybindings by default. Most of the Emacs keybindings are the same as those found in the readline library. Apple’s Cocoa toolkit uses Emacs keybindings as well - I guess this is one of the reasons why so many Emacs users love OS X.

Emacs vs the World

Emacs vs vim

Emacs vs vim. The most epic battle of them all. More epic than Linux vs Windows and Barcelona vs Real Madrid combined… This, however, is no flame post and I’ll not be bashing vim here. I’ll just mention my brief (and highly personal take on the subject).

For me Emacs has these advantages over vim:

  • it has better default extension language. I haven’t written any vim extension in Python/Ruby, but I can imagine it’s a much more pleasant process than using vimscript.
  • it’s modeless - switching constantly between command-mode and editing mode is not very annoying, but I do prefer Emacs’s way
  • it has better integration with external systems (e.g. VCS)
  • it has better support for the things that matter to me
  • it has a built-in package manager
  • it has better infrastructure for editing many files in the same session

On the other side vim excels in a few areas for me:

  • nicer navigation
  • much smaller core and much faster to load
  • very simple initial config
  • it has a more stylish logo/icon than Emacs

Emacs vs IDEs

Emacs is considered by many to be the prototype of modern IDEs, but it’s quite different from most of them. IDEs main strengths are good refactoring support, semantic code analysis, integrated GUI debuggers and GUI design tools, precise auto-completions and good integration with external systems such as version control and issue tracking.

IDEs main weakness are their poor editors and their dependency on the mouse and an X environment in general. IDEs in general are not particularly resource efficient either, but I guess that this matters less and less as computers grow more and more powerful. Many people (me included) have tried to use Emacs or vim keybindings in a IDE, but it’s a pointless quest - without all of the features of Emacs/vim a few keybindings don’t help much.

For me the true problem of IDEs lies somewhere totally else and is rarely mentioned. The IDEs impair your thinking by thinking instead of you. I’ve seen people generate a lot of code with IDEs without ever questioning its workings or quality. When you produce everything manually you’re much more likely to contemplate on its quality and to consider ways to make it more concise and more elegant.

This, of course, is highly subjective - I mean no offense to IDE users in general. I do, however, know very well the APIs I’ve programmed in Emacs and remember less about Java APIs I’ve programmed in IntelliJ (for instance).

Emacs is not Perfect

Emacs is not perfect, of course. There a lot of things Emacs users would still like to see.

Replace Emacs Lisp with Scheme or Common Lisp

While Emacs Lisp has served Emacs well so far, it’s far from the best Lisp dialects out there. While I’d personally like to see it swapped for Common Lisp I guess this is never going to happen. There was, however, a rumor last year that there is a long-term plan to replace Emacs Lisp with Scheme (GNU Guile to be precise). I have absolutely no idea how much of a possibility that is, but I do know that we could use a bit more powerful and a bit more modern extension language.

Improvements to the GUI

While the GUIs in recent Emacs version were much improved there is still much to be desired.

For instance - on OS X it would be nice if Emacs used Lion style scrollbars and had support for the full-screen app mode. On OS X there are some strange Cocoa bugs as well - like linum-mode looking corrupted, etc.

I guess that currently Emacs’s GTK version has the nicest GUI of them all, but it would be good if the Windows and OS X ports got some more love.


Emacs is a single-threaded app and this is problematic, since tasks that block that one thread for an extended period of time (like email checking) tamper with Emacs’s responsiveness. Multi-threading support is certainly coming to Emacs, but I cannot speculate with a time-frame. I guess it will be part of Emacs 25 and we’re least a few years away from it (Emacs 24 is still not released).

Integrate Semantic tightly into Emacs

Currently most programming modes in Emacs are implementing syntax highlighting just by searching for regexp patterns. This is notoriously fragile approach - especially in languages like Ruby, that have a very complex grammar. Basing syntax highlighting on a semantic analysis of the code would be much more robust. Not to mention that it will open the gates for much more advanced features in Emacs programming modes. I’ve read somewhere that such tight integration with Semantic is truly planned. We’ll just have to wait and see (and why not even help?). Of course there is the matter of backward compatibility…

Getting Started with Emacs

OK, I’ve told you some interesting things and I’ve piqued your interest in Emacs. Now you’re probably wondering how can you get started with it. Knowing what I know now - I don’t recommend my personal chaotic approach to mastering Emacs. Here’s a few tips to get you started.

Obtain a copy of Emacs 24

Emacs 23 is old news, Emacs 24 is the future.2 Take a look at my post Getting Started with Emacs 24 for more details.

Obtain a Decent Initial Config

The default configuration sucks. Luckily there is Emacs Prelude - Emacs 24 configuration that doesn’t suck. I highly recommend you to use Prelude as your initial Emacs config. Studying its source will give you a bit of an insight into Emacs Lisp programming

Learn & Practice

  • first step - run the built-in Emacs tutorial - C-h t
  • second step - watch the excellent screencast Meet Emacs
  • third step - visit Emacs Redux and Mastering Emacs
  • forth step - read the official Emacs Manual - C-h r
  • fifth step - use Emacs day and night for all your work

Check out this article for way more Emacs resources.


Emacs is undoubtedly the most powerful programmer’s editor in existence. It’s a big, feature-laden program with a great deal of flexibility and customizability. As we observed in the Chapter 14 section on Emacs Lisp, Emacs has an entire programming language inside it that can be used to write arbitrarily powerful editor functions.

–Eric S. Raymond, The Art of UNIX Programming

Should you give Emacs a shot? I have absolutely no idea… If you found something in my post intriguing - I guess you should. If it was to you like the ramblings of mad fanatic with no connection to the real world - probably not.

I truly believe that anyone could gain something positive by spending some time with Emacs and exploring its vision and culture. I guess that in the end it all boils down to whether you’re ready to take the red pill…

Update: To celebrate this article’s 10 year anniversary I revisited the topic.

  1. Have you ever tried writing a plugin for Eclipse or IntelliJ IDEA? You won’t believe how much easier this is in Emacs! 

  2. By the time you read this, probably Emacs 24 will be old news. Just download the latest stable release. 

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