Anton's Research Ramblings

Text Editors for Coding

This is a just a rambling post about some of the coding tools that I use regularly. I'm a big fan of minimalism in general, so perhaps this might be interesting to read if you've only ever been exposed to the modern IDE way of programming. If you're like me you have hobby projects but you probably only have an hour per day to work on them. You can't wait 10 minutes for some IDE to finally start. You want to be able to code on your antique laptop whilst hunched in an impossible yoga position in a Ryanair plane seat. Your laptop doesn't even have enough memory to install any of that visual anything stuff. You want instant light-weight coding magic to happen. "Straight in - no kissing", as the sign on the restaurant on O'Connell street said.

MS-DOS Editor - "edit"

The MS-DOS text editor - the first editor I used - 1993.

My first home computer was a or 486 IBM-Compatible with MS-DOS and Windows 3.1. Windows was rubbish but I quite liked the DOS interface. Some games in 1993 had configuration or batch files that needed editing so that the game would have different allocations of memory in either EMS - expanded memory - for programmes requiring > 640KB up to 8MB or so at the time (we had 4MB at that time) or XMS - extended memory - a more modern version which required editing a system file called HIMEM.SYS. The command-line DOS text editor was invoked with edit which brought up the pictured editor. I liked it because it was simple, and you had menus which would tell you what the shortcut keys did. This would influence my future preferences.

JFE Editor When Learning C

Jens' File Editor - this is how I learned programming in 2003.

I first started learning programming in my first year of engineering undergrad. We learned C, and used a basic text editor with syntax highlighting and the GCC suite of compilers - a very, very minimal IDE. It had a little debugger (presumably based on GDB) that generally worked well. Despite seeming old-fashioned, this was without doubt the best possible introduction to programming. I have taught in several places now that rely on Microsoft Visual Studio or some Java-based IDE for learning programming, and do object-oriented programming from the get-go. Students do not learn good habits like this, get completely bamboozled by the insane menus and bizarre errors (of VS in particular), have no idea how some of the basic concepts work and are basically unable to do anything without the whole IDE from then on.

I regret now that it took me ten years to even start learning programming, as I totally could have done that when I was 10. But hey, it's hard to know where to start and easy to go the wrong way - what if I'd started with self-taught Visual BASIC or something - I would have been doomed.

One Summer's Affair with IDEs

I'd been curious about the popular IDEs during my studies - Borland was pretty big, and Visual Studio 2005 was very popular. I got into Microsoft's code world when learning DirectX (the lure of 3d was strong already) from one of those giant neon-green-and-black books in my spare time. I started and stopped using Visual Studio in 2005. Slow to load, slow to compile, slow to run, grossly unreliable, full of invisible errors, custom compiler that allows non-standard unportable code (anyone remember "BOOL"?), "dll hell", IDE-dependent build systems, bad conventions, completely insane menus, invisibly managed virtual memory that silently fixes bad memory access and allocation, secret running modes - it was and remains a pile of terrible, terrible grade-E software. Software I built using it took too long to make, the "visual C" designer for user-interfaces completely sucked compared to Visual Basic or C# or anything else, and I missed the simplicity of JFE and GCC. If I was to design a programming introduction course I would probably use a simple text editor but use GCC or Clang externally from the command line. Having a debugger with a watch list and memory debugging visually is pretty cool though - perhaps there's a modern tool like JFE.

I branched out now-and-again to try other IDEs for C++. Eclipse was a disaster of a thing, but it built portable code with Makefiles. Some of the other multi-platform open-source kits were okay, but really not much more useful than editing stuff by hand like in the old days, and all took longer to load, slowed down to a crawl (or crashed) with the intelli-lookup/auto-completion crap and used a monstrous allocation of memory. Fans would rave about plug-ins and customisation and so on but this is all a load of crap really - distractions from the actual task at hand - programming. Not a single one of these gizmos has ever improved anyone's productivity beyond the illusory, and all of them waste your time. We've all seen that person who takes 2 days setting up their custom plug-ins on a new computer before they are capable of putting code to file.

Linux/BSD/Mac Text Editors

I started experimenting with Linux distributions during the final year of my engineering undergrad - 2006. I systematically tried pretty much all of them. All were a bit flaky and unreliable. Ubuntu came out and beat them all with Debian's nice repository system, much better hardware support, and mail-out CD-ROMs with the system. This was a winner because it was incredibly difficult to download and install a distribution on New Zealand's disgraceful 2006 Internet - we were barely one level beyond dial-up with a privatised monopoly in charge all the telecoms infrastructure that had no real incentive to upgrade it. So yes, mailing a CD-ROM over the entire globe from the Isle of Man was lower latency broadband than the state of the national service. I immediately liked the Unix terminal, which was like using DOS again, but it had far superior and more powerful tools which beat all the advantages of using the project-level tools in an IDE. I'm still mostly working on Ubuntu-derivatives today. Mostly Xubuntu at the moment (the cut-down minimalist version).

