Click on our Sponsors to help Support SunWorld

vi vs. Emacs

The single most important tool you'll ever choose is
your text editor. Choose wisely. Choose Emacs.

By Chuck Musciano

October  1995
[Next story]
[Table of Contents]
Subscribe to SunWorld, it's free!

Selecting an editor often results in a religious war. In the Emacs/vi schism, there is a clear-cut winner. (2,200 words)

Mail this
article to
a friend

It took a little longer to prepare for this month's column:

Nomex suit? ...Check!
Kevlar vest? ...Check!
Elbow pads? ...Check!
Helmet? ...Check!
Ready? ...Ready!
OK. Here is the entire column, in a nutshell:

Emacs rules.

vi drools.

Right about now, all the Emacs users are surfing off to other parts of the magazine, wondering why I'm restating the obvious. All the vi users are angrily sending e-mail that reads something like this:

     You are a blithering idiot!  Emacs is the worst editor ever
     invented!  I learned vi and I've never needed anything else!
The rest of you are probably wondering what on Earth I'm talking about.

Back to basics
When developing software, the most important tool at your disposal is your text editor. It must be robust, extensible, easily learned, and productive. You will probably spend more time using your text editor than any other tool. It should fit like a glove and be as comfortable as an old shoe.

Within the world of Unix software development, there are two principal choices for editors: Emacs and vi. Invariably, the people who choose Emacs loathe vi, and those who choose vi are appalled by Emacs. In case you hadn't figured it out by now, I'm in the former camp. In spite of my obvious bias, I'll still try to give a brief overview of each tool, expanding on the virtues and drawbacks of each.


Emacs: the tool of tools
Emacs is a freely available editor originally written by Richard Stallman and since enhanced by thousands of enterprising contributors. It is distributed by the Free Software Foundation and is available in both source code and precompiled forms. (You can ftp a copy from the /pub/gnu directory at or one of numerous mirror ftp sites. ) It supports both character-based and X Window environments and runs under a wide variety of operating systems, including Unix, DOS, and Windows.

Emacs has been written by programmers for programmers. Its single best feature is that it is infinitely extensible by means of a built-in LISP interpreter. Almost every command in Emacs is actually a tiny little LISP program that acts upon your text files. To extend Emacs, you simply modify the existing programs or add a few of your own.

Emacs is known as a "modeless" editor, meaning that it is always ready to both accept text as input and act upon that text via user commands. You never switch between "command" and "input" modes in Emacs.

In Emacs, modes exist for just about
every conceivable programming language
-- even languages like HTML.

New users are sometimes confused by the fact that Emacs does have various operating modes that determine how text in a particular buffer will be handled. For example, Emacs has a "C" mode that understands how C programs are formatted. As you type your source code, Emacs automatically indents and formats your code. In the X version, it will even render function names and other language elements in various colors and fonts to make them more readable. Other modes exist for just about every conceivable programming language, even languages like HTML. There are even some word processing modes that indent, flow, wrap, and format your text automatically .

Emacs was popular well before window systems came into vogue. Programmers who were editing code disliked having to exit the editor to perform other tasks like reading mail or running the compiler. As a result, they added features to Emacs that let you read your mail, run the compiler, invoke the shell, and even browse the web all without leaving the comfy world of Emacs. Since Emacs sports a complete programming environment, enhancements like these can be made relatively easily.


[GLOBEtrotter Software -- Top Ten excuses for illegally using software]

Emacs deals with text as collections of lines within a buffer. Usually, a buffer corresponds to a single text file. You can have any number of buffers loaded into Emacs, making it easy to edit programs broken into many separate modules. Emacs lets you split the screen any number of ways so you can view multiple files simultaneously, and it's easy to move text between buffers.

In general, the alphanumeric keys on the keyboard, when pressed, insert the corresponding character into the current buffer. Editing commands are invoked by holding down combinations of the control, shift, and meta (diamond) keys while pressing an alphanumeric key. Often, the shift keys control the target of the key being pressed. For example, control-B moves back a character; meta-B moves back a word. Control-T transposes adjacent characters, Meta-T transposes adjacent words, Control-X Control-T transposes adjacent lines.

Basic editing in Emacs is easy. (See sidebar for a comparison of the basic Emacs and vi commands. A text version is also available.)

If you don't like the way the commands are mapped to the keys, you can rebind any command to any key. (You can even make Emacs look just like vi -- but why?)

The biggest drawback to Emacs
is that the executable is enormous.

In general, Emacs is the perfect programmer's tool, infinitely extensible and customizable, readily available, and easily learned. Its many modes, perfected over the years by thousands of users, make editing almost any language a breeze. Emacs's idea that an editor is a complete environment, not just a simple tool, makes every programmer more productive.

But on the other hand...
While Emacs users gloat about the power of Emacs, vi users are quick to point out that all that power carries a price.

The biggest drawback to Emacs is that the executable program is enormous. A bare-bones copy of character-based Emacs might consume three or four megabytes of swap space on a Unix machine; the fully equipped model with several modes loaded running under X Window can easily burn ten megabytes or more, even before you load any files for editing. vi, in contrast, consumes about a megabyte before loading files.

While those who know Emacs LISP (or elisp) can easily extend Emacs, it is almost incomprehensible to everyone else. In reality, every site seems to have a few Emacs gurus that can work all sorts of magic with elisp and they are called upon to perform all but the most rudimentary enhancements.

