Learning Emacs – part 2: the emacs user interface

In part 1 of this series, we looked at installing emacs. This time, lets get acquainted with the emacs user interface.

The emacs user interface

Below is a screenshot of an average emacs screen with several noteworth elements labeled.

Emacs screen

The first two elements of note are the menubar and toolbar. These are pretty much the same as what you’re used to from any other GUI application, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that emacs works like any other GUI application! The first rule for understanding and learning emacs: Emacs is old. It’s been around since the pre-historic days of computing, and learning to use emacs will sometimes feel like a journey back in time. Gnu Emacs comes from a time before graphical user interfaces were common. Mouse support, menus, and limited graphics capabilities have been grafted onto it over the years, but at it’s heart, emacs is still a text mode console application. You have to understand that to ever understand emacs.

Emacs is a relic from another era. You have to accept or reject it on it’s own terms. It is not, and will probably never be more than superficialy similar to any of the other applications you probably use. In a later installment, I’ll show you how to disable the menubar and toolbar. I know that sounds crazy, but IMHO it’s essential that you force yourself to learn emacs on its own terms.

The next noteworthy UI element is the minibuffer. It’s the seemingly blank line at the very bottom of the emacs window. The minibuffer is where you’ll enter longer commands, and where you’ll enter arguments to commands that require arguments. A simple example would be using the C-x C-f command to open a file. The minibuffer area is where you’ll be prompted to enter a filename. (if you don’t know what C-x C-f means yet, don’t worry. We’ll go over that soon.

The final major UI element we’ll talk about is the modeline. The modeline contains a number of useful pieces of status information, including the name of the current buffer (usually the name of the file being edited in the buffer), the current modes (major mode and minor modes), the current position of the cursor in the buffer, amount of the buffer displayed on screen, etc.

That’s it for this installment. Next time we’ll start getting hands on with some basic commands including cursor movement, insertion and deletion, etc.

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Other installment in this series: part one, part two, part three, and part four.

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