Battle of the Text Editors

Battle of the Text Editors

I have always liked text editors. There is something promising about them, a blank canvas that you can quickly mess up with your random commented out lines. I went from BBEdit, my favorite Mac app of all time (seriously I love this app so much I bought a tshirt with their logo on it which you can get here) to Vim. I still use BBEdit all the time, mostly as a clipboard style storage location, notes or just outlining tasks. Vim + tmux has been my go-to now for 5+ years.

Now I know this is a contentious topic. If you like using a full IDE (Integrated Development Environment) know that I am not coming for you. It's not my preference but it is entirely valid and right. People interested in an ideological fight over this issue should remember you are asking people to spend 8 hours a day using this thing. There isn't a right or wrong answer to "what tool should you be using", it's more like picking a chair or a mattress. That said, I'm not qualified to really speak on what is the best IDE (although according to people I work with its VS Code with plugins by a mile).

However with the rise of Rust there has been an explosion of new entries into the text editor space, with a lot of cool and novel ideas. I thought it would be fun to download some and try them out for a few hours each to get some actual work done. These won't be incredibly detailed reviews, but if there is interest I'm more than happy to go back and do a deeper dive into any individual one.

Should I use any of these to pay my bills?

That's up to you, but I will outline a few common recommendations below that I've used extensively for mission critical work along with why I like them. If you are just here looking for what should be your daily workhorse, it would be safer to pick from those. However a lot of the projects I'll discuss later are certainly safe to use, just might not have all the bells and whistles.

Here are some of the tools I've used for at least a few months in a row as my most-used applications along with any tips or add-ons I liked.

If you are ok with a learning curve

  • Vim. I understand Neovim is better, I still use standard Vim. I have not encountered any issues in 5+ years of daily use that would prompt me to change. However if you are just starting go with Neovim. At some point I'm sure I'll find some issue that causes me to switch.  

    Vim plugins: My former coworkers at Braintree maintain the best Vim dotfiles that I have used at every job since which you can grab here.

    Tutorial: I learned with Vim Golf which was actually pretty fun, but I've also heard a lot of good things about Vimified. Either should be fine, also Vim has a built-in tutorial which is more than enough to get you started. If you install Vim from Homebrew or from a linux package, just run vimtutor in your terminal, go through it and you'll have what you need to get started.
  • Tmux. You typically want to leave Vim running in something like Tmux just so you can keep multiple things running at the same time and switch between them. My workflow looks something like: a dev box I am SSH'd into, Vim open and then maybe docs or a man page. I use this for my Tmux config.

You just need something right now

What about Emacs?

I don't really know it well enough to speak to it. I'm open to running through a tutorial but I just never worked at a place where its use was widespread enough to justify sitting down and learning it. If there's a good tutorial though hit me up on Twitter and I'm glad to run through it. Link

I'm here for the new stuff, not this Lifehacker 2011 list.

Look sometimes people stumble on these posts who shouldn't be reading the dribble I write and send me comments on Twitter. Disclaimer over, from here on we're here for the new and the weird.

Amp

Doesn't get more simple than that. Not loving the old copyright date.

Amp is a text editor with a focus on "batteries included". You open it with: amp [dir | file1 file2 ...] after installing it. First day using it, the big value is a great  file finder. Hit space after opening it, Amp indexes all the files in the path and allows you to very quickly search among them.

What takes a second to get used to is that this isn't a fuzzy file finder. Instead of typing full words, use parts of the path , separated by spaces. Here's what it looks like in practice:

I will say accuracy is spot on

This takes a second to get used to, but very quickly I felt like I was searching with more accuracy than ever. Weirdly by default this didn't visually scale, so even if there were more results I didn't see them. You can change this in the config file documented here. I feel like 5 results is kind of crazy low as a default

Typical text movement is , and m keys for scroll up and down. Movement is the  h,j,k,l  commands are there, along with w,b for word. Most of your interactions though will be through the jump mode, which is weird as hell.

What it seems to be doing is going through your file and changing the beginning of the word to be a two letter code that is unique. So you can very quickly jump to words. Now this would make sense if it prefixed the words with the characters, but on my installation it replaced the first two characters. This makes files pretty much impossible to work on.

Unfortunately, even though I really enjoyed the file search, this was the end of my experiment with Amp. It isn't clear whether the tool is still being updated and since so much of the mobility relies on Jump, this messing up the first two characters of every word makes my workflow impossible. I didn't see anything obviously wrong in my installation and I did install from source so I'm not sure what else could be done on my end to resolve this.

