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Emacs vs. Vim: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 21, 2023
Emacs is a highly customizable text editor with built-in functions and extensions, while Vim is a mode-based editor known for its efficiency and keyboard commands.

Key Differences

Emacs is renowned for its extensibility. It's not just a text editor; with the right packages, it can be transformed into a complete development environment, email client, calendar, and more. Vim, on the other hand, is praised for its minimalism and efficiency, focusing predominantly on text editing tasks and doing so very effectively.
When it comes to learning curve, both Emacs and Vim have reputations for being challenging to newcomers. However, they differ in their approaches. Emacs largely utilizes key combinations involving the "Control" and "Meta" keys, leading to jokes about "Emacs pinky" from the finger strain. Vim, conversely, operates in various modes, most notably "insert" and "normal," with each mode having its set of commands.
Customizability is a strength of Emacs, with its use of the Lisp programming language for its extensions. Users can, and often do, tailor Emacs to their precise needs and workflows. Vim, while also customizable, focuses on a core set of powerful text manipulation commands, leveraging its unique language for operations.
Emacs often embraces the philosophy of incorporating functionality, leading to its characterization as an "operating system within an operating system." Vim, conversely, aligns with the Unix philosophy of doing one thing and doing it well, concentrating on being a potent text editor.
From a historical perspective, both Emacs and Vim have rich histories in the world of computing. Emacs originated in the mid-1970s and has been associated with the free software movement. Vim, which stands for "Vi Improved," is an enhancement of the Vi editor from Unix, maintaining compatibility with its predecessor.

Comparison Chart

Core Philosophy

Extendable to any function
Do one thing and do it well


Uses Lisp for extensions
Has its own scripting language


Key combinations
Mode-based operations

Historical Origin

Originated in the 1970s, associated with free software movement
An improvement of Unix's Vi editor

Typical Use Case

Integrated development environment (IDE), text editing, and more
Efficient text editing

Emacs and Vim Definitions


An editor developed in the mid-1970s.
Emacs has a rich history in the world of computing.


A mode-based text editor.
She found text manipulation faster in Vim.


Known for key combinations using "Control" and "Meta."
He got used to the Emacs keybindings after a few weeks.


Known for its efficiency and unique keyboard commands.
He switched to Vim for its powerful editing commands.


A platform with built-in functions and extensions.
Using Emacs, he could code, check his email, and manage his calendar.


Emphasizes powerful text manipulation commands.
His productivity increased after mastering Vim's commands.


Often associated with the free software movement.
He appreciated the open-source nature of Emacs.


An enhancement of the Unix Vi editor.
Vim, standing for Vi Improved, retained many of Vi's original features.


A highly extensible text editor.
She customized Emacs to fit her coding style.


Operates primarily in "insert" and "normal" modes.
She learned the different modes of Vim to improve her workflow.


(computing) Any implementation or reimplementation of Emacs.


Liveliness or energy; enthusiasm.


Ready vitality and vigour.


Power; force; energy; spirit; activity; vigor.


A healthy capacity for vigorous activity;
Jogging works off my excess energy
He seemed full of vim and vigor


An imaginative lively style (especially style of writing);
His writing conveys great energy


What's the main appeal of Emacs?

Its extensibility and ability to be customized for varied tasks.

Can I use Emacs as an IDE?

Yes, Emacs can be extended to function as a full-fledged IDE.

Which is older, Emacs or Vim?

Emacs originated in the mid-1970s, while Vim was introduced later as an improvement over Vi.

Can Vim be extended like Emacs?

Vim is extensible, but its philosophy leans more towards text editing than encompassing varied tasks.

Is Vim's mode-based operation unique?

While other editors may use modes, Vim's usage is distinctive and central to its operation.

Can I use Emacs for non-programming tasks?

Yes, Emacs can handle tasks like email, calendar management, and more.

How does Vim handle text editing?

Through mode-based operations, primarily "insert" and "normal" modes.

What's the primary language for Vim's scripting?

Vimscript or VimL is used for scripting in Vim.

Is Emacs open-source?

Yes, Emacs is open-source and has ties to the free software movement.

Can I install extensions in Emacs?

Absolutely! Emacs supports a multitude of packages and extensions.

Are there resources to transition from Vim to Emacs or vice versa?

Yes, numerous guides help users transition between the two, leveraging their existing knowledge.

How do I switch modes in Vim?

Pressing "Esc" generally takes you to "normal" mode, and "i" enters "insert" mode.

How steep is the learning curve for Emacs and Vim?

Both have their challenges, but with dedication, users find them extremely powerful.

How do I start with Emacs extensions?

The MELPA repository is a great starting point for Emacs packages.

Are there online communities for Vim and Emacs?

Absolutely, both have robust communities on platforms like Reddit, Stack Exchange, and others.

Which one is better, Emacs or Vim?

It's subjective and depends on individual preferences and needs.

Why is Vim called "Vi Improved"?

Vim began as an enhanced version of the Unix Vi editor, thus the name.

Are there modern forks or versions of Vim?

Yes, Neovim is a notable example of a modern Vim fork.

Why are Emacs keybindings joked about?

Due to extensive use of the "Control" and "Meta" keys, leading to the term "Emacs pinky."

Are there graphical versions of Emacs and Vim?

Yes, there are GUI versions for both, like GVim for Vim and Emacs GUI.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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