Friday, August 25, 2023

Visual Studio Code

 I've been doing more coding than usual lately. As a vi user, I've been missing higher-level IDE-like functionality, like:

  • Shows input parameters to functions (without having to open the .h file and search).
  • Finds definitions of functions, variables, and macros.
  • Finds references to same.
  • Quickly jumping to locations of compile errors. (Most IDEs do syntax checking as you type.)
  • Source-level debugging.
There are other functions as well, like code-refactoring, static analysis, and "lint" capabilities, but the above are the biggies in my book.

Anyway, I've used Visual Studio, Eclipse, and JetBrains, and found those higher-level functions helpful. But I hate GUI-style text editors.

I've gotten good at using emacs and vi during my many years of editing source files. It takes time to get good at a text editor - training your fingers to perform common functions lightning fast, remembering common command sequences, etc. I finally settled on vi because it is already installed and ready to use on every Unix system on the planet. And my brain is not good at using vi one day and emacs the next. So I picked vi and got good at it. (I also mostly avoid advanced features that aren't available in plain vanilla vi, although I do like a few of the advanced regular expressions that VIM offers.)

So how do I get IDE-like functionality in a vi-like editor?

I looked Vim and NeoVIM, both of which claim to have high-quality IDE plugins. And there are lots of dedicated users out there who sing their praises. But I've got a problem with that. I'm looking for a tool, not an ecosystem. If I were a young and hungry pup, I might dive into an ecosystem eagerly and spend months customizing it exactly to my liking. Now I'm a tired old coder who just wants an IDE. I don't want to spend a month just getting the right collection of plugins that work well together.

(BTW, the same thing is true for Emacs. A few years ago, I got into Clojure and temporarily switched back to Emacs. But again, getting the right collection of plugins that work well together was frustratingly elusive. I eventually gave up and switched back to vi.)

Anyway, as a tired old coder, I was about to give up on getting IDE functionality into a vi-like editor, but decided to flip the question around. What about getting vi-like editing into an IDE?

Turns out I'm not the first one to have that idea. Apparently most of the IDEs have vi editing plugins now-a-days. This was NOT the case several years ago when I last used an IDE. I used a vi plugin for Eclipse which ... kind of worked, but had enough problems that it wasn't worth using.

That still leaves the question: which IDE to use. Each one has their fan base and I'm sure each one has some feature that it does MUCH better than the others. Since programming is not my primary job, I certainly won't become a power user. Basically, I suspect it hardly matters which one I pick.

I decided to start with Visual Studio Code for a completely silly reason: it has an easy integration with GitHub Copilot. I say it's silly because I don't plan to use Copilot any time soon! For one thing, I don't code enough to justify the $10/month. And for another, coding is my hobby. The small research I've done into Copilot suggests that to get the most out of it, you shift your activities towards less coding and more editing and reviewing. While that might be a good thing for a software company, it's not what I'm looking for in a hobby. But that's a different topic for a different post.

Anyway, I've only been using Visual Studio Code for about 30 minutes, and I'm already reasonably pleased with the vi plugin (but time will tell). And I was especially pleased that it has a special integration with Windows WSL (I'm not sure other IDEs have that). I was able to get one of my C programs compiled and tested. I even inserted a bug and tried debugging, which was mildly successful.

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