I'm really disappointed. I liked what I saw of Amp and I feel like there are some good ideas there. I love the focus on file management and searching. I'll keep an eye on the repo and revisit this if something new comes up.

Survived: .5 hours of my production work

Helix

Helix is maybe the first Rust application I've used where I had to look and see "wait this isn't Node right?" In case you think I'm being ridiculous:

Damn giving me that NPM energy

However upon starting Helix you instantly see why it's including every Rust crate. This is a robust text editor, aimed squarely at the Vims/Emacs of the world. The basic concept is one of multiple cursors, so you are attempting to remove one of the steps from Vim. Overall the goal is a batteries included text editor that handles syntax in a slightly different way.

Syntax Tree

One feature touted in Helix is an integration with Tree-sitter. The idea is to get a more concurrent representation of the structure of your code. You've seen this before, but it's not in Vim and is still an experimental feature in Neovim. It includes built-in support for a lot of languages and in my testing works well, allowing you to search through the tree and not just search text. Basically you can now select nodes vs raw text.

Language Server

Similar to Neovim (and available on Vim 8 through a plugin), there is language server support. I typically lump this more into IDE features but it is a nice touch, especially for folks who have gotten used to it. I found myself using it quite a bit, which is unusual since I don't have it installed in my Vim setup. It turns out I might have been wrong about language servers all these years. You can see the languages supported here.

Enough of the features, how does it work?

I walked into using Helix expecting not to like it. I was completely wrong. Everything about it is a complete delight to use in a way that is so effortless that I wondered in the back of my mind "have I actually used this product before and forgotten?" You start it with hx on the command line and access all commands with :. On first startup, I was already up and running, editing work files quickly.

Minute to minute it does feel a lot like Vim, which for me is a huge perk but might not be for you. The basic flow is reversed though, so instead of action -> object it's object -> action. To delete a word in Vim is dw, delete word. In Helix it is wd. There is a fair amount of muscle memory for me around this, so it isn't an instant change. However the payoff is pretty massive.

Multiple Cursors

You can obviously manipulate text on a global scale with Vim. Search for a word then edit the second selection with cgn. You can then iterate through the text with the . tool. For more complex situations you can run macros over the entire file. While this functionality exists, Helix with the multiple cursors makes it easier to pick up on. Go to the beginning of the text, hit the %, then s and you have multiple cursors to manipulate text.

Trying to help all the time

Hitting g in a file brings up all the goto commands, which is really nice when you are starting.

You'll also notice the language server commands called out here with d. This allows you to jump to the definition as determined by LSP. By default this didn't work with Terraform, but it provided a good chance to try out adding one. There was a slight issue with hcl not being included in the GitHub list of supported languages but it was on the list of languages in their docs. GitHub link here.

Anyway it looks like it uses the standard Terraform language server, so nbd. For some reason the language docs don't link to the language server they mean, but I'm glad to go through and make a PR for that later. We install the Terraform language server, run :config-open and write out a new language entry. Except maybe we don't need to?

Here is where it gets a little bit confusing. My initial read of the documentation here suggested that I need to write a new config to get the language server to work. However that actually isn't the case. I just happened to run hx --health and bam, Terraform is set up. I confirmed yes it does in fact just work with the default config. The Helix team explains I don't need to do anything here but I must have missed it.

Anyway, if its on the list just install the language server and then confirm with hx --health that it has picked it up.

Sure enough it just works

In terms of theme I actually like the purple, but that's extremely customizable. Find those docs here. However they also include most of the normal terminal themes in the box, meaning you can try out whatever moves you with :themes. Here's the ones that come with it:

Just type what you want and the theme instantly switches:

Large Files

Sometimes I'm a bad Vim user. I will admit that I, from time to time, will open giant log files and attempt to search them in Vim vs doing that I should do and use a tool for searching large bodies of txt. Typically Vim will chug while doing this, which is totally understandable, but I was curious how will Helix hold up.

Sample file is: 207M Sep  4 21:19 giant_file.txt and opening it in Vim does cause noticeable slow-downs. Helix opens instantly, like zero visible change to me from a tiny file. Making an even larger file, 879M Sep  4 21:22 huge_file.txt, I decide to test again. BEFORE YOU PING ME ON TWITTER: I know this is because I have a lot of plugins. Helix also comes with a lot of stuff, so I don't consider this to be that insane of a test. Don't agree? Run your own tests.

With the 800M file Vim absolutely chugs, taking forever to show the first line of text. Helix is once again instant. Everything works really quickly and if I didn't know the file was huge, it wouldn't occur to me. I'm super impressed.

