A Comparison of Xemacs and Gnu Emacs

Emacs aficionados will point out that Emacs is intended to be left running all of the time; in some ways the editor doubles as an operating environment or shell.

Both versions of Emacs protect you from losing files or unsaved text. As you type, the current buffer is periodically saved (at user-configurable intervals) to a file called “#filename#”, which can be restored in a later editing session. As soon as a file is successfully saved, this temporary file is automatically deleted. The normal type of backup file (filename~) is also created when files are saved. It would be difficult to lose very much text with these safeguards in effect.

Interesting Packages

Although both Gnu Emacs and Xemacs come with HTML editing modes, another possibility is the excellent HTML-Helper-Mode by Nelson Minar. This mode, available from http://www.santafe.edu/~nelson/, is quick, has good syntax highlighting, and supports Netscape tags and tables.

Ben Wing, one of the main developers of Xemacs, has written an elaborate SGML editing mode, which could be useful to anyone writing in the Linuxdoc SGML format, as used by the Linux Documentation Project. This package is included with Xemacs.

The VM mail system is included with Xemacs, and can be obtained separately for use with Gnu Emacs. Though Rmail (the original Emacs mail client) comes with both Emacs versions, it's not as full-featured as VM and uses a proprietary message format, which is a nuisance if you wish to access mail folders with other mail programs.

And then there is William Perry's W3, an ongoing project (consisting of a package of LISP files) which allows Emacs to function as a web browser. In its latest incarnation W3 supports style-sheets, inline images, background colors and bitmaps, and even some of the Netscape tags. It's written in LISP, though, and tends to be rather slow. With graphics turned off, running it is like running an improved Lynx as part of Emacs. W3 is definitely worth checking up on from time to time, as development is active and newer versions of Xemacs are likely to be optimized for running W3 as well. The current stable and beta versions of W3 can be obtained from ftp://ftp.cs.indiana.edu in the /pub/eLISP/w3 directory.


Either one of these two editors contains more features and obscure functions than most of us will ever use. Xemacs is characterised by its bells and whistles, and its developers maintain a strong presence on the Internet. Gnu Emacs may have more users, many of whom are also willing to help newcomers, but if you are interested in influencing future development of either editor, you will probably have more luck with the Xemacs team. Luckily the basic editing commands in each version are nearly identical, so if you learn one it doesn't take long to come up to speed in the other.

Larry Ayers (layers@vax2.rain.gen.mo.us), lives on a small farm in northern Missouri, where he is currently engaged in building a timber-frame house for his family. He operates a portable band-saw mill, does general woodworking, plays the fiddle and searches for rare prairie plants, as well as growing shiitake mushrooms. He is also struggling with configuring a Usenet news server for his local ISP. His e-mail address is layers@vax2.rain.gen.mo.us.



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nice comparison

Anonymous's picture

but i lol'ed at 'lots of disk space' somehow meaning '50mb'... maybe 5 _thousand_ MB would be a lot... even then, just during compile I couldn not care less how much space is used

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