The buzz cut

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A Month With Vim: Week 1

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In my last post I explained that I was going to immerse myself in Vim for a month to see if I found it a suitable replacement for Sublime Text. Here’s what I learned in my first week:

Being an absolute Vim noob, I had to start at the beginning. I googled Vim and clicked through to My first reaction was “oh, crap, this looks like an Apache project website.” Apache has some great projects, but those sites are all sterile, assume you’re an expert, and lack useful documentation. That’s what felt like. I mean, compare Sublime Text’s site with Vim’s. SublimeText’s site is all “Hey, look at this beautiful piece of software,” while Vim’s site is all “eep opp ork ah ah.”

I think that’s relevant. There was once a time in my life where I enjoyed tinkering with complicated software. I did several tours of running linux on old laptops. I built my own machines, recompiled binaries, and found crazy hacks to get things working the way I wanted them to. I’m past those days. I have a mac. I don’t want to tinker any more. I expect things to work. So, when I saw the Vim site, I got a little nervous. Was Vim going to make me more productive, or was it just going to earn me a nerd badge?

I clicked the “download” link on and was immediately faced with a decision: which mac client to use? I’ll make it easy for you, if you’re on a mac, use MacVim:
brew install macvim

With MacVim installed, I spent my first week familiarizing myself with the configuration options, plugins, and keyboard shortcuts. Here’s an overview of what I learned:


If you’re using MacVim and not using Janus (see the plugins section below), your configs will live in ~/.vimrc and ~/.gvimrc. The latter is used to store configs specific to the GUI version of Vim. The former is for general configurations.

One of the first configuration changes I made was to the color scheme. Hey, if you’re going to be staring at the same screen all day, it should be pretty, right? I’d been using the Monokai scheme for Sublime Text, so I was happy to find a version for Vim. I grabbed the Monaki.vim file and put it in ~/.vim/colors/ (create those directories if they don’t exist yet). Then I added the following config in ~/.vimrc: colorscheme monokai. Note: after making changes to .vimrc and restarting MacVim enough times, I finally figured out how to reload changes without restarting. With .vimrc in the current buffer, do the following: %so ~

With my colorscheme set, I added some standard configs which I’d gathered from a variety of sample .vimrc files:

syntax on
filetype plugin indent on       " Enable filetype-specific indenting and plugins

set nocompatible
set backspace=indent,eol,start  " allow backspacing over everything in insert mode
set history=400                     " keep 400 lines of command line history
set ruler                         " show the cursor position all the time
set showcmd                         " display incomplete commands
set showmatch

"set nowrap
set wrap
set linebreak
set nolist                      " list disables linebreak

set autoread
set guioptions-=T
set ignorecase smartcase
set laststatus=2                " Always show status line.
set relativenumber
set sidescroll=5
set listchars+=precedes:<,extends:>
set scrolloff=3                 " Show 3 lines of context around the cursor.
set tabstop=2                   " Global tab width.
"set autoindent                 " always set autoindenting on
set shiftwidth=2                " And again, related.
set expandtab                   " Use spaces instead of tabs
set nobackup                    " Don't make a backup before overwriting a file.
set nowritebackup               " And again.
set backupdir=~/.vim/_backup    " where to put backup files.
set directory=~/.vim/_temp      " where to put swap files.
"set spell

It’s worth noting that most people use set nowrap. I’d prefer that option, but when editing files with long lines, I found Vim to get super slow. The last thing I expected to have a problem with was Vim being slow. That alone would’ve been a show stopper. I googled a bit and found that one option was to turn off syntax highlighting. I tested that, and it worked, but I can’t live without syntax highlighting. The other option was to turn wrapping on, thus preventing long lines. Not ideal, but that resolved the problem for now. The set spell config turned on spellchecker, which was nice while writing this blog post in Vim, but it too seemed to degrade performance, so I turned it off for now.

I’ve just started to play with customized key mappings, but I’ll hold off on discussing those until a later post.


There’s a large contingent of Vim users who recommend using the Janus to provide a basic foundation for the most common mappings. I played with Janus, and went back and forth on it several times. Ultimately, I decided against it. As a new user, I want to learn vanilla Vim. I want to experience the problems that Janus solves in order to understand why Janus exists.

There seems to be multiple ways to install plugins. The two most common appear to be Vundle and Pathogen. At this point, I’ve activated both, but I’m really only using Vundle.

The plugins that I’ve found must-have’s so far for a Ruby developer are: Vim Rails, Command T, SuperTab, Vim Ruby, Vim Endwise, NerdTree, Vim RVM, and SnipMate

Key mappings

Commands can be executed by single key presses (e.g., j to move down), control + key presses (e.g., Ctl + w + w to switch between splits), Cmd + key presses (e.g., Cmd + z to undo, and Leader + key presses. The “leader” is like adding an additional “Cmd” key to your keyboard. The default leader is /, but it seems common to change that to the comma with the following configuration: let mapleader = ‘,’

There are a ton of commands. Very few of them felt natural to me, and one week in, I’m still way slower than I want to be. I started my learning process by typing in :help. Somewhere along the way, I found this cheatsheet, which has proven to be helpful on multiplate occasions. The absolutely best thing that I’ve done so far to learn the basic commands was to play Vim Adventures. If you’re serious about learning Vim, buy a license to this. I can’t recommend it enough.

Week one thoughts

I’m far from making a final decision, but with one week down, I’m not ready to declare Vim the winner. I do enjoy the key mappings, but I still can’t see a clear advantage over Sublime Text. Things that just work in Sublime Text, take a lot of tinkering in Vim. I was also REALLY surprised at some of the performance issues that I ran into with Vim. I never would’ve expected that.

Three weeks to go. Time will tell…