Why I still use Emacs

Summary: A light-hearted story on why I still use Emacs.

I was chilling out in the office when Terry came in and announced he and a couple of the lads were going up to London to sort out this damn James Gosling guy, who was giving a talk that evening, about this newfangled thing called NetBeans, and did I want to come. You betcha. Their main aim was to take him to task over what was going on with this Java malarkey, which they weren't happy with, and bend his ear about about pretty much all of it. I thought it would be a great opportunity to see the man himself, who is a A Legend, jealously admire his magnificent hacker beard and shiny pate combo (I have one of the two), and ask one or two questions of my own.

James gave a really great talk, but I always remember one thing he said about NetBeans, the Java IDE. He said "I'm just trying to get you away from the whole 'Emacs in a terminal situation'".

Hand raised. Guiiiillllltttty!

Here, we are, nearly twenty years on, and I'm still using Emacs in a terminal as I write this. All my coding is done here too. All my technical writing in DITA or DocBook or Markdown is done here as well. Poor James would be pulling out great tufts of beard hair in frustration.

But it begs the question - why?

Now, I will say, I'm not one of these Emacs wizzzards, who, with about three keystrokes, can take a dodgy old Windows text file version of The Bible (aka Kernighan & Ritchie's The C Programming Language) convert it into Man pages, and have it spellchecked, detabified and with correct Holy Unix line endings, while simultaneously playing the flute. Well, I exaggerate, but you know what I mean. They are a sight to behold. Well, I'm not one of those Emacs gurus. I'm an Emacs basics kind of guy. I have to look up how to do a search and replace, especially a regex one. Emacs is not exactly intuitive. So why keep using it?

I can only say for mysef - these are my reasons...

Handles any type of file

Emacs can handle any type of text file you'd care to throw at it. From the same editor you can edit plain text, Markdown, AsciiDoc, Python, Ruby, Java, C, XML, XSLT - the list goes on.

If you have a language-specific editor or IDE, and it just doesn't handle the coding language you need to work with, you need to fire up another editor. Many years back I worked on MySQL Connector documentation and there were many connectors - one for each of the main programming languages. I also had to edit DocBook files at the same time. With Emacs I could load any code up, have it syntax highlighted, and have special language specific modes - even for XML (NXML is a thing of beauty).

And then you get a new file format from left-of-field. No worries with Emacs. I recently had the misfortune to have to edit vast numbers of TeX files. Emacs has a nice TeX mode which made things a lot easier.

I never had to change editor. It's the same now. I can edit pretty much anything I want, from Bash shell scripts to DITA in the same editor.

It can handle giant files without having a heart attack

I've edited massive files with Emacs and it loads them in a flash. Back in the day we had this doc system that use to munge all of the individual DocBook files into one giant DocBook file, so it was possible to validate references. Sometimes you had to check that file to help fix an issue and this thing was monstrous. Imagine about 15,000 files of on average a hundred or so lines all munged into one big file. I'm on line 81 of this text file and it's already nearly 4K in size. So, my doc file would have been 60MB or so right? Phew. I've known a few editors that would have choked on that. Not Emacs. Oh no siree!

Available everywhere

Emacs is ubiquitous. It's available on virtually every platform you can imagine, not just the big three (Mac OS X, Linux, Windows). It's on pretty much every system you might have to work on. Many years ago I used to love using PSPad. But it was Windows only. When I shifted to Mac OS X as my main platform I couldn't take PSPad with me. I was sad about that. You can take Emacs with you whereever you go.

Runs fine in a terminal

Emacs comes in a full blown graphics mode version, as well as a terminal only version. I use the terminal only version. On Windows I use the graphical version. On the Mac I use Aquamacs, but mostly the terminal Emacs.

Keystrokes ubiquitous: command line (Unix), various editors, email

Once you get used to commands like C-a (go to start of a line), you find they work in many places you hadn't expected, line on the terminal command line. In in your email editor, or in that Mac app you use to take notes. A lot of text editor components support Emacs key strokes by default. This gives you a key stroke command set you can use all over the place. This is efficient. You only need to learn one set of keystroke commands, you can then use them in many places.

Automatic backups

Emacs backs up your work automatically. I once wrote a Bash shell script that was supposed to rename some text files. Instead it deleted them all! Luckily Emacs saved the day - I was able to recover everything from the backups folder.

Really nifty search facility (use this a lot)

C-s and C-r are probably the two commands I use the most in Emacs, once I've got a file loaded (C-x C-f to do that - with tab completion). This give you very fast incremental search (forwards and backwards respectively). It lets you zip through a file trying to find what you want, and it amazes the hell out of people when they see how quickly you can find stuff. What's more C-r is incredibly useful on the command line to find previously entered shell commands. This alone will save you lots of time (and typing). I should also mention you can actually run a terminal in an Emacs buffer too - quite handy as you can compile and run code without having to leave the magnificence of Emacs.

It's really, really fast

I mostly use the terminal mode Emacs. It loads instantly. It loads files instantly. It lets me edit without any delays. It lets me search quickly. It never slows me down. Given the sort of processor and RAM we have in today's computers this should not come as a surprise. The fact that it does says a lot about the terrible state of most software today. It's refreshing to use a genuinely fast editor.

Has its own quirky charm

Emacs grows on you. The first time you use it you will probably want to throw it, or yourself, out of the nearest window. It's made a few people turn to drink. But stick with it, the learning curve, the frustration of configuring the damn thing, but the warm fuzzy feeling you get when it does your bidding is worth it.

It will always be there

Emacs isn't going anywhere. There are a few good editors out there that came and went. Or went through a very dodgy patch. It would be a shame to invest in learning an editor only to have it disappear overnight. Emacs isn't going anywhere.