My Spacemacs Odyssey

ptags: emacs

I’m a long time vim user and I just love vim modal editing approach. But, I always admired Emacs extensibity, introspection and self-documenting capabilities. Although I gave Emacs a try couple of times in the past I just couldn’t get used to non-modal editing and cumbersome finger-stretching keyboard bindings. For some time I was keeping an eye on spacemacs, emacs distribution geared towards vim users. It looked like a perfect blend of vim and emacs so I gave it a try.

Although spacemacs is still beta the switch-over was surprisingly smooth. It took me just a few days to get to the speed thanks to Evil mode, a vim-like modal editing support which is enabled by default in spacemacs. Evil works remarkably good, even some often used plugins are ported like, for example, surround.

First impression are default settings which are most of the time just what I want. Configuration is done in .spacemacs file which is well organized and commented. Much of the functionality is accessible using key combination starting with space bar (hence the name of the distribution) followed by a letter which is easy to remember most of the time (SPC b - for buffer actions, SPC f - for file actions, SPC p - for project actions etc.). If you don’t know the right key that proceeds a helpful popup is displayed with the keys that can be tried next (thanks to which-key). You can easily ask emacs to describe keybindings, key, package, function (SPC d and than b for bindings, k for keys, p for package, f for function, v for variable, m for mode). Help on anything is triggered with SPC F1. In all cases a fuzzy searchable list is displayed thanks to helm package (Emacs incremental completion and selection narrowing framework).

You can quickly toggle some settings using SPC t prefix and than appropriate letter. For example to turn on/off indent guide use SPC t i. To directly call emacs lisp function use M-x and than type the part of the name.

Of course, configuration, keybindings, moving around and editing is just a part of the story. We all depend heavily on various plugins and extensions that makes our life easier. Here are some comments on few of them.


Helm is emacs incremental completion and selection narrowing framework. It is integrated with most packages that provides a list to select from. I was very impressed by a helm-swoop functionality which I use most of the time now to search inside the buffer.

The functionality similar to this can be achieved in vim using unite but helm feels more powerful and better integrated with the rest of the editor.


For git in vim I used fugitive which is great. In emacs a standard package is Magit. I find Magit to be as capable as fugitive or even more with a much easier to learn interface. Keybindings are easier to grasp and the way of work is just more logical. For fugitive It took me quite some time to get to the speed.

To call magit status use SPC g s or to call magit menu SPC g m. SPC g is prefix for some of the more frequently used Magit commands. Check out blame mode, it is really nice SPC g b.


Flycheck is syntax checker for emacs. I didn’t have to do much to have it working. It just works. For various programming languages you have to install external tools. Check the docs.


In vim I used Ultisnips plugin for snippets. In spacemacs the default is yasnippet. Yasnippet provides you what you would expect from a capable snippet/template engine. You can create new snippet by calling yas-new-snippet function. In the snippet buffer you can test the snippet C-c C-t and save it with C-c C-c when you are satisfied with the result. Nice feature of yasnippet is that you can use any emacs lisp expression on entered text which gives you great flexibility on what can be done with the engine. Ultisnips use Python for similar feature.

Org mode

And last but not least is Org mode. If there is one package that is worth using emacs for it’s this one. I could say that it blew my mind and changed the way I work. I knew for this gem a long time ago and actually used its vim clone but emacs Org mode is just fantastic. This tool let you organize all your notes, todos, schedules in hierarchical structure in plain text files while giving you agenda and todo list overview over all files. It provides you with time tracking and pomodoro technique all in the same context. It let you work with tables seamlessly just as you would edit actual spreadsheet. It really facilitates GTD very well. Now I do all my work organization, note-taking activities and time-tracking in a set of Org mode files.

Final thoughts

All in all, this was a pleasant experience for me. After a two weeks of using spacemacs I can say that I feel fully productive and the journey has just begun. I still get impressed by spac(emacs) features every day. Although still in beta it is really well thought-out distribution with a nice configuration and set of defaults and packages.

Furthermore, default Evil mode gives me opportunity to nurture and don’t forget my vim-fu.