Although you can buy commercial versions of Emacs, most everyone gets a copy off the net. This means you'll need someone who can build the editor and configure it to your local site. This also means that until you get Emacs up and running, you'll need to use some other editor to bootstrap yourself. This is the vi user's biggest complaint about Emacs: why spend so much time learning Emacs when you may often find yourself on a system where Emacs isn't available?

vi: the editor for everyone else
vi offers up the standard editing fare: full screen display (character-based only), cursor motion (but no mouse support), and a range of text entry and modification commands. Multiple buffers are supported, but in a rudimentary way. vi is barely extensible via a simple macro mechanism.

vi offers two modes, input and command. (Emacs users call these input and beep mode, since all vi does is beep when you hit the wrong key in command mode). While in input mode, all characters are inserted into the buffer until you press the escape key. While in command mode, all characters are interpreted as editing commands. While some control and shifted characters are used as vi commands, there is no general use of control and shift keys as command modifiers. vi has no concept of a meta key.

To make sure I wasn't missing some fundamental feature of vi, I queried several long-time vi users in regards to vi's best feature. They all gave the same answer: consistency and availability.

What are vi's best features?
Consistency and availability.

Written originally at Berkeley in the early days of the BSD Unix development effort (purportedly by Bill Joy in one weekend to prove the worthiness of the curses full-screen driver routines), vi has become a standard tool in every distribution of Unix. There's even a version of vi for the DOS world, although giving some poor DOS user a copy of vi is like throwing an extra pair of handcuffs on an already-shackled prisoner.

Because of its standardization through Unix, the vi command set is pretty much identical among all versions of vi. This means that a vi user can walk up to any Unix machine and immediately begin editing files. This is particularly important for systems administrators who often find themselves on disabled machines with most of the tools, including big ones like Emacs, inaccessible.

Touch typists like the fact that the vi cursor motion keys are mapped to the H, J, K, and L keys. This means you never have to move your right hand off home row while moving about in a file. Other users like the fact that vi is actually a superset of the ex and ed line editors, so that even if you lose full-screen capabilities, you can still use most vi commands to edit a file.

vi is frugal with resources. It's small footprint, both on disk and in memory, make it a great editor for systems with many users working simultaneously. Fifty simultaneous Emacs users would slow most systems to a crawl, but fifty simultaneous vi users is a common and relatively painless occurrence on many shared systems.

Most vi users are comfortable with vi and consider it a perfectly adequate tool. They'll concede that Emacs has far more bells and whistles, but they don't think the effort to make the switch is worth it. That familiarity, coupled with vi's ready availability, make it a popular tool among many users.

vi: what's to like?
To an Emacs user, the most aggravating aspect of vi is the constant switching between input and beep modes. You can't freely intermix text and commands; you must constantly hit the escape key or an input mode key to get to the other mode.

The command keyboard mappings make no sense, and even worse, you can't modify the basic keyboard maps. Buffer management is barely capable of editing multiple files, and viewing multiple buffers is impossible. There is little support for language-based editing and the lack of general extensibility makes it impossible to extend vi to handle other languages.

What to do?
I often tell people that you only need to know one vi command: :q!. This way, if you ever accidentally start up vi, you can get right back out. You might want to follow that up with rm /bin/vi to keep it from happening again. In reality, I know just enough vi to get the system up and running and to get Emacs installed; I'll then leave vi behind and never look back.

Truth be told, vi can be handy for quick little editing jobs when Emacs is not available. You can learn enough of vi in 20 minutes to get things done, although you'll be nowhere near the power-user category.

If you are faced with editing any large file or collections of files, especially source code, there is no better tool than Emacs. It is worth every moment you'll spend learning the various command sequences. When you get proficient enough, you'll find yourself starting to write little elisp routines, and suddenly you'll find that you are an Emacs guru, too. If you use vi, you owe it to yourself to learn Emacs; if you use Emacs, it won't hurt to learn a little about vi, too.

Click on our Sponsors to help Support SunWorld


What did you think of this article?
-Very worth reading
-Worth reading
-Not worth reading
-Too long
-Just right
-Too short
-Too technical
-Just right
-Not technical enough

[Table of Contents]
Subscribe to SunWorld, it's free!
[Next story]
Sun's Site

[(c) Copyright  Web Publishing Inc., and IDG Communication company]

If you have technical problems with this magazine, contact

Last modified:

SidebarBack to story

Emacs and vi editing commands compared

Emacs commandFunctionvi command
Control-BMove back one characterh
Control-FMove forward one characterl
Control-PMove to previous linej
Control-NMove to next linek
Control-AMove to start of line^ or 0
Control-EMove to end of line$
Control-DDelete characterx
Meta-B Move back one wordb
Meta-F Move forward one wordw
Control-VMove to next pageControl-F
Meta-V Move to previous pageControl-B
Meta-<Move to start of file1G
Meta->Move to end of fileG
Meta-D Delete worddw
Control-KKill (delete) to end of lined$
Control-YYank (paste) killed textY or yy
Control-X Control-FRead file:r
Control-X Control-SSave file:w
Control-X Control-CExit:q or :q! or :wq or ZZ

SidebarBack to story

About the author
Chuck Musciano is an experienced software engineer and Webmaster with the Corporate Information Management Group at Harris Corp. Chuck Musciano's URL: Reach Chuck at