Switching From Vim to IntelliJ

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Vim. I even wrote a post about it. In the past few months, however, I’ve found some things that made me start looking elsewhere for a great editing experience. It was time for a replacement.

Recently I’ve gotten back into Android development which, unfortunately, requires programming in Java. Anyone that has written Android code knows how much an IDE can do for you. Vanilla Vim just doesn’t cut it. Yes, there are ways to make Vim behave like an IDE (Eclim), but none of them are amazing.

Rediscovering IntelliJ IDEA

About a year ago, Google released an offical Android IDE called Android Studio, which is a modified version of IntelliJ IDEA (created by Jetbrains).

I really liked Android Studio when I first tried it, but the Vim plugin IdeaVim was missing a key feature which prevented me from using it – key mappings. I use the Colemak keyboard layout, so having the ability to remap keys is an absolute necessity. During my search for a Vim replacement, I looked into IdeaVim again to see if it had gotten better. It had. In fact, it now supports a subset of .vimrc commands, including key remapping. Hooray! This means that I can use the same .vimrc file for both Vim and Android Studio.

I didn’t just want to do Android development though. I needed an editor that supported writing code in any language. After a quick search, I found out that if you purchase the full version of IntelliJ, Jetbrains’ most expensive IDE, you can add the features of all of their other IDEs (PhpStorm, PyCharm, Webstorm, etc) by installing the necessary plugins. Amazing! That was enough to convince me to install the trial.

Impressions After Two Months

I’m going to try and keep this post to the point, so here is a short description of my favorite things about IntelliJ after my first two months of use.

1. The Interface

The thing that really sets IntelliJ apart from other IDEs, like Eclipse, is the interface. IntelliJ comes with an optional dark theme (called Darcula) and it’s beautiful. Yes, it’s still a Java app, but at least it looks good.

Besides a pretty dark theme, IntelliJ’s UI exceeds in another area – minimalism. If you want, you can hide every toolbar and window leaving just the editor in view. That’s right, IntelliJ doesn’t have to look gross and busy like most out-of-the-box IDEs. Here’s a basic screenshot of me editing Insomnia, a React project.

title: “Switching from Vim to IntelliJ” slug: “switching-from-vim-to-intelliJ” date: “2015-04-04” url: “blog/2015/04/04/switching-from-vim-to-intellij.html”

tags: [“tools”]

IntelliJ ReactJS

2. Search Everywhere

Search Everywhere is by far my most used IntelliJ feature. It’s like the ctrl-p (or cmd-p) shortcut of Sublime Text, but on steroids. As you can see in the screenshot below, this feature lets you search things like files, symbols, IDE actions, and even IDE settings. And, if a boolean setting appears in the list, IntelliJ lets you toggle it right from the dropdown!

IntelliJ Search Everywhere

3. Diff Visualizer

I use (and you should too) version control for every project. I used to use a tool on Ubuntu called Gitg to look at Git diffs, but IntelliJ actually does a better job.

IntelliJ Git Diff

4. Code Editing Features

Here are a few features that IntelliJ offers that make writing code much easier:

  • refactoring tools
    • rename variables
    • change function arguments
    • etc…
  • auto import of files and libraries
  • go-to-definition
    • easily jump to the definition of a function, class, etc
    • it even works for symbols in external libraries
  • find usages
    • search the codebase for all the usages of a class, function, etc
  • more than simple linting
    • code linting for all major languages
    • smart analysis of function arguments, etc
    • will tell you if a variable hasn’t been defined, or function args don’t match

This is a pretty messy list of things so it may not mean much to you, but I am continually impressed by small editing features like these. Something that impressed me most is that these features also work surprisingly well for less-strict languages like Python and Javascript.

5. Plugins

The plugin ecosystem of IntelliJ is awesome. As I mentioned before, the only reason I can use IntelliJ is because the Vim plugin is so good.

Besides IdeaVim, I have installed many other plugins for things like editing Markdown, formatting JSON, programming language support (coffeescript, JSX, etc), and many other things that I’m probably forgetting.

6. Honorable Mentions

Here are some other (more minor) things that are pretty cool.

  • you can build your own toolbars from the ground up
  • settings can be synced with your IntelliJ account
  • package management is built in (Python Pip, Node NPM, etc…)
  • built in terminal that lets you plug in whatever you want (Bash, ZSH, Fish, etc)
  • diagram generation for class hierarchies or database relations

Where IntelliJ Fails

It can’t all be good right? This post has listed a large number of things I like about IntelliJ, but what about the things I don’t like? Here’s a few examples.

1. Quick File Edits

IntelliJ is an IDE, which means it’s inherently centered around a project. The downside of this is that it’s not good for creating one-off files that aren’t tied to any specific project. An example of this is writing a one-off script, or editing system dotfiles like .zshrc or .bash_profile.

IntelliJ offers support for scratch files, which are one-off files, but the ease of use of these is nowhere near that of editing a file in Vim from the command line.

2. Resource Hog

This is an obvious one. IntelliJ is a large Java application that does a massive amount of computation and code analysis behind the scenes. I develop on a Dell XPS 15, which is a top-of-the-line laptop, but every once in a while things freeze up for a second or two. This only seems to be a problem on larger-than-average projects, but it’s something to keep in mind.

IntelliJ does offer the ability to tune the amount of background checking it does, but I can never bring myself to turn any of those features off. After all, that’s one of the largest benefits of using an IDE.

3. Buggy Plugins (nitpick)

This isn’t really IntelliJ’s fault, but a few of the plugins I’ve found have either crashed or have interrupted my editing experience in some way.

4. Cost

Elephant in the room! IntelliJ is not cheap. I don’t mind paying for the tools that I use every day, but cost seems to be the highest barrier for everyone that I talk to about IntelliJ.


So that’s it. I’ve been using IntelliJ for two months now and am pretty happy with it. I still use Vim for a few things, but since I can share the same .vimrc file between both it’s easy and familiar to switch back and forth any time.

I’m definitely going to keep using IntelliJ for the foreseeable future, but I’m sure something different will catch my interest eventually.