Programmer’s Editor

There are literally dozens of outstanding editors for professional programmers available either commercially, or free on the Internet. Choosing one is a challenge, and can lead to religious wars if you try to claim that you choice is the best. I choose to use an editor that is available on almost every Unix like system (including Linux) and has been around for many years. That editor is a version of vi. For Windows platforms, the specific editor I use is called gVim, and it is installed on the lab machines.

gVim is a free editor available from This particular version is a full Windows application that integrates fairly well into the Windows environment - even to the point where there is an Edit with gVim entry on the right-click context menu that you can pop up when browsing for files using the Windows Explorer tool.

The installation of gVim is pretty easy - download the installer and run it on your system. The current file you want is gvim73_46.exe. I usually install the program under c:\tools\vim on my systems. Once this is done, the editor is ready to go, except that I recommend a few tune-up steps to make the editor work a bit better for our projects.

gVim uses a configuration file to set a few parameters that control how it works. You do not need to modify this file, but adding a few parameters can make it work a bit nicer. The file is named _vimrc and it is found in the root of the folder where you installed gVim (c:\tools\Vim on my system). Here are the changes I make to my setup:

behave mswin
set nobackup
set tabstop=4
set shiftwidth=4
set expandtab
filetype on

The first of these lines should already be in your default configuration file, add the rest of them as shown.

Here is what these additions do:

Kill the automatic backup

By default, gVim creates a backup copy of the file you edit. That file has the same name as the file you are working with, with a squiggle added to the file name. This backup file can be used to recover from a bad editing session, if you need such a thing. Simply kill the current copy and rename the backup and off you go. I choose not to do this. This line controls this:

set nobackup

Change tabs from 8 spaces to 4 spaces

Most programmers use indenting as part of their programming style. By default, most editors set the tab stops every 8 spaces, which I find to be too many! I use the tab key to indent my code, but I prefer 4 characters per tab stop. Add these lines to set this up:

set tabstop=4
set shiftwidth=4

In addition, since I program in Python a lot, I prefer to have my tabs automatically expanded into spaces when I type. This helps keep my code listings on the web look right as well, since most browsers also use 8 spaces for the tab spacing. Here is the addition to make this happen:

set expandtab


Some programmers object to expanding tabs, but the benefits of doing so far outweigh these objections. Many companies set up coding standards that you have to live with, and expanding tabs is very common. That way programs written by one programmer using their editor will look right when loaded by another programmer in a different editor. Since I have to look at all of your code, and I will grade on style - let’s expand tabs and be done with it!

Basic editing

There are many tutorials available for vi, here is a gVim tutorial to get you started.

The most important concept to know about gVim is that it is a modal editor. That means you are in one of two modes at all times. The first mode is command mode, which you can detect by looking at the blinking cursor - it will be a black box the size of a single character. In this mode, anything you type will be a command to the editor. The most important commands are:

  • i (insert) enter text insert mode at the current location
  • :q (quit) exit the program
  • :w (write) write out the current text
  • <Esc> Exit insert mode and return to command mode

The second mode is text entry mode which is detected by looking at the blinking cursor again - it should be a skinny vertical line. In this mode anything you type will be entered into the text of the file you are editing. All the normal keys should work fine - cursor keys, tab, backspace and delete, etc.

You get out of text mode by typing the Esc (escape) key on your keyboard. Make sure the cursor changes as described above.

Since gVim is a normal graphical program, you have access to the menu system you should be familiar with from other work in Windows. Check the tutorial for more info. You will not be tested on anything about the editor so you are free to choose another one if you prefer. If you are seen using Notepad, you may lose your programmer’s license!

Other Settings

There are a few more settings I use in my teaching activities that you may find useful:

Wrapping text

Normal text entry will not wrap lines when they get too long. I like to keep all my code short so it prints nicely and can be displayed on web pages with little formatting problems. So, I want all my text lines to be less than about 75 characters ling. I can do this with this setting in _vimrc:

set textwidth=75
map q gq}

The normal edit window is 80 characters wide, so this works pretty well (for me). That second line looks pretty odd, but helps. If you edit a properly formatted paragraph and push lines out past your preferred limit, placing the cursor (in command mode) at the top of the paragraph and pressing the q key will reformat the paragraph so the line length limit is obeyed.

Spell checking

We can make gVim can work differently depending on the type of file you are editing. For each file name you edit, gVim looks at the file extension and loads a special plugin file whose name is something like viext.vim. These files are located in the vim73ftplugin directory (assuming you are using gVim 7.3). As delivered, gVim knows about a bunch of different languages. Now, we probably do not want to spell check a file with program code since lots of stuff in that file will be misspelled (according to your English teacher). However, if the file you are editing contains mostly normal text, turning spell checking on can be handy.

For example, the file containing these notes is being written in reStructured Text, and such documents normally are saved in files with a file extension of .rst. Add this line in rst.vim to turn on spell checking when you edit a reStructured Text file:

setlocal spell spelllang=en_us

Once this is done, spell checking will be active whenever you edit one of these files, and gVim will place a red squiggly line under any word that it thinks is misspelled. Click on the offending word, then right-click to see a menu that will help you correct the error. You can add words to the dictionary gVim uses if you like, just make sure your additions are spelled correctly!

Setup for Windows Vista and Windows 7

Under Windows XP, the gVim installation added a nice Edit with vim entry in the Windows Explorer context menu that allowed you to right-click on a file and quickly edit that file. Under Vista and Windows 7, this entry occasionally shows up, but most often does not. After Googling the problem, I found a registry patch that restore this feature. Save the following file as gvim.reg:

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

[HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\*\shell\Edit with Vim]

[HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\*\shell\Edit with Vim\command]
@="C:\\tools\\Vim\\vim72\\gvim.exe \"%1\""

Run this script by right-clicking on it and choosing “Open with –> Registry editor``. You will get a warning message, but it should work fine.


If for any reason it does not, you can use the registry editor to remove these entries. My system has worked fine with these additions.

Once these entries are in your system, the context menu entry should appear in Windows Explorer.