Vim vs. Emacs

Arumoy Shome

2021-08-01 Sun 15:12

After 5 years of using vim, I switched to emacs in 2021. In this article, I lay down some of my observations along with my rationale for ultimately switching back to vim.

The biggest selling point for Emacs is org-mode. Back then, I was spending a lot of time thinking about and developing an efficient system for managing information (see productivity). Following this, I was interested in carrying out this task in plaintext. When early efforts to create a solution using unix tools failed (see commit 1661626), I developed a workflow using emacs and org-mode (see research workflow).

There are several reasons for switching back to Vim, the primary one being that org is exclusive to emacs and thus results in a “vendor lock-in” situation. Versus, in Vim I use markdown to write text which is more universal, has a larger community thus more tools and information is available.

Another major motivation to move back to vim was that I prefer to work in the shell environment. My workflow—whether that is writing or coding—involves typing followed by running commands in the shell. I found that the tight integration with the shell in emacs was lacking for my needs. For instance, on osx, the PATH environment variable is not properly setup in emacs (it requires manual setup using exec-path). This results in a lot of plumbing for trivial tasks such as writing and building code (working with python and virtualenv was a nightmare!). Although emacs provides a shell written in emacs-lisp along with a full terminal emulator, they never felt quite as powerful and comfortable as a proper terminal emulator such as iTerm.

I am fast in vim. Initially I did not notice this difference when I moved to Emacs. However, since switching back, I noticed that I can type what I am thinking in vim. I was not able to do that in emacs.

Ultimately, it all comes down to a tradeoff between visual looks versus editing speed and shell environment. Things look a little nicer in emacs since its a gui (working with pros is especially pleasing in emacs). However, I am willing to make this compromise for a more productive working environment.