There is a strong contrast between vi and emacs, both in terms of philosophy and the user's experience. While vi is essentially small and efficient, emacs is large and powerful. One of the things that many people find most irritating about vi is the need to switch between command mode and text-entry mode. The emacs editor operates differently; you access commands through key combinations involving the Ctrl and Meta keys (on Linux for Meta, read Alt). In graphical mode, emacs also has easily accessible menus that you can use with the mouse.

emacs is much more than a text editor; it aims to be an entire working environment. You can use emacs as your mail client. You can use it as a complete integrated development environment (IDE). You can even use it as a web browser. (We don't recommend this. It's slow and doesn't render web pages well, but try it if you must. You will need to have the emacs-w3 package installed.)

emacs dates back to 1976, when it was first developed by Richard Stallman and others at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab. The name was derived from the phrase editor macros. GNU emacs is part of the GNU project. The history of the project and of the split between emacs and XEmacs is well documented on various web sites, including the emacs Wiki site and www.xemacs.org.

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