Jumping Ship: Moving from emacs to TextMate

Update: Not quite ready to give up all the nice authoring features of emacs, I built, with some tinkering, a reftex-style citation command for the TextMate/LaTeX bundle. It has since been incorporated into the main LaTeX bundle.

Update: The Sweave bundle is updated as of Oct 5 2006. Thanks to Haris for the contributions and improvements.

Yesterday I linked to a screencast that shows off some the neat things that one can do with the math bundle in TextMate. TextMate continues to get better, and it has become my primary editor on OSX. Kieran posted a comment about TextMate’s relative lack of functionality with regard to LaTeX and R:

I was looking into TextMate but its latex and R support is still fairly basic — there’s no real equivalent to auctex/reftex’s functionality, and the R bundle is rudimentary. This is a pity, as it seems like a really powerful environment, and for some time I’ve been looking for a way to escape from Emacs and use an OS X native, modern editor/IDE. Maybe soon.

Kieran is right in part: Auctex and Reftex are excellent additions to emacs and TextMate can’t yet match them. But it does offer some nice advantages over emacs, so I thought I’d write up a few thoughts on my transition to TextMate and the ways I’ve found to compensate for no longer having access to my beloved C-c C-c RET.

Why switch

OS X is a pleasant working environment, and even builds of emacs that are meant to fit nicely in that environment still don’t feel native. Aquamacs is one such attempt. For brand new users of emacs, Aquamacs may be a good tool, but for those of us with pre-existing byzantine .emacs files, Aquamcs adds a whole additional level of confusion by changing keybindings and introducing a whole new set of configuration options. Despite all the attempts to make it more modern, setting one’s typeface in the editor remains a frustrating exercise. My machine is relatively modern and speedy, and emacs still takes a good long time to load fully, even after pruning unnecessary cruft from my config file. And once loaded, there are just enough interface differences to be jarring: scroll bars, for example, are something that most emacs builds have never really sorted out. It’s 2006; can I please get a scroll bar that works the same way as every other scroll bar on my machine?

It’s not about bling, however. As projects such as my dissertation grew in size — multiple data, LaTeX, R, and Sweave files spread around the place — the organization of all that material started to occupy an increasing chunk of my cognitive space. “Where’s file goober, and how is it related to file data?” Although emacs handles lots of files just brilliantly, and switching between them is a snap if you’ve loaded the right iswitch-b package, it doesn’t help much with the organization end of things. That was my real original incentive to switch: I wanted my software to take a little of the load off of my brain, and perhaps to do it a little more quickly.

Finally, switching is a nice opportunity to review the way I get work done and think conscientiously about how to improve. On the flip side, it’s also a nice way to structurally procrastinate.

Why not switch?

Emacs is powerful. It can read email, browse the web, make a fully-functional wiki right on your desktop, and, on those occasions when appropriate, it can edit text files with championship ability. It is a mature working environment with brilliant integration with LaTeX, BibTeX, and R. Just using it can make one feel like a ninja, albeit a meek, deskbound one with rapidly deteriorating vision and nascent repetetive stress disorder in the wrists. As Kieran commented, nothing quite approaches the combination of AucTeX and RefTeX. I’m still reaching for those key-bindings that, alas, don’t work in TextMate no matter how many times I C-c [ them.

Built-in magic

TextMate immediately addressed my core reason to switch with its handling of projects. It has a project drawer into which you can simply drag files and folders, create separators, and arbitrarily organize them all. It seems like a small thing, but the ability to see all the files that comprise a project, and then navigate them easily, is something that’s a) really important in order to have a clear sense of what I’m working on, and b) remarkably difficult in emacs.




Navigating those files is easy, as well: You can find and click in the project list, switch tabs with the keyboard, or hit cmd-T to bring up a file browser that finds files as you type: “cmt-T cl” narrows the list to those files that match the pattern “cl.” It pretty nicely approximates the autocompletion of switching buffers in emacs.


Many pieces loosely joined

TextMate is, like emacs, extensible almost to the point of absurdity. The architect of this extensibility built TextMate to hook into virtually any programming language, shell command, and external application. TextMate comes with built-in support for LaTeX and BibTeX compilation, as well as completing citations and labels within LaTeX documents. The latter function isn’t nearly as slick as using RefTeX, but it works fairly well. There are a few useful screencast demonstrations of those features. Haris, the author of those screencasts, has contributed tremendously to cite key and label completion — they work pretty well, thanks much to him.

I’ve made what I think are a few improvements to existing bundles in order to faciliate my own work: I’ve modified the LaTeX compile command to switch to xelatex if necessary, for example.

More in depth, but still fairly simple, is my rudimentary Sweave bundle for TextMate.1 TextMate allows one to set environment variables at the global or project level, so, for instance, I can assign a “master document” variable to my dissertation. This allows me to generate LaTeX output from a single in-process Sweave file, or, with an alternate command, to re-run the entire Sweave project through R and then begin LaTeX compilation. With the bundle TextMate (mostly; it’s still a work in progress) correctly parses Sweave files, allowing for context-sensitive actions depending on the position of the caret in a file: Within a Sweave document, I can generate LaTeX, compile that associated LaTeX file, send selected code to R, or build the entire master document. It works pretty slick now that it’s set up. Whereas in Emacs, the ties between various files was frequently opaque, I’ve found that keeping track of those relationships and compiling documents is more transparent and much easier.

Is it worth it?

For me, it has been worth it. The tinker to work ratio starts out pretty high, but that’s not unusual. Breaking emacs habits is tougher, even after four months, and I’d love a citation mode that works more akin to that found in RefTeX — the ability to invoke the command and then choose citation types, for example — and I still miss some of the enhancements from AucTeX; it trained me too well to C-c C-s to insert a section, for example. The ease with which one can build bundles and interface with external applications suggests that it won’t be long before someone may start building equivalent tools, and that will be a happy day.

In the meantime, TextMate is fast, allows me to visualize my projects, and works well enough with the other applications I use, as well as within my workflow, to justify the switch. It’s a good app, and it has improved my work.

Revise and extend (ie, updated)

I forgot to mention another issue about switching. Up until now, my tools have been almost entirely cross-platform for the past five or six years. TextMate is OS X-specific, so I can’t smoothly use the same set of tools on the Windows laptop like I could with emacs. This gives me some pause: It’s nice to have a mostly universal workflow, in which I could sit down at a PC, Mac, or linux machine, sync some files, and work. But over the past year with the iMac, I’ve picked up a few other non cross-platform tools: BibDesk is a great BibTeX manager, and I’ve been doing a ton of stuff using OmniOutliner Pro in the past handful of months, so switching away from emacs on one platform isn’t as much of a transition on that front as it might have been a year ago. Besides, the Mac is a nice platform to work on. And, hey, one of these days I’ll be able to trade up the Toshiba for a shiny new *Book of some kind.

1 The SWeave bundle is now distributed as a regular TextMate Bundle via the subversion bundle repository. [ return to text ]