5 free Linux text editors for programming and word processing

A programmer looks at the current versions of five well-known text editors and offers his take on how well they perform.

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GNU Emacs

Developer: Richard Stallman / GNU Project

Latest version: 24.3

Linux support: All flavors

License: GNU GPLv3

GNU Emacs -- the name is derived from "Editing Macros" -- is an advanced text editor and a popular ported version of the Emacs text editor.

GNU Emacs
GNU Emacs

Because the original Emacs (which was written by Richard Stallman and Guy L. Steele, Jr.) was not a free product, Stallman rewrote practically all the code. Released in 1984, GNU Emacs became the first free software under the GNU umbrella. Though Stallman has been the chief maintainer of the GNU Emacs project, most of the maintenance work since 2008 has been overseen by Chong Yidong and Stefan Monnier.

What's new

GNU Emacs is one of the oldest text editors around, but it's still being developed and maintained actively. The latest stable release -- 24.3 -- was released on March 11, 2013.

This release includes several major improvements, including an update for the Common Lisp emulation library, and a new major mode for Python, among others.

What's good about it

Written in C and Emacs Lisp (a dialect of the Lisp programming language), GNU Emacs is a user-friendly, customizable, and extensible text editor. It includes almost all of the features that are required in a good text editor.

For example, it offers context-sensitive editing modes, good tutorials and built-in documentation for new users, complete Unicode support for most human languages, and extensions to add new functionality. In addition, GNU Emacs is capable of printing and formatting documents just like a word processor, which isn't all that usual in a programming text editor.

What needs to be fixed

Beside a steep learning curve, the major downside of GNU Emacs is its relatively slow performance. When compared with other text editors, GNU Emacs runs a bit slower because the Lisp code takes time to load and interpret, which can cause performance issues when dealing with very large files. But for daily usage, with average-sized files, this shouldn't be an issue.

Bottom line

Despite being more than three decades old, GNU Emacs still holds its ground with a large and loyal following. The fact that it is still actively maintained, is user-friendly and comes with built-in documentation and tutorials makes it a worth using for day-to-day text editing work.

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