Survived: 20 hours of my production work but really could be endless

I didn't walk into this expecting to find a Vim replacement for me, but Helix is really compelling. It's fast, the extension-first mentality shines since the editor comes ready to get to work, everything is really discoverable in a way that just isn't true with Vim. An expert might know how to do everything Helix does in Vim, but there's no way a new user would be able to find out that information as easily in Vim as you can in Helix.

Progress on the editor is steady and impressive, but even in the current state I didn't find a lot to dislike. Performance was extremely stable testing on MacOS Intel and M1 along with Linux ARM and x86. If you are interested in the terminal editor life but want something with a lot more of the modern features built in, Helix is a world class product. The team behind it should be super proud.

If there is interest I would be happy to do a longer in-depth thing about Helix. Just let me know on Twitter.

Kibi

How much text editor can you get into less than 1024 lines of code? More than you might think! Kibi is an interesting project, inspired by kilo. It's a pretty basic text editor, but with some nice features. Think of it more like nano as compared to Helix. It aspires to do a bit less but really exceeds in what it sets out to do.

Most of the main functionality is visible on the page, but you can set syntax highlighting manually by following the steps here. It is unfortunately missing a few features I would love, things like displaying the tree of a directory if you pass it a directory. Instead passing it a directory throws an IO error, which is understandable.

If you are just starting out and looking for a simple text editor, really easy to recommend this one. For people especially who work with one type of file a lot, it's very simple to add syntax highlighting. My hope would be at some point a community collection of common syntax highlighting is added along with some file path support. Unfortunately without those things, there isn't that much for me to test.

Some of the shortcuts didn't work for me either. CTRL-D duplicated but CTRL-R didn't seem to remove the line. The one feature I REALLY liked was CTRL-E, which allows you to execute a shell command and then inputs the value into the line with the cursor. This is really great for a lot of sysadmin tasks where you are switching between tmux panes, putting the output of a command into the file.

This little tool would really get to the next level with just a few adjustments. Maybe add CTRL+arrow keys for jumping to the next word, some common highlighting options. However it's not bad for a nano replacement, which is pretty high praise considering the legacy of that app.

Survived: 1 hour of my production work but not a totally fair comparison

Lapce

Now before you get into it with me, this is a BIT of a stretch. However because it supports modal editing I'm going to consider it. I was mostly curious what does a GUI Rust app look like in a text editor.

My first impression was....mixed.

I like the terminal at the bottom, but there didn't seem to be window resizing and it didn't support terraform (which is fine). However most baffling was after I selected this directory as my project I couldn't figure out how to get out of it. I know that's ironic as a Vim user complaining that I couldn't escape a project but I was a little baffled. Where is the file explorer?

Blue icon connects you to an SSH host

It's actually the file name drop-down centered at the top that is where you can navigate to other projects. You use : and you can access all sorts of commands within the editor.

Once you see it, it makes sense but it was a little baffling at first. 

This would be one of the many UI things I ran into which I thought was unusual. The app doesn't follow most of the MacOS conventions, a strange choice I see a lot with new desktop applications using Rust frameworks. Settings isn't where it should be, under the App name -> Preferences.

Instead it is under a gear icon in the top right corner.

Settings has everything you need but again not very MacOS, not really following normal layout. It's all here though.

Once I opened a codebase that the editor supported, it seemed to work fine. To be honest it's roughly the same experience as whenever I open an IDE. This one feels very snappy and I think there's a lot of good promise here, but it doesn't feel particulally Vim-like.

The primary value of Lapce, from what I could tell, is that it has a great SSH integration, just click the Blue cloud icon and enter the ssh path of [email protected] and it worked great. It also does really well with big projects, lots of text, not slowing down when processing them. However since I don't really work in big codebases like that, the SSH integration is nice but I'm not really able to put it through its paces.

However if you do work with a lot of big files and find other IDEs sluggish, it's probably worth trying. Once you get a handle on the UI it all works pretty well.

Survived: 8 hours

I think if I was more of an IDE person and willing to put in the time Lapce could work fine for my workflow. I just didn't see anything that really spoke to me that would justify the time invested.

Conclusion

It's really an exciting time to be a programmer for a lot of reasons. We have more mechanical keyboards, more monitors and more text editors. But in all seriousness I love that people are out there making this stuff and I think all of them should be proud. It's really exciting to be able to offer people new options in this space instead of repeating the five or so dominant platforms.

If you are looking for something new to try right now, Helix is really impressive and I think hard to beat.

I strongly encourage people to download these, try them out, or PLEASE let me know if there is a good one I missed. I'm more than happy to do a review of another text editor at pretty much any time. You can find me on Twitter.

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