Vim misconceptions

Vim isn’t the best tool for every task, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t stick to your GUI IDE if you know it like the back of your hand and are highly productive in it. The very basic best practices for text editing in general apply just as well to more familiar editing interfaces as they do to Vim, so nobody should be telling you that Vim is right for everyone and everything and that you’re wrong not to use it.

However, because Vim and vi-like editors in general have a lot of trouble shaking off the connotations of their serverside, terminal-only, mouseless past, there are a few persistent objections to even trying Vim that seem to keep cropping up. If you’re someone curious about Vim but you heard it was useless for any of the following reasons, or if you’re an experienced user looking to convince a hesitant neophyte to try Vim, the following list might clear a few things up.

Vim takes too long to learn

If you want analogues to all of the features in your IDE, that would likely take some time, just as it would in any other new editor. However, if all you need to start is to be able to enter text, move around, and load and save files, you just need to know:

  • i to enter insert mode, Esc to leave it
  • Arrow keys to move around in both modes
  • :e <filename> to load a document
  • :w <filename> to save a document
  • :q to quit, :q! to ignore unsaved changes

To do pretty much everything Windows Notepad would let you do, on top of that you’d only need to learn:

  • dd to cut a line
  • yy to copy a line
  • p to paste a line
  • /<pattern> to search for text
  • n to go to the next result
  • :s/pattern/replacement to replace text

From that point, you only get faster as you learn how to do new things. So saying that Vim takes weeks to learn is a bit disingenuous when the essentials can easily be mastered with a few minutes’ practice.

Granted, the arrow keys are a bit of an anti-pattern, but you can worry about that later.

Vim has no GUI

Vim has a GUI version called Gvim for both Windows and Unix. For Mac OS X, the MacVim port is preferred. For experienced users the GUI’s only real advantage over the terminal version is a wider color palette, but it has a toolbar and other GUI elements which some new users may find useful.

Vim doesn’t have spell checking

Vim allows spell checking with system dictionaries, using :set spell and :set spelllang. Misspelt and unknown words are highlighted appropriately.

Vim doesn’t have syntax highlighting

Vim has support for syntax highlighting that can be turned on with :syntax enable, for a very wide variety of programming languages, markup languages, and configuration file syntaxes.

Vim only allows eight colours

This is a limitation of terminal emulators rather than of Vim itself, but most modern GUI terminal emulators allow 256 colours anyway with a little extra setup. The GUI version, Gvim, has full color support with the familiar rrggbb color definitions.

Vim doesn’t have class/function folding

Vim does in fact have support for folding, based on both code structure and manually defined boundaries. See :help folding for details.

Vim doesn’t have autocompletion

Vim allows basic completion using words already in the current buffer, and also more advanced omnicompletion using language dictionaries for constants, variables, classes, and functions.

Vim doesn’t have a file browser

Vim has had the Netrw plugin bundled for some time, which provides a pretty capable filesystem browser.

Vim can’t do network editing

Again, the bundled Netrw plugin handles this. Editing files over FTP and SCP links is pretty transparent. You can open a file on a remote server by entering the following, which will prompt for your username and password:

:e ftp://ftp.example.com/index.html

When you’re done editing, you just enter :w to save the file, and it’s automatically uploaded for you. You can record your FTP credentials in a .netrc file to save having to type in usernames and passwords all the time. URIs with scp:// work the same way; with a good public key infrastructure set up, you can use Vim quite freely as a network-transparent editor.

Vim doesn’t have tabs or windows

The model Vim uses for tabs and windows is rather different from most GUI editors, but both are supported and have been for some time.

Vim has too many modes

It has three major modes: normal mode, insert mode, and command mode. There’s a fourth that’s Vim-specific, called visual mode, for selecting text.

Most editors are modal in at least some respect; when you bring up a dialog box, or enter a prefix key to another command, you’re effectively changing modes. The only real difference is that context shifts in Vim are at first less obvious; the screen doesn’t look too different between normal, insert, and command mode.

The showmode option helps to distinguish between insert and normal mode, a common frustration for beginners. This gets easier when you get into the habit of staying out of insert mode when not actually entering text.

Vim doesn’t work with the mouse

Vim works fine with the mouse, in both Gvim and xterm-like terminal emulators, if you really want it. You can change the position of the cursor, scroll through the document, and select text as normal. Setting the below generally does the trick:

:set mouse=a

However, even a little experience in Vim may show you that you don’t need the mouse as much as you think. Careful use of the keyboard allows much more speed and precision, and it’s quite easy to run a complex editing session without even moving from the keyboard’s “home row”, let alone all the way over to the mouse.

Vim doesn’t do Unicode

Vim supports Unicode encodings with the encoding option. It’s likely you’ll only need to put the below in your .vimrc file and then never really think about encoding in your editor again:

:set encoding=utf-8

Vim isn’t being developed or maintained

The original author of Vim, and its current maintainer and release manager, is Bram Moolenaar. At the time of writing, he is working for Google, and is paid to spend some of his time developing Vim. The development mailing list for Vim is very active, and patches are submitted and applied to the publically accessible Mercurial repository on a regular basis. Vim is not a dead project.

Vim is closed source

Vim isn’t proprietary or closed source, and never has been. It uses its own GPL-compatible license called the Vim license.

The original vi used to be proprietary because Bill Joy based the code on the classic UNIX text editor ed, but its source code has now been released under a BSD-style license.

6 thoughts on “Vim misconceptions

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