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What's the best terminal editor to suggest to a unix newbie? i.e. not vim or emacs.

There are a few editors, joe, nano, etc. Some have easy to remember commands / keyboard shortcuts, others don't.

I'm looking for an editor that one could talk someone through over the phone with, for remote sysadminning.


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I could talk someone through vim. –  romandas Aug 6 '09 at 19:42
@romandas . Sure, with Vigor/Vimgor's help ;-) vigor.sourceforge.net/screenshots –  faultyserver Aug 6 '09 at 22:02
actually, a modal editor like vi is perfect for instructing people over the phone. you can tell them precisely what keys to press without any vagueness like "move the cursor to here", "scroll up to this section". even back in the 80s, edlin was my preferred editor for telephone support because of that precision. –  cas Aug 6 '09 at 22:17

9 Answers 9

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I agree that nano is a pretty good suggestion, and widely used. I really can't imagine talking somebody through emacs over the phone. Hell, I can barely imagine walking myself through emacs.


< contrarian_mode="on" >

My take is still emacs or vi. Even for a beginner.


Because time invested in learning a editor is productive only as long as you keep using that editor. All those less expressive options are poor choices for the long run, and will be abandoned eventually. At which point the time spent learning them is wasted, and the user still has to learn emacs or vi.

So start them out right. (And print out a decent quick reference, they're going to need it...)

BTW-- The answer to "But which one?" is "Whichever one you use." Because they're going to come to you first for support.

Also, the answer may not apply to casual users---those who are never going to need an full blown programmers editor, because they might be able to get along in nano indefinitely.

/emacs partisan, vi user under protest

Hi there. Full time sysadmin here. I never use vi nor emacs. Only nano and ... tadda ... eclipse. Righty. Everything's in puppet+svn. You know what I'd like? A non modal vi. Just use Alt or Super to denote a command. There is a variant of gvim like that but I can't find it anymore. –  niXar Aug 7 '09 at 11:42
Oh yeah that's Cream: cream.sourceforge.net –  niXar Aug 7 '09 at 11:48

I would choose nano for anything I had to explain over the phone, mainly because I think modal editors are much more difficult concept to explain to people used to using GUI editors.

Nano, is by design, one of the simplest editors around. It's also installed on most linux systems be default now.


mcedit is helpful for people who are used to using a GUI editor. It even accepts mouse imput through the terminal window. One of my vim hating colleagues swears by it. With a name like midnight commander you can't go wrong!



1) I'd still go with vi for a beginner. It seems a little clunky at first but most people get the overall hang of it within 20-30min of playing around with it.

The reason I suggest vi is because pretty much every distro has it. Its nice to be able to go to a machine just about anywhere and know there's at least ONE tool on it you're familiar with. ;-)


2) My second vote would probably be for nano. Its easier to use for a beginner and exists on most of the popular distros. In my experience, people from a Windows background seemingly are more comfortable starting off with nano. Its also going to be easier to explain over the phone. ;-)

20-30 minutes is an incredibly steep learning curve if all you want to do is edit a text file. If it took someone more than 30 seconds to figure out how to modify a file in notepad I would wonder about their mental capacity... –  Mark Henderson Apr 14 '10 at 23:22
When I said 20-30min I was referring to more advanced features such as searches, regular expressions, ec... but I take it back... 20-30 is a bit steep. Just Google for VI Cheat Sheet and you can probably cut your time in half. lagmonster.org/docs/vi.html –  KPWINC Apr 15 '10 at 22:04

What EDitor?

why, Ed of course!

The One True EDitor!

obligatory link: http://www.ale.org/pipermail/ale/1998-July/005730.html

+1 because it made me laugh, and because the link even addresses the question :) You can't deny the "consistent user interface and error reporting" –  Chad Huneycutt Aug 6 '09 at 17:59
+1 Thanks for the trip down memory lane. LOL! –  KPWINC Aug 6 '09 at 18:08
It's ed for me whenever I feel like showing off. –  koenigdmj Aug 6 '09 at 21:01
hey, ed's useful. you can script it. –  cas Aug 6 '09 at 22:33
I don't know how is this possible, but it seems that I don't have ed on my Fedora 11 system. So much for the fact that it's available everywhere. –  Cristian Ciupitu Sep 26 '09 at 21:42

