Vim Plugin Essentials

In my 7+ years of using Vim, I've tried a lot of different plugins in attempts to improve my workflow. This post is a look into what I've found to be the crème de la crème in the Vim plugin world. If you're lazy, or just allergic to bad writing, you can skip to my vimrc to see how it all comes together.

It would be irresponsible to discuss Vim plugins without first imploring the reader to spend a lot of time with plain Vim first. You will get far more out of plugins once you have a firm grasp on Vim's fundamental actions, motions, and overall editing philosophy. By far the best resource I've found so far is Practical Vim, by Drew Neil. It is well worth your money and time if you're serious about Vim. His Vimcasts video series is also excellent.

Installing Plugins

Before you start messing around with plugins, it is imperative that you choose and install a Vim plugin manager. Dealing with installing, upgrading, and deleting Vim plugins by hand will leave you in a world of pain. It's one of the things about Vim that is really terrible out of the box. Fortunately, there are quite a few good plugin managers out there, and I use and strongly recommend NeoBundle. Its killer feature is the ability to pin each of your plugin dependencies to a specific Git commit– as far as I know, none of the alternatives do this. Pinning to a commit keeps your plugin installs repeatable, and also gives you more flexibility since you aren't limited to in pinning only to tagged versions.

See also: pathogen, vundle, vim-plug

Navigating between files

After using vanilla Vim for a while, navigating between and launching files can still be a pain point. Probably the most popular plugin for addressing this is the mighty ctrlp.vim. It does the project-wide fuzzy file matching you may have come to expect from Textmate or Sublime, as well as fast MRU and buffer switching. I use all 3 modes dozens of times daily, and ctrlp is probably my most indispensible plugin. If there's a downside, it's that ctrlp hasn't seen an update in almost two years, but there is an actively developed fork that might be worth checking out.

Another common use case is searching file contents within your project. I've just started using Ags.vim for this, which uses the excellent silver searcher tool under the covers. It's really fast and makes navigating the results easy. I've used a few other plugins for this, but Ags seems to hit the sweet spot for me.

See also: Ack.vim, Command-T, FuzzyFinder, Unite.vim

Syntax/Error Highlighting

Comprehensive, up-to-date syntax highlighting is a must for any programmer. vim-polyglot gives you great syntax highlighting for a ton of different languages, while minimizing the increased startup time from having them all installed.

Also, getting quick feedback on errors as you type saves a ton of debugging time, especially if you're writing in a dynamic programming language. Syntastic runs linters and other checkers as you save your code for quick feedback. It does cause some lag with slower linters (looking at you, JSHint), but that's a limitation of Vim's purely synchronous APIs, and despite this it's still more than worth your time.

Version Control Integration

Fugitive is the ultimate plugin for git integration. I've had it installed for years and have still barely scratched the surface of all the things it does. For a taste, install it and enter :Gblame or :Gdiff while editing a file with changes. :Gmove and :Gremove are very handy as well, but I haven't yet absorbed any of the other commands into my workflow yet.

Another nice tool is gitgutter, which shows which lines of the current file have been added/removed/modified in the "gutter" to the left of Vim's line numbers. It seems like a small utility, but I could honestly not go back to editing without this information available at a glance. It also enables the following key mappings in my vimrc, which allow me to jump to the closest modified "hunk" in the current file, without needing to know anything about where that is. Super handy!

map <C-j> :GitGutterNextHunk<CR>
map <C-k> :GitGutterPrevHunk<CR>


Some other plugins I use and recommend (but am too lazy to write about further) include:

  • Ultisnips, a powerful snippets system
  • Sparkup, a concise way to author html
  • YankRing, for recalling copy/paste history
  • airline, a stylish, clean, and efficient statusbar
  • filebeagle, another efficient way to navigate among project files
  • colorizer, highlights css colours in the editor.

You can see the full list near the top of my vimrc.

I confess to being somewhat of a plugin junkie, so this post is really just a snapshot of where my setup is now. I'm sure things will be a little different in a year's time. If you share the same tweaker's mentality, I recommend following usevim and the vim subreddit, which are generally how I keep tabs on the Vim community. Also, the Neovim project is making great progress, and I'm excited to see how its Lua support and async capabilities will impact the plugin landscape going forward.