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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Developer: Bram Moolenaar

Latest version: 7.3

Linux support: All flavors

License: GPL

Vim (which originally stood for Vi Imitation but now stands for Vi IMproved) is a text editor that was originally designed by Bram Moolenaar in order to have a good Vi clone for the Amiga platform. Moolenaar started working on it in 1988; its first release was on November 2, 1991.


Since then it has been ported to a variety platforms, including Linux, Windows, Mac OS X and QNX.

What's new

Vim was initially designed to be used as a terminal-based text editor; however, there are many GUI front ends available for it today. The latest release (version 7) came out in 2006 and introduced some prominent features like spell-check, auto-complete, undo branches and a tabbed interface. Version 7.3 (released in 2010) is the latest minor release that adds features such as Python 3 support and a persistent undo feature.

What's good about it

Vim is a command-line editor. This means that you do not have to take your hands off the keyboard while editing any kind of file with Vim. Once you are used to it, this makes editing very fast.

To start typing text, you enter into insert mode (usually by typing i); to do other operations like copy, paste or replace, you need to come out of insert mode by hitting the Escape key. You can then run commands, which are nothing but key combinations. For example, to delete a line, you place the cursor on that line and press dd. Similarly, yy can be used for copying and p can be used to paste a copied or just deleted line.

Syntax highlighting -- highlighting different categories of text in various colors and/or fonts -- is another powerful feature of Vim. Over 200 languages are supported; you can also create your own syntax. Vim also highlights programming errors -- I have written numerous C programs using Vim, and the way it highlights mistakes such as a missing or extra bracket is very helpful.

If you are an existing Vi user, Vim will definitely strike the right chord with the set of improvements it brings over Vi. For example, Vim comes with an unlimited undo feature (as compared to the last command undo supported by Vi). Vim can also be used for editing files placed within an archive such as zip or tar.

What needs to be fixed

As a command-line-based editor, Vim is widely perceived as an editor for hard-core programmers and tech experts. Although this isn't necessarily so (I have many friends who aren't hard-core experts who have switched to Linux and like using Vim whenever working on command lines), it could put off less experienced users.

Secondly, because almost every key press has its own action, if you are new to Vim, you can get frustrated with the mess that can be created by accidental key presses. As with any other software, continuous learning and practice is the key.

Bottom line

Being a feature-rich command-line text editor, Vim has a very steep learning curve if you want to explore it to its potential -- but it's well worth it. You won't understand just how powerful, configurable and extensible Vim is unless you start using it.

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