I agree with the others who suggest vi/vim, for the reasons they gave plus: vi isn't actually that hard to learn how to use. a beginner only needs to know about a dozen things, and they can easily do everything that they could do in a more primitive editor:

  • a brief intro to vi's modal nature and the Esc key
  • cursor movement, hjkl or arrow keys
  • slightly more advanced cursor movement, like w and b for word-forward and back
  • i for insert, o and O for "open" line for edit,
  • x, X, dX for delete next & prev char and delete to direction 'X' (e.g. dw for delete next word)
  • r, R, cX for replace char, replace mode, and change to direction 'X'
  • p, P for paste forward/back
  • . for repeat last command
  • :q for quit, :x for save and exit

of those, the only ones that are really essential to know are Esc, i, x, cursor movement, the backspace key, :q and :x - they'll give you ALL the editing power of nano. you can learn them in 5-10 minutes.

you can, of course, spend years mastering all the extra capabilities of vi (and it's inevitable that you will gradually learn more and more about vi as you use it more), but the basics above are enough to do pretty nearly any editing job. certainly more than enough to do anything you could do with nano or joe.

overall, the basics ARE easy enough to learn for a newbie, but (unlike nano and others) doesn't limit you to being a newbie for ever.

That's all fine and dandy for those who use it on a regular basis. If, like me, you only use it a few times a year it's a nightmare. May as well learn to communicate using Morse code. –  John Gardeniers Aug 7 '09 at 0:07
yes, i can see how remembering i for insert would be difficult if you only do it a few times a year. nowhere near as hard as remembering ^Kq for quit in nano. –  cas Aug 7 '09 at 4:01
and i just accidentally proved my point. it's not ^Kq (that's for joe which uses the ancient WordStar keybindings by default) in nano. it's ^X for exit, which IS in the menu but with no indication of whether it's for save-and-exit or quit-exit. –  cas Aug 7 '09 at 4:04
@Craig you're being disingenuous. nano (and it's progenitor, pine / pico), have an excellent user interface. In fact it's one of the rare terminal apps to have had a usability assessment. It is easy to use. The key to _G_et Help is also featured clearly (^G). And the difficulty with vi is not remembering that "i" stands for insert, it's the modal thing. Modality is contrary to modern UI design, esp. when it's denoted in such a subtle way. –  niXar Aug 7 '09 at 11:40
no, i'm not being at all disingenuous. I really feel completely lost in nano. and i really can never remember how to quit without saving the mess that has been made of my config file, i have to figure it out every time i find myself in nano. "intuitive" and "easy" are not objective terms, they're highly subjective. for me, vi is intuitive and nano is....well, it doesn't have enough depth to be inscrutable but it is opaque - the ONE command i want to know (quit-without-save) is not readily apparent. IMO, nano/pico have a lousy interface. even joe's WS keys make more sense to me –  cas Aug 7 '09 at 22:22

My preference for a simple and very easy to use editor is pico. No installation needed, just copy a single file to wherever you like. It's not a fancy editor and won't do what vi and emacs will but if all you need is an editor for casual use for which you don't need to remember a bucket full of weird and unintuitive keystroke combinations it will fit the bill. You could think of it somewhat like a Linux version of Window's notepad.

FYI, nano is the gnu clone of pico. –  Electrons_Ahoy Aug 7 '09 at 0:29
Odd, I have both nano and pico, or at least two editors with those names, installed on one of my machines and they are very different to use. –  John Gardeniers Aug 7 '09 at 0:41
weird key combinations are in the eye of the beholder - e.g. i can never remember how to quit without saving from nano when i accidentally find myself in it (usually on a new machine that hasn't had $EDITOR set to vi yet)...and by the time i notice i'm in nano rather than vi i've typed a dozen or so vi keystrokes which are now just garbage in whatever file i'm editing (usually vipw or visudo) so i have to figure out how to quit. i hate the fact that nano is the default editor on most (all?) linux distros. –  cas Aug 7 '09 at 4:08
One of the reasons I like Pico is that the keys needed for basic things like saving and exiting are shown on the screen. Otherwise I'd never remember them either. On the subject of defaults, every fresh Linux install (normally Red Hat/Centos) I've dealt with has vi as the default editor. –  John Gardeniers Aug 7 '09 at 5:16

Raised on VI but use nano


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