Super User is a question and answer site for computer enthusiasts and power users. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

How can I change the default text editor for console programs in Ubuntu. When I run mutt and send a message, it currently loads up Joe and I would prefet to load Vim. I know I can change $EDITOR for me only, but would prefe to do it system wide.

share|improve this question
up vote 9 down vote accepted

You can change $EDITOR systemwide. Just drop a short script into /etc/profile.d/ which does this. The file only needs a single line:

export EDITOR=/usr/bin/myeditor


There are two ways (at least :-/) in which a program can find an editor to launch. The traditional Unix/Linux mechanism is to use $EDITOR. In addition to that, Debian (and therefore Ubuntu) has special aliases for various kinds of programs. These are provided by the "alternatives" system (a system of configurable symlinks). For editors this provides the aliases editor and sensible-editor. These can be updated using update-alternatives:

sudo update-alternatives --config editor

(same for sensible-editor). This will prompt you for the editor to use.

However, in Debian programs are suppposed to read $EDITOR first:

Thus, every program that launches an editor or pager must use the EDITOR or PAGER environment variable to determine the editor or pager the user wishes to use. If these variables are not set, the programs /usr/bin/editor and /usr/bin/pager should be used, respectively.

These two files are managed through the dpkg "alternatives" mechanism.


If it is very hard to adapt a program to make use of the EDITOR or PAGER variables, that program may be configured to use /usr/bin/sensible-editor and /usr/bin/sensible-pager as the editor or pager program respectively.

(Debian Policy Manual, )

In one sentence: Setting $EDITOR globally should be enough.

share|improve this answer
