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Magit, the magical Git interface

Basic similarities and differences to other interfaces

Magit is a text-based user interface to Git. It looks similar to the output of git itself. Unlike when using git directly, a Magit user does not execute commands by typing them into a shell. The main entry point to Magit isn’t the command-line but its status buffer, which looks like this:

Unlike the read-only output of git, everything that you can see in the status buffer, or any other Magit buffer, is actionable. Commands are invoked, not by typing them out, but by pressing short mnemonic key sequences. Many commands act on the thing the cursor is on, either by showing more detailed or alternative information about it in a separate buffer or by performing an action with side-effects on it.

Git GUIs are similar to Magit in that many things you can see in a GUI can also be acted on directly. Of course in a GUI you would normally click on something to act on it, while Magit is primarily1 driven using the keyboard. But the differences between Magit and Git GUIs go much further than just looks and input methods.

Current GUIs only expose a limited subset of Git’s features, while Magit is an essentially complete interface. And many of the actions that GUIs do expose tend to only by available in some view or dialog but not another, even though the object that the feature would act on is visible in both. In Magit, on the other hand, you can do virtually everything with some object that can be done with objects of that type in any other contexts.

So one could say that Magit combines the completeness of Git with the interactive nature of a GUI, while not limiting the availability of features to certain specialized views. The result is an interface that, with a little practice, is both faster and more intuitive than either the command line or a GUI.

What separates Magit from other Git interfaces?

Magit heavily relies on a few simple, yet powerful interface concepts. What makes their application in Magit powerful isn’t necessarily (or only) some innovative approach, but the fact that these concepts are applied very consistently across all features. Let’s look at the most important of these concepts in more detail.

In Magit all output is actionable

Magit looks quite similar to the Git command line, prettier maybe, but Magit remains a text based interface. It is worth repeating that the crucial difference between Git and Magit is that Magit’s output is not “read-only”.

Instead all status information is automatically kept up-to-date and relevant to the task at hand. And most importantly everything that can be seen is actionable. Furthermore, unlike in GUI interfaces, every action you might reasonably (based on your knowledge of what Git itself can do) want to perform on some visible (or invisible) thing actually is available, using only a single or very few mnemonic key presses in most cases.

Magit is essentially complete

By now, Magit is an essentially complete Git interface. That does not only mean that it supports most Git features — most features that are supported are also improved upon.

The reason that there still exist some gaps is that fully integrating supported features into the interface, by taking advantage of Magit’s interface concepts whenever possible, is more important than trying to achieve completeness for its own sake.

If I had to put a number on it, I would say that Magit supports about 90% of what can be done using git, while other third-party interfaces are stuck somewhere around 60%. But what is more important than the relative completeness at any given time is that support for all of Git features could be added to Magit without any changes to its user interface concepts.

Magit enables even advanced Git users to perform nearly all of their daily version control tasks with a fraction of the effort that would be required on the command line, without having to drop to that command line for “edge cases” as would be necessary with many other interfaces.

Magit will grow with you

Magit does more than make it possible to use the commands that you already know more quickly than on the command line. By offering specialized variants of common commands, optimized for certain common work-flow variations, it also gently encourages its users to learn more advanced concepts.

Like Git and unlike many graphical interfaces to it, Magit grows with you as you move beyond the basics and start performing more involved version control tasks. Until you do, the more advanced features do not get in the way.

Magit encourages (but never forces) its users to use Git features that many users of the command line would deem too advanced and/or too cumbersome to be used except in special circumstances. Many of these features simply are not available when using other GUI and TUI interfaces. Magit makes advanced features just as accessible as the basic features, which even the less than enthusiastic Git user cannot get around learning eventually.

With GUI interfaces many users at some point reach a level of Git proficiency that forces them to drop back to the command line on a regular basis even for things they do every day. With Magit this will only happen very rarely and only for things that even advanced users only do irregularly.

More advanced actions are not harder to perform than the trivial ones. With Git’s porcelain the user not only has to learn a new concept, but often s/he also has to deal with a more complex interface that comes with the advanced task. With Magit the user of course also has to understand the concept and learn to deal with the more complicated cases, but the interface for an advanced task is seldom more complex than that of a trivial one.

Magit has co-evolved with its users

Initially, users new to Magit will likely only use a few basic features and work-flows that they are familiar to them based on prior exposure to git on the command line and to other GUIs and TUIs.

However, for reasons given before, most users will eventually start using features that previously seemed too daunting or cumbersome to use. Another reason why doing so comes naturally is that Magit has co-evolved with its users.

Magit has been around for many years, and historically many features that are now being taken for granted did not exist. Many features, especially those concerning streamlined work-flows, were originally proposed by users who enjoyed and had grown accustomed to some existing feature, only to find themselves wondering why some other feature was not as convenient to use.

This has been going on for many years now, so if you start using Magit now, then chances are good that most work-flow improvements you might come to desire have already been implemented. And because those features had seemed like obvious intentions at the time they were first implemented, it might even be the case that they work exactly as you would have expected.

This process has progressed very far, but it is not over. If you are missing some feature, then just ask. If it is a simple feature, then chances are good that that in a few days it won’t be missing anymore. I hope that by encouraging non-Emacs users to use Magit, we will also get some fresh ideas.

Despite all this, it would be wrong to assume that Magit started out with a predefined set of interface concepts and abstractions, and all that was left to be done was incrementally filling in the gaps.

Magit streamlines work-flows

Magit does not — and maybe this is what ultimately separates it from the competition — restrict users to a certain set of simple features and tasks. Magit supports and streamlines the use of Git features that many users and developers of other Git clients apparently thought could not be reasonably mapped to a non-command-line interface.

While Git offers many commands and arguments that perform a wide variety of tasks, Magit goes one step further by not only preserving that flexibility but by also providing higher-level commands that are not so much bound by the (wonderful) underlying data-model and whose design is instead primarily oriented on the actual tasks that users often have to perform.

The output of Git commands can guide the user in their work, but on the command-line users have to extract the relevant information themselves, mentally and by manually feeding it to the next command. Magit commands automates that manual step by taking advantage of the interface context and the state of the repository to guide their operation, which not only speeds up the process but also frees mental capacities.

Additionally Magit provides many “variants” of often used commands that are optimized for particular use-cases, as well as dwim (do what I mean) variants that very reliably guess the user’s intention based on the cursor’s position. (In cases when the user wishes to act on something other than the thing under the cursor or if s/he wants to fine-tune the behavior using certain git arguments explicitly, then that is of course also possible.)

  1. Better mouse support, including drop-down menus, is one of the planned features. 

Posted on 1st September 2017