The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Don't Use Terminal Emacs

December 29, 2016

If you are a terminal guy as I am, or if you’re a terminal gal, you may be inclined to use Emacs in the terminal as well. A couple of my friends who took up Vim got used to running it within tmux and exchanged one terminal program for the other. This is wrong.

The GUI Emacs program is not just a crutch for the ignorant fools with their fingers all gnarled by mouse overuse; no, GUI Emacs is much more powerful, and there is almost no reason at all to run Emacs in a terminal. Ever.

Let me explain why.

There are two reasons why GUI Emacs is superior to Emacs run in a terminal:

  1. GUI Emacs is capable of things that the terminal fundamentally cannot do, and
  2. TRAMP.

I’m going to come at this from a Vim vs. gVim perspective because I was the guy who used to run around telling people to “just run Vim in the terminal,” and reciting facts like “other than color depth you get nothing from gVim,” and so on. Those statements are true.

Emacs, in so many ways, is light years ahead of Vim. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Emacs is better software.

OK, so let’s dig into the details.

GUI Capabilities

There are things that the GUI Emacs program can do that a terminal program simply cannot. These are things like:

  • Use rich text formatting
  • Display images
  • Display PDF documents
  • Interact with the system clipboard natively
  • Respond to key presses that terminals can’t see or understand

gVim has the ability to use the system clipboard, but apart from color depth there was no other difference in capabilities between it and good old terminal Vim.

Emacs brings in the ability to format text in different sizes, styles, and weights; display actual full images; display PDF documents; and use key bindings terminals don’t support.

I’ll just talk through a couple of these that I’ve found particularly useful, but feel free to drop additional questions in the comments below.

Display Images

Let’s get this out of the way first. I don’t think that displaying images in Emacs is a “killer app.” I have used it when creating presentations or taking notes in Org Mode, but I could easily live without it. I even wrote a package for displaying the weather forecast, called Sunshine, which can display the icons for weather conditions. It’s easy to do. It’s not critical to my lifestyle or well-being.

System Clipboard

Access to the system clipboard is absolutely a must-have. I recall going through long and uncomfortable contortions to get tmux and terminal Vim to share clipboard data with the Linux system clipboard using command line utilities like xsel and xclip. It never worked well, it hung the editor, it was not reliable.

Being able to copy and paste freely between your browser or other apps and your editor is a critical time-saver. That’s why the clipboard exists in the first place.

Both gVim and GUI Emacs have this ability because they are GUI programs. You are severely missing out if you are using your terminal as a layer in between these functions. Pasting into the editor is usually not so bad, but copying out of it is tedious and awful.

When using Org Mode to comprehensively organize my entire life, access to features like clipboard sharing and protocol triggers are totally killer.

Respond to Keys the Terminal Doesn’t Understand

There are actually four common modifier keys on any modern keyboard. Those are, in no particular order:

  1. Shift,
  2. Control,
  3. Alt (or Meta), and
  4. Super

Super is also called by other names, like “Command” (on the Mac) or “the Windows key” in That Other Operating System. Emacs loves to bind things to super. Since picking up Emacs I have discovered all sorts of ways to make use of the additional key bindings at my disposal when I am using super.

Emacs also loves binding things to meta (alt). Even meta doesn’t always work properly in some terminals because there are strong differences of opinion about how those particular character codes are formed, but there are few terminals that can properly handle a super key press at all.

You have all of these keys, and your operating system can use them, so why not your editor?


For those who are not familiar with TRAMP, it is an acronym that stands for “Transparent Remote Access, Multiple Protocol” and has been a part of core Emacs since version 22.1.

Why does this have anything at all to do with terminal vs. GUI Emacs? Because the terminal versions of editors are quite often used to make changes to files on remote servers, generally through an SSH connection.

What TRAMP allows you to do is open remote files, through SSH, directly in your local GUI Emacs. Not only does it allow you to open those files, it allows you to save them, to move them, to change their permissions, and so forth. TRAMP abstracts away the protocol layer in between so that essentially all Emacs operations work on remote files. It’s similar to magic.

Is your remote file located in a Git repository? No problem, Magit works through TRAMP as well. Because TRAMP basically wraps all of the elisp file access functions, or something like that, most Emacs packages don’t need to do any extra work to act on remote files.

There are a few caveats, of course. If you work on remote projects quite often, it can be slow to use tools like Projectile, where indexing tons of remote files is required, but for dropping in and editing a few files (the sort of thing you’d open a quick SSH session for), TRAMP is perfect.

Since you’re using your own local GUI Emacs, you feel right at home with all of your GUI key bindings and colors and so on.

Advice You Didn’t Ask For

If you’ve made it this far without cheating, you already know my opinion. I strongly advise you to simply stop using Emacs in the terminal. Full stop.

You may ask, “but what if I need to edit my crontab file or something?” Sure. I get that. Guess what, you can use GUI Emacs for that, too, if you have (server-start) in your init file and your $VISUAL environment variable is set to emacsclient.

Live in the blissful world of 16.7 million colors, different font sizes, and infinite key bindings. Live in the GUI, forever.