Nice Fonts for GNU Emacs on Ubuntu Linux

:: emacs, linux, lisp

UPDATE 12/24/08: This article is now out of date. I just installed Ubuntu 8.10, and getting Emacs with nice fonts is now much easier:

  1. Install the emacs-snapshot-gtk package
  2. Edit ~/.Xresources to have Emacs.font: Bitstream Vera Sans Mono–10
  3. xrdb -merge ~/.Xresources

Before discussing how to get nice fonts for emacs, it might be reasonable to ask, “why emacs?” I haven’t fully answered that question myself, but had I not been able to get nice, readable fonts on emacs, I probably wouldn’t continue researching it. For the info on getting nice fonts to work, scroll down to “Nice Fonts” below.

After many years of using large IDEs to develop software, I switched to vim about a year and a half ago when I began developing with Ruby on Rails. Although the learning curve for vim was a bit steep, I quickly got to the point of being more productive with vim than I was with my previous IDE, and I’m continually learning features of vim that save me time and effort.

Ok, if vim is so great, why am I considering emacs? In a word, Lisp. Emacs, has great Lisp support. For the little bit of Lisp dabbling I’ve been doing, vim has been fine, but from what I’ve seen demonstrated with emacs and slime, I think it’s worth researching. Another important factor is that emacs is scripted with elisp, a dialect of Lisp. I’ve never taken the time to read up on vim scripting, but scripting emacs with elisp seems easy. Type in some elisp code into the scratch buffer, evaluate it, and it’s integrated immediately into emacs. I haven’t written any vim scripts in a year and a half, but within a few hours of researching emacs, I had implemented several elisp scripts (from source obtained online).

Here’s one to simulate the % command in vim which moves the cursor to the matching paren:

(defun match-paren (arg)
  "Go to the matching paren if on a paren; otherwise insert %."
  (interactive "p")
  (cond ((looking-at "s(") (forward-list 1) (backward-char 1))
	((looking-at "s)") (forward-char 1) (backward-list 1))
        (t (self-insert-command (or arg 1)))))

(global-set-key "%" 'match-paren)

Here’s one to simulate the vim o and O commands which open a new line either below or above the cursor and position the cursor properly indented, so you can start typing immediately. I use this quite often in vim:

(defun bja-open-line-below ()
  (open-line 1)
  (next-line 1)

(global-set-key [?C-o] 'bja-open-line-below)

(defun bja-open-line-above ()
  (open-line 1)

(global-set-key [?M-o] 'bja-open-line-above)

After my brief exposure to emacs, I think vim is more concise. In other words, it appears that vim can accomplish a given task with fewer keystrokes than emacs. I’m curious to see how hard it is to extend emacs to have some of the niceties I’m used to with vim. Maybe I can have the best of both worlds – the conciseness of vim and the extensibility and Lisp support of emacs. Lennart Borgman passed on a link to vimpulse.el, so I’ll take a look at it soon.

I swapped my caps-lock with my left control key a long time ago, so the emacs chording isn’t quite as much of a problem, but I still wonder if vim might be easier on the hands/wrists since it requires very little chording.

I know some famous lispers use vi(m) for Lisp development, so I don’t think emacs is a must-have. Also, if I end up using a commercial Lisp such as Lispworks or Allegro, I may consider returning to an IDE for lisp development. So, at this stage, I’m still very much a vim user who is researching emacs.

UPDATE: Well, sometime between the original post and now I became a die-hard GNU Emacs user, so I figured I’d update the post :)

Nice Fonts

But enough of that, how do you get nice fonts on emacs? I had heard that the new version of emacs (22) provided anti-aliased fonts, but apparently I was mistaken. I spent hours Googling and rebuilding emacs to no avail – quite a frustrating experience. Then I posted a question on the usenet group and received a helpful reply in a few minutes which did the trick. Here’s the thread.

Here’s what I did:

cvs -z3 co emacs
cd emacs
./configure --enable-font-backend --with-gif=no
make bootstrap
sudo make install

After that, I was able to use the ‘Bitstream Vera Sans Mono–10’ font, and it looks great!

emacs -r -fn "Bitstream Vera Sans Mono-10"

The -r flag is for reverse video. I much prefer a black background. After making emacs from the cvs sources, it reports its version as

After editing my ~/.Xresources file to have the following line:

Emacs.font: Bitstream Vera Sans Mono-10

And running the command:

xrdb -merge ~/.Xresources

Emacs automatically uses that font at startup.

During my hours of Googling, I had seen the page with the correct information here. But in my haste, I read the statement, “Note: Since the emacs-unicode–2 branch which had the xft support is merged into trunk, the current page is obsolete.“, and somehow got the impression that the entire page was obsolete, but apparently that is not the case.1

Fortunately, the helpful folks on set me straight – thanks guys!

  1. UPDATE: I edited the wiki page referenced above, so the “obsolete” notice is further down the page."