July 3 2023

Differences Between Vi and Vim Text Editors Explained

Vi VS VIM, the main differences between the two most popular text editors for Linux.

VIM Editor

Vi and Vim are both text editors available on Linux. Vi, with its many implementations, is by far the most widely used and distributed text editor. This tutorial details the differences between the Vi and Vim editors.

There is universal text editor for UNIX and UNIX Like systems such as Linux, if you know how to use the Vi text editor, you can edit any text file on any Linux mode and version. Vim is simply an improved version of Vi, but unlike Vi, Vim is not universal.

Depending on your Linux distribution, it may or may not be installed by default. But let's start with a little history first.

A Brief History of Vi and Vim

Vi has its origins in the command-line editor called ed. And it was the original Unix text editor. The original Vi was developed in the late 70s by Bill Joy, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley.

Later, he co-founded Sun Microsystems and served as Chief Scientist until 2003. Joy initially developed ex as an improved line editor that supported a superset of the ed commands. Later he developed vi as a "visual" interface for ex.

Vinod Khosla, Bill Joy, Andy Bechtolsheim, Scott McNealy Sun Microsystems
Vinod Khosla, Bill Joy, Andy Bechtolsheim, Scott McNealy at Sun Microsystems

Vim stands for “Vi IMproved”, is a text editor that first made its public appearance on November 2, 1991, thanks to the efforts and dedication of Bram moolenaar. Vim's story begins when Moolenaar buys an Amiga computer and finds himself wanting to use the text editor he was familiar with on Unix.

However, there was no version of Vi for the Amiga that met his needs and expectations. Consequently, Moolenaar decided to take matters into his own hands, starting work on the version of Vi available for the Amiga and introducing a series of improvements and fixes.

Moolenaar's initial goal was simply to mimic the functionality of Vi, the text editor on which it was based. However, as time passed and experience accumulated, he realized that he could do more: he could not only imitate Vi, but improve her.

And that's exactly how Vim started to evolve, becoming more than just an imitation. Moolenaar and the community that had formed around the project started adding new features, pushing the limits of what was possible with a text editor. With version 1.22, Vim had surpassed Vi in terms of features, marking a turning point in its development.

In recognition of this progress, the project name was changed from “Vi IMitation” to “Vi IMproved”, emphasizing the passage from a simple imitation attempt to a real improvement of the original. Since then, Vim has remained a benchmark in the field of text editors, appreciated for its power, flexibility and customizability.

Differences Between Vi and Vim

There is the standard text editor. It is the classic and most popular text editor of the Linux family that comes pre-installed in most Linux distributions.

Vim is a similar editor to vi but is more advanced and powerful than the original Vi. It has many features that Vi doesn't have, even features that aren't “advanced”. Now let's see what are the main differences between them.

Unlimited undo and redo

One of the most popular features of Vim, which distinguishes it from its predecessor Vi, is its multilevel undo or "unlimited undo" function. This feature gives you much more granular control over the text editing process, allowing you to undo not just the last change you made, but an unlimited number of previous changes.

For example, imagine you accidentally delete one line of text, then a second, and finally a third. In many text editors, including Vi, you may only be able to undo the last deletion. However, Vim allows you to undo each of these three deletions separately, returning your file to its original state. This gives you greater flexibility and control, allowing you to explore different edits and revisions without fear of losing your work.

Furthermore, Vim also provides the “redo” functionality, which allows you to redo the changes you have undone, thus providing a powerful version control system within the editor itself. These features, absent in Vi, make Vim a particularly effective tool for editing code and text, where revisions and multiple changes are common.

Syntax Highlighting

Undoubtedly, one of the distinguishing features of Vim over Vi is its ability to highlight syntax. In fact, Vim can be configured to color different parts of the buffer depending on the type of file being edited. This represents a considerable advantage over Vi, especially for programmers who use Vim to write or edit code. Vim's syntax highlighting supports a wide range of programming and markup languages, including C, C++, Java, Python, PHP, HTML, XML, JavaScript, CSS, Markdown and many more.

GUI / Visual Operations

Vim is extremely versatile software: it performs beautifully in a console, but can also run natively in many graphical interfaces. It was designed to be used both from a command line interface and as a standalone application in a graphical user interface. Among its features, Vim uses native GUI widgets for scrolling and splitting buffers, and also provides mouse support. Not only that, Vim has also been ported to Windows systems, further expanding its availability and accessibility. For more details, you can visit the official Vim site (www.vim.org).

Portable configurations

One of the distinguishing features of Vim is the portability of its configurations. This means that you can customize Vim on one system and then easily transfer those customizations to another system by simply copying the configuration files. This feature is especially useful for developers who work across multiple systems or environments, as it allows them to maintain a consistent and personalized editing experience across multiple systems. In other words, Vim offers you the possibility to create an editing environment tailored to your needs and then import those same settings to any other Linux system, thus ensuring a uniform user experience.

Vim supports plugins.

One of the features that make Vim particularly powerful and versatile is its robust plugin support. Plugins are software extensions that can be added to Vim to extend and customize its functionality. These can range from simple tools that add keyboard shortcuts to more complex functionality, such as adding a full integrated development environment.

The real strength of Vim's plugin system lies in the fact that it allows third parties to add new functions without having to touch the editor's main source code. This means that developers can build and share their own custom solutions, making Vim incredibly adaptable to a wide variety of uses. So, with plugins, Vim can be easily extended and customized to fit the user's specific needs, making it a powerful tool for any type of text or code work.

Flexible Arming Mode

Another aspect that distinguishes Vim from its predecessor Vi is its flexibility in insert mode. In the Vi editor, once you enter insert mode (used to insert or edit text), you cannot navigate through the document using the arrow keys. This means that to move through the text, you must first exit insert mode, which can be inconvenient and disrupt your workflow.

Vim, on the other hand, introduces a significant usability improvement by allowing navigation with the arrow keys even while in insert mode. This gives users the ability to move freely through the document as they enter or edit text, making the editing experience much smoother and more intuitive. This feature, together with other improvements, makes Vim a powerful and versatile text editor, suitable to meet the needs of modern programmers.


In conclusion, while Vi ushered in the era of text editors in the Unix and Linux world, Vim represented an evolutionary leap, expanding the basic functionality and introducing a number of innovations that made text editing and code a much more flexible and powerful experience. Vim's distinctive features, such as syntax highlighting, insert-mode navigation, multilevel undo, and support for plugins, have made it a favorite among developers and system administrators.

In addition, the portability of configurations and availability on different platforms, including Windows systems, have made Vim a truly universal text editor. Despite its roots in Vi, Vim has surpassed the original in terms of functionality and adaptability, becoming an indispensable tool for many IT professionals.

But remember that despite the differences, everything available in Vi is available in Vim, making the latter almost a superset of the former. The main advantage of Vim lies in its additional features that give the user more control, efficiency and customization. If you are looking for a powerful, versatile and highly customizable text editor, Vim could be the right option for you.

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