After using Vim for the past couple of years, I'm switching to emacs as part of my "get out og your comfort zone" 2012 resolution. Although I have been using GNU Emacs for the past 10 days, I am curious about XEmacs and I wonder if it differs significantly from GNU Emacs.

From the Wikipedia page:

One of the main disagreements involves different views of copyright-assignment.


New features in either editor usually show up in the other sooner or later. Furthermore, many developers contribute to both projects.

I get the impression that the differences between the two are mainly historical and philosophical (isn't always the case with the FSF?).

What would be the practical reasons to chose one over the other today in 2012? Here are examples of comparisons I'm interested in:

  • features: Are there any feature present in one but not (or at least not easily available) in the other?

  • community: Which community is more active and innovative?

  • release cycles: Do they release the same features at a similar rate, or is it two separate releasing cycles making one more avant-garde than the other?

  • LISP implementation: I'm mostly interested in learning LISP. Do both editors share the same implementation? The same dialect?

  • availability: I know both editors are available on Linux, but what about the other platforms? Does one have a significant advantage over the other?

The list is not exhaustive. If you've ever used both and feel that there are differences that are not mentioned here, please do tell; I'm very curious.

  • The features are the same, I guess XEmacs is the one playing catch up, because AFAIK most of the development happens on the GNU Emacs side and xemacs only incorporates those. The Lisp implementation is the same dialect (Emacs Lisp) and I don't think there is great difference in platform availability. – Tom Jan 11 '12 at 15:12
  • @Tom: Once upon a time, it was the other way around. The name is a clue: back when GUI text editors were relatively thin on the ground and few were much good, XEmacs was a big deal. Over the years, GNU Emacs eroded that advantage by adding then improving its GUI support. (I'm not answering, and I'm being vague because I've never been an emacs user myself. Just going on what I remember of the religious wars among those who were, back in the day.) – Warren Young Jan 12 '12 at 0:15

Nowadays, XEmacs is essentially dead. The last major release was XEmacs 21 in 1999; the last minor release to be promoted stable was XEmacs 21.4 in 2003, and the last maintenance release was XEmacs 21.4.22 in 2009. I don't think there is any major XEmacs feature that isn't in GNU Emacs 23.

Historically, XEmacs was for a long time (from the Lucid days in the late 1980s to GNU Emacs's catch-up in the mid-200s) about one major version ahead of GNU Emacs in terms of features. XEmacs tended to be quicker at adopting new features and was more liberal in accepting outside code. GNU Emacs was tightly maintained; less buggy and less featured.

Among the last major XEmacs features to appear in GNU Emacs (in Emacs 22 or 23) were the ability to send external commands to a running process (gnuclient vs. emacsclient), the ability to connect one instance to multiple terminal types (text or GUI), support for inline images, support for variable-width fonts, the ability to use vector fonts under X, and better support for character sets wider than 8 bits (especially Unicode).

The lisp dialects are the same (except for minor differences). Lisp packages for one variant can usually work under the other variant with a few minor adaptations, unless they make sophisticated use of one of the many features that exist in both variants but with completely different implementations.

Both GNU Emacs and XEmacs run under major unix variants, under Windows and under OSX's native user interface.

I can't see any reason to use XEmacs these days, unless you've been using it for a long time and don't feel like switching.


The GNU Emacs community is more active and it has more development activity AFAIK, so I suggest you choose that.

  • Agreed with that but it's not about community. It must be personal chose based on it's look imo – Cynede Jan 11 '12 at 13:40
  • @nCdy Since the OP's question specifically mentions community and doesn't mention look at all, this is a perfectly valid answer to the question. Your comment would probably make more sense on the question and not here. – jw013 Jan 11 '12 at 15:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.