Vim - what the heck is "visual mode" and what do I do now and how do I quit? It's like being trapped inside King's Quest or Zork or something.

I don't have the kind of brain that's good at remembering esoteric short-cuts using non-standard key-combinations and interfaces so I was never going to like using vi or vim text editors. I understand people have started with them and are fanatical about using them but I have to look up the commands for the interface every time and re-learn them just to quit a document. No way.

Emacs in windowed mode - it does have the Amiga look, doesn't it? It usually looks considerably worse than this - I think my system has the nice anti-aliased fonts package already.

Emacs (originally from "editor macros") is by default a windowed editor, but can be started on the command-line with emacs -nw. For me it has a better interface than vi but it's still a bit esoteric with double-commands to do things. Quit is Ctrl-x followed by Ctrl-c. That's still a bit much for me. To add to this it's also completely eccentric to a really extreme level, and is the very definition of project bloat. To me, having Tetris and a circuit diagram designer built in to a programme I want to just edit text with is terrible over-engineering beyond scope - this is a negative for me, not a positive. Adding to that it's also not installed by default and has something like a 300MB download minimum for something I just want to edit text with. There is a huge cult that's obsessed with it or some specific branch versus the other - probably another reason to steer clear. These are the plug-in people. The windowed version, despite being heralded as beautiful and so on, looks like it was made for the 1980s Amiga. Not for me.

Nano is a minimal terminal text editor that has a key reference on the bottom. That's all I need.

There's also GNU nano terminal editor, which is a copy of pico, the text editor from the Pine email client. Either one of these is probably on every Linux, BSD, and Mac distribution. It wasn't on my web server, but just copying the tiny binary over to it was all I needed to do to get it on there. Nano resembles the MS-DOS editor, and has a handy key reference on the bottom for people like me. You can edit a file called .nanorc to set up some defaults like always displaying the current line number, and never breaking lines and so on if you really want. It's possible to have syntax highlighting for code but actually I think this is a waste of time. I prefer to code in a monochrome terminal - auld shtyle boai [simultaneous wink and turn head]. The downside is that navigation through text can be a little clunky - you can't use the familiar Ctrl+arrows to move through words. That behaviour is bound to Ctrl+space by default which is usually the command to swap windows on the OS or something so you can't use it. I also can't be bothered finding out how to remap that every time I get on a new computer. Cut-and-paste is limited to whole lines, which is both very quick, and a bit limited/easy to screw-up. It's my most commonly-used text editor in a terminal. I feel it could be a little bit better. It starts immediately, it uses basically no memory, it never crashes, it never slows down - it is the Terminator of text editors.

Note that the terminal, by default, is the 80-char wide Unix terminal size. This is a good thing. A lot of high-profile programmers whine about this 80-char limit because we have wide-screen monitors now and suggest writing super wide text. They are totally wrong for the same reason that Wikipedia HTML looks like crap on a full-screen browser window. We (human beings) have an optimal reading paragraph width about 50-80 characters. Book publishers have known this for centuries. I therefore suggest not dragging your terminal window wider, but certainly dragging it taller. It's better to have a terminal to the side for programme debug output, another for coding into, and you still have screen space to display a running programme window.

gedit is pretty much my most-used graphical text editor.

For a little bit more precision using the mouse, or better spell-checking I'll sometimes use a graphical editor. Minimalist editors I use are gedit (Gnome-based), kate (KDE-based). Gedit is pretty good with tab-width 2 and line numbers always visible on the side. I set a column margin to GNU-standard 79 characters and break lines manually at this point. That's it! Gedit has a nice as-you-type spell checker but it's incredibly resistant to you having this on by default. Otherwise it's pretty nice. You can visualise spaces and tabs, which helps improve your formatting a bit. Don't get drawn in to installing the plug-ins.

On OSX any text editor is fine but just double-check that you are saving in plain text mode for code - as the default rich-text format can introduce unexpected character codes that break everything. I never really spent a lot of time in XCode - it was a bit big and scary for me. You do need to install it to get all the command-line build tools and compilers though. The terminal isn't as nice on OSX so once I finally borrowed a laptop to give it a good try I found that I was slower to do the same tasks than on Linux - it's just a step or two more hidden away to get to the hard-core tools.

On any Windows you can use Wordpad. Avoid Notepad - it won't respect non-MS conventions for line endings. On modern Windows a really nice tool is Notepad++. The preserving-all-tabs-open default behaviour is very overwhelming but you can disable that somewhere.


So that was an odd ramble about learning programming and review of text editors. I feel like I'm only moments away from finding a new favourite. This is a strange phase of my life.

Semi-Related - BASH tips

A lot of the powerful Unix terminal commands are listed for the BASH terminal in this guide ten-tips-for-wonderful-bash-productivity - the downside being that the powerful tools have command-line interfaces of many different styles, all of which are impossible to remember. The most commonly-used one isn't listed there - just using fgrep for a quick global "find this text/variable in all files in my project". Perhaps I shall do another post one day just listing helpful command-line tricks for use whilst coding (and accumulating them as I find more).