Looking for a new editor
A couple of weeks ago I started looking into new code editors. I've been using Komodo for eight or nine years now, counting both KomodoIDE and KomodoEdit, but I'm growing dissatisfied with it. In fact, I'm becoming unsatisfied enough that I think the time has come to move on. However, I'm not sure I see an obvious candidate for a replacement. So in this post, I'll talk about some of the things I find lacking in Komodo and what I'm looking for in an editor.
Why the change?
Let me start by saying that I'm not trying to bad-mouth Komodo here. I have used it for a long time and it has served me well. The people at ActiveState are nice and the do good work. But the direction it seems to be heading in doesn't mesh well with my needs and I'm not sure the cost/benefit analysis of sticking with Komodo makes sense anymore. Maybe this can provide some insight to the Komodo development team that can help them improve the IDE.
My dissatisfaction started a few months ago, when my team transitioned to a different product. Unlike the last product we worked on, this one doesn't belong to just us. This one is core to the company's business, and has several other development teams working on it, not to mention all the other groups that come in contact with it. As such, there's an existing process and structure that we needed to adhere to, and it quickly became apparent that adhering to that was much easier if you were running the standard development setup, which is PHPStorm on Ubuntu. I was running KomodoIDE on Windows, so this was a problem. I was able to use WSL to get around the Linux part, but KomodoIDE just didn't offer the same features that I needed from PHPStorm.
So let's use that as a starting point. What does PHPStorm offer that Komodo can't compete with at present? Well, for purposes of the product I'm working on, here's the list:
- Validations. PHPStorm integrates with phpcs, which is nice because we need to actually adhere to PSR-2. Komodo doesn't have that built in. This might seem like a trivial thing because, after all, I can always just run phpcs from the command line. However, having the check done in the editor is actually hugely useful, because we have a lot of legacy code that doesn't adhere to PSR-2, which makes selectively running the checks for only the code you changed awkward. Seeing violations in your editor gives you a nice, simple way to catch mistakes you made before they get to code review.
- Symfony support. While it's not built in, PHPStorm has a pretty good quality plugin for Symfony support. We use Symfony, so this is really nice. Komodo doesn't have that.
Those things are important, but they are specific to the new product I'm working on. If these were my only complaints, I would happily continue using Komodo for the foreseeable future and just use PHPStorm for that one project at work. But they're not. The list of annoyances and things I don't like has been slowly growing over the years. This includes actual problems and bugs, missing functionality, and road-map issues (i.e. disagreement with the direction I see Komodo going). Here's a summary:
- Kinda buggy. I hate to say it, but I've seen a decent amount of weird errors, crashes, and just plain strange behavior in Komodo. Not a huge number - it certainly hasn't been buggy enough to get switch editors - but it's still a non-trivial issue. I'll give just a few examples here to give you the flavor of my complaints.
- Maybe it's just my perception, but it's rare for the error log or console to not have something in it.
- Sometimes when I'm doing things in the "places" panel, some keypress will trigger a change to the next pane of that panel. I'm not sure what it is and I can't seem to do it on purpose.
- I'm constantly empty getting "find" panes accumulating in my bottom panel. Again, I'm not 100% sure what causes them and can't seem to reproduce intentionally.
- I've tried numerous times on numerous versions of Komodo to set up the keybindings for "focus X pane", but they just don't seem to work at all.
- There are various places in the settings UI where one setting determines another, but it's not clearly indicated. So you can change a setting, click OK, and your change will just be ignored because it's invalid, but there's no indication of that. A good example is the new unit test runner. For options other than "custom", the testing framework determines which parser is used, but you can still change the parser in the UI. It just doesn't do anything.
- Pretty over functional. In the last few releases, some of the tools have been revamped in such a way that makes them prettier, but in my opinion doesn't actually make them more useful. The two big examples that spring to mind are version control and unit testing.
- In older versions of Komodo, my only complaint about the VCS integration was that there wasn't an easy way to do a commit of all pending changes in the project - I fixed that myself with a simple macro. In the new version, they fixed that problem. But at the same time, the VCS widget no longer displays changes for added files, which is a big pain. I typically use my VCS diff for pre-commit code review, so it's kind of inconvenient to have to switch to another view to do that.
- The new unit test runner in Komodo 10.2 looks very pretty. However, they removed the key bindings I was using to run the current test suite. And it didn't detect my old test suites, so I had to recreate them. They also changed the name-humanizing algorithm, so that test names that used to be rendered nicely in the runner aren't anymore.
- Features I don't care about. It feels like there have been a few of these added lately. Some of them seem like things that are really just gimmicks that look good in marketing material but either don't provide any value. Others do provide genuine value, but seem tacked on to pad the feature set, i.e. they're useful, but I don't see the point of having them right in the IDE. Some examples include:
- Collaboration. You can do real-time editor sharing with someone else using KomodoIDE. Cool! And maybe it would be useful if I was doing remote pair programming with someone else who uses Komodo. But I'm not, so I've never actually used it. I suppose this could substitute for some of those "social coding" web editors, but this doesn't feel like a general enough use-case to want it integrated into my IDE.
- Sharing to kopy.io. Upload code snippets directly to a code-sharing website. Nice! But again, that's something that's not hard to do without IDE support and that I seldom or never do it anyway. And even if I did, I'd just create gist on GitHub, not use a new site.
