The value of Emacs pre-made configurations

I was watching this video on the System Crafter's YouTube channel during which he considers whether or not using a pre-made Emacs config is a good thing. He has several good points on both the pros and cons sides of things. I won't mention all of them, you should go watch the video for that, but here are a few things that resonated with me.



My journey

I started using Emacs a long time ago, I was fascinated by the Lisp family of languages and thought using Emacs would help me learn and use that particular language. While that is absolutely true, Emacs Lisp is just another dialect and knowing it is not the same as knowing Common Lisp or Scheme. But I digress.

I was also very interested in how productive people were when using Emacs and I wanted to that for myself as well. I did learn enough Emacs Lisp to sort-of make things kinda work and I was generally happy with most of my work flow being in Emacs and jumping out to other tools for more hard-core editing. I just kept coming back to Emacs because I found myself more comfortable here.

I started with Prelude

I really wanted some of the features I'd seen in other IDEs and editors, and so I researched a few of the pre-built configurations and settled on prelude by the venerable Bozhidar Batsov. It should be noted, at the time I was looking, there weren't that many pre-built configurations. Spacemacs was around, I think Doom Emacs was just getting traction, the Emacs Starter Kit existed… those are the ones I recall reviewing. I didn't do an exhaustive search, so there might have been others. I chose prelude because I wanted something as close to vanilla Emacs as possible and something whose code I could use as an example to learn from. I didn't want Vi in Emacs, I can use Vi if I really want that experience, so nothing against Vi, just not what I wanted to use. I didn't want a bunch of hijacking macros around things like package.el. And I didn't want a literate configuration. Org mode is super cool, and I definitely find it to be one of the most useful packages I use, but I wanted my configuration to be straight code. I can write comments in my code just as well as writing text around code snippets, and with hide-show-mode I can collapse things if I want to. I wanted to be able to use the existing features of Emacs and maybe a few well integrated packages. I got that from prelude.

And then I wrote my own

After using it for a while, and learning from how it was written, I wrote my own configuration. I setup how my configuration was organized in much the same way that prelude did it, although without quite the same level of sophistication. My only complaint was the 19 seconds it took to startup. That was something I just thought I'd have to live with in the post-prelude world.

And then I did it again

I started seeing a lot of people moving their configuration to use-package most often citing the simplicity of configuration and the speed at which Emacs was starting. So, I took the plunge and rewrote my entire configuration using use-package to install, load and configure the packages I was using. For fun, I went back to using prelude, reconfigured a few things, and got my start time to around 4 seconds which compares favorably with my current configuration that starts in just over 2 seconds. Slow by some people's standard, but I start it in daemon mode and the use emacsclient so I don't keep starting/restarting Emacs, and starting emacsclient is nearly instantaneous. Still, I think there are a few things I could tweak a bit to get the prelude version to start faster and shave off a couple (or more) of those seconds.

So those pre-made configurations have value

From my experience, I learned a lot from starting over with my configuration by using prelude and then growing back into a personal configuration heavily inspired by how prelude is written. I have also looked at the source for Spacemacs and Doom Emacs and even Emacs Starter Kit and there is a lot to learn from those as well. I think the “pros” they provide out weigh the “cons” enough to recommend them. I would suggest identifying what you would want from Emacs, then reviewing the goals and source code for several pre-built configurations before just jumping on one and being frustrated that it doesn't do feature x in some way you think it should. Try looking on the Emacs Wiki for a list of pre-made configurations that might make sense to you.

And Bozhidar, if you happen to come across this page, thank you very much for your work on Prelude. I've learned a lot.

Tags: #emacs