Switching to GNU Emacs 24 on Mac OS X

15 Dec 2012

The new GNU Emacs 24 has native Cocoa support, so I wanted to switch. Not completely trivial, but possible.


I downloaded the native Cocoa emacs from here. Since the new version 24, GNU Emacs is supposed to really work well in OS X. So I am trying what happens if I ditch Aquamacs for GNU Emacs 24. This is how I’m getting on.

Starting up

Emacs.app does not deliver the standard startup scripts where you would expect them. And sadly, when you simply ln -s the Emacs files to /usr/local/bin or /usr/bin, it breaks with a very unfriendly error message that actually refers to folders that do not exist on this system, but did on the build system!

$ ln -s /Applications/Emacs.app/Contents/MacOS/Emacs emacs
$ ./emacs
Warning: arch-dependent data dir (/Users/david/src/emacs-dev/ftp-versions/emacs-24.2/nextstep/Emacs.app/Contents/MacOS//libexec/emacs/24.2/x86_64-apple-darwin/) does not exist.
Warning: arch-independent data dir (/Users/david/src/emacs-dev/ftp-versions/emacs-24.2/nextstep/Emacs.app/Contents/Resources/share/emacs/24.2/etc/) does not exist.
Error: charsets directory not found:
Emacs will not function correctly without the character map files.
Please check your installation!

This is due to the relocatability of the App, and apparently it does not handle being launched from the wrong place properly. The homebrew people have looked at this and concluded that it is a bug in Emacs. And the Macports people have also found it.

I came a long way using the strategies that some of the people on the web were using, namely with wrapper scripts or functions. Problem is that these use the OS X builtin open, which has several limitations. For one, it does not allow to load nonexistent files so you need to make the nonexistent files yourself and delete them afterwards if not edited. And it breaks the -nw option (which you use to get a text console instead of a graphical frame).


Editing my PATH

In the end, the solution is quite easy. Just gave up and added the Emacs.app folder to early in my PATH. So, added to ~/.bashrc:

export PATH

Strangely, the Emacs.app executable is called Emacs instead of the normal emacs. Thankfully, the OS X filesystem is case-insensitive by default, so it works to type emacs anyway.

Removing the old files and referring to the right emacsclient

The standard emacs that comes with OS X is very old and you really do not want the confusion between the two versions. So, I did:

sudo mv /usr/bin/emacs /usr/bin/emacs.orig
sudo mv /usr/bin/emacsclient /usr/bin/emacsclient.orig

And then it is a good idea to put the new emacsclient in a standard location (but not /usr/bin, because this is a system place that could get overwritten whenever Apple wants to):

ln -s /Applications/Emacs.app/Contents/MacOS/bin/emacsclient /usr/local/bin/emacsclient

Setting up some aliases

In my ~/.bash_profile, I setup some environment variables to allow easy access to the editor through the alias e. This should automatically launch emacs when it is not yet running, or connect to it using emacsclient if it is. I had some trouble when ssh‘ing into the machine, because somehow the correct socket file would not be found. That would give the following error message. It was fixed by adding the -s option. This works most of the time, although when autostarting the Emacs binary from emacsclient, all options are dropped by emacsclient, so things like -nw will not stick. Maybe I will make a function to copy the arguments and stick them back into Emacs, but this is a marginal case so I will leave it for now. Just need to remember to start Emacs with -nw when working in a text only environment.

emacsclient: can't find socket; have you started the server?
To start the server in Emacs, type "M-x server-start".
emacsclient: No socket or alternate editor.  Please use:

	--server-file      (or environment variable EMACS_SERVER_FILE)
	--alternate-editor (or environment variable ALTERNATE_EDITOR)

I also fill some editor variables that tell other programs that they should launch emacs when they want to edit a file. This is my ~/.bash_profile:

# Get the aliases and functions
if [ -f ~/.bashrc ]; then
		. ~/.bashrc

# Read autocomplete stuff if present (Fink)
if [ -f /sw/etc/bash_completion ]; then
		. /sw/etc/bash_completion

# Initialize Fink (paths mainly)
test -r /sw/bin/init.sh && . /sw/bin/init.sh

export EDITOR="emacsclient -s "/tmp/emacs${UID}/server" -a Emacs \"\$@\""
export GIT_EDITOR="$VISUAL +0"

alias e=$VISUAL

Setting up server mode

To start the emacs server when emacs starts, you need to add the following to ~/.emacs. I needed to provide a stable place for the sockets, otherwise they break when ssh‘in in. Don’t understand why.

(setq server-socket-dir (format "/tmp/emacs%d" (user-uid))) 

Migrating my settings

I am converting from Aquamacs to Emacs 24, so I need to convert my setting file. Aquamacs keeps its settings in the Library: ~/Library/Preferences/Aquamacs Emacs/Preferences.el and Emacs keeps the settings in the standard location ~/.emacs.

I just copied everything in my Preferences.el underneath the skeleton .emacs that Emacs 24 had created for me, which contained next to nothing but some default tab settings and some code to enable the ELPA package manager.

There are probably some things that I do that are obsolete, but I will sort that out later. For example, Emacs 24 has a built in color theme manager, and I am still referring to an older package. I will try to work with it like this for now, and study the changes as time goes by.

I will also probably need a local lisp file to set platform specific things, for example file locations. Most of the stuff could then stay in the general .emacs.

Some differences

It seems that Aquamacs has some different defaults than GNU Emacs. I changed a few things to become more consistent. First, let’s get rid of the startup screen that shows together with your first file (I know how to get help anyway). And let’s also drop the ugly toolbar.

(setq inhibit-startup-echo-area-message t)
(setq inhibit-startup-message t)
(tool-bar-mode -1)

Then, raising of the windows seems not to be automatic. Whenever I start Emacs from the Terminal, I need to CMD-Tab there. Annoying as hell. The fix was quite easy, thankfully.

(select-frame-set-input-focus (nth 0 (frame-list)))

Getting the most out of it


A very nice Emacs blog is Mastering Emacs. It has a nice 2-part series on Emacs 24 that starts here. I am slowly going through it because there’s lots to learn.

Enabling package management

Added the following to ~/.emacs (and deleted some package stuff that was left from before).

(require 'package)
(add-to-list 'package-archives '("marmalade" . "http://marmalade-repo.org/packages/"))

Now I can list the packages available with M-x list-packages. Need to start learning how that works.

Using Magit

i used the package manager to install Magit. A great frontend to git!

M-x list-packages

; find magit
i    ; for install
x    ; for execute
y    ; for yes

In order to avoid typing magit-status a lot, I bound it to a key in ~/.emacs:

(global-set-key (kbd "C-x g") 'magit-status)

Enabling Ido mode

Although it has been around, I had not yet heard of Ido mode. It sounds very useful. So let’s enable it:

(setq ido-enable-flex-matching t)
(setq ido-everywhere t)
(ido-mode 1)