- Slack sharing. You can share code in a Slack channel right from inside Komodo. Great! But again, I don't do this often and it's not clear how this is easier than just copy-and-pasting the code into Slack.
- Minimap. A 10,000-foot overview of how your code looks that replaces the traditional scroll bar. I think Sublime Text had this first. Sure, it looks really cool, but does anyone actually use these things? I don't spend a lot of time looking for code segments based on the shape of the text, so it's never been clear to me what useful information this provides.
- HTTP inspector. This is actually an older feature - an HTTP proxy that allows you to inspect traffic. And it's a genuinely valuable thing for a developer to have. But you still have to set it up like any other HTTP proxy, so it's not clear how having this baked into the IDE is better than just using a stand-alone proxy app. And again, this isn't something I need on a regular basis so I've never used it for actual work.
- Features that are strange or hard to use. There are also features that I use, or would like to use, that either don't make sense or don't quite do what I need. In other words, they could be really good and useful, but the fall short. For instance:
- Keyboard navigation. Komodo actually has a pretty nice configuration interface for setting up keyboard shortcuts. Unfortunately, a lot of the actual bindings you might want don't exist (or don't work, as previously noted). But my big gripe is that navigating around the UI using the keyboard is difficult, particularly in the side/bottom panels. Trying to navigate between fields within a pane often either doesn't work, gets stuck, switches you to the main editor, or otherwise fails in strange ways. And as I mentioned earlier, trying to use the keyboard to navigate between different panes seems to just generally not not work.
- Regex toolkit. This seems like a really useful tool. But I'll be darned if I can figure out how it's supposed to work. Every now and then I try it and I always spend more time trying to figure out how it works than it would take so just write a one-off test script to test the regex.
- Publishing. Komodo has a publishing tool that lets you push your code up to a remote system for testing. That's a very nice and useful thing. Except that it's actually a "synchronizer," by which I mean it only does two-way synchronization of files with a remote server. Why? What if I don't care what's on the server and just want to clobber it every time? That's not such an uncommon occurrence with test servers. In fact, for me, wanting to pull in changes from the remote servers is distinctly an edge-case, not something I'd want to happen by default.
I could probably go on, but I think I've made my point. It's not that Komodo is a bad IDE - far from it. But there are a number of rough edges and niggling little issues that are increasingly starting to bother me. Choice of editor can be a very personal and subjective thing, and for me it just feels like it's time for a change.
What do I want?
So that leaves the question: what do I want in an editor or IDE? Well, I'm not completely sure. I've been using Komodo for a long time, and I do like a lot of things about it. So let's start with a list of some of those things. That should at least work as a jumping off point.
- Good VI emulation. I've been using VI emulation in my editors ever since I worked for deviantART. I got a MacBook Pro when I started there and I found the weird keyboard layout completely infuriating, particularly when I switched back to my regular PC keyboard so I decided to just switch to VI key bindings since they're always the same. Since then, I've gotten progressively more friendly with VI mode, to the point where coding without it feels strange. Komodo includes fairly decent VI emulation out of the box, and it's relatively easy to add customizations, so any editor I pick up will need comparable VI emulation support.
- Code formatters. One of the really handy features of Komodo is built-in code formatters. My most common use-case for this is copying some JSON out of the bowser network monitor, pasting it into Komodo, and formatting it so I can analyze it. It would be really nice for a new editor to support something like that.
- Light-weight. A concept of "projects" is nice in an IDE, but sometimes I just want to quickly open a file. So I'd rather not use an IDE that takes ages to start up and insists that everything be part of a project (I'm looking at you, Eclipse). Komodo is pretty good in that regard - it can just start up and open a file without it being too much of an ordeal.
- Extensibility. No editor or IDE is ever perfect out of the box, so it's important to have a decent extension ecosystem around your editor. Komodo is pretty good in this regard, with a community site offering a nice assortment of extensions.
- Cross-platform. Right now I use Windows both at home and at work, but that's not set in stone. I actually use Windows at work by choice (yeah, yeah, I know) - there are a few people with MacBooks, but most of the other developers use Ubuntu. /In the past, I've gone back and forth between platforms, so running on Windows, Linux, and MacOS is a hard requirement for me. I don't want to be tied to one platform or have to learn a different IDE for each if I decide to switch.
- The right feel. This one is highly subjective, but it's important to me that my IDE feel smooth to use. I want it to work with me, rather than feeling like I have to adapt to it. This has always been my problem with Eclipse - I feel like the UI doesn't really adapt smoothly to what I want. Something about coding in it just feels a little "off" to me.
Time to experiment
So it's time to start doing some experimentation. It took me a long time to finally settle on Komodo, so I'll probably go back and forth a few times.
I've got lots of choices, to be sure. Back when I settled on Komodo Edit, I was looking primarily at free and open-source editors. My use of Komodo IDE grew out of that. These days, I'm not as price-sensitive, so commercial IDEs are definitely on the table, provided they have reasonable non-Enterprise pricing (i.e. I'm not gonna spend $2000 on one).
Last time I was IDE shopping I looked at a bunch of Linux-only editors, but those are out. I used Eclipse for a while, but I'm not inclined to revisit that. I also used jEdit for a while, and while it was fairly nice, it doesn't appear to be getting much active development these days, and I'm not sure it fits my current requirements anyway. But now we have things like Sublime Text, Atom, Visual Studio Code and the entire suite of Jet Brains IDEs. So I've got lots of things to look at. If nothing else, the process will be good for a few blog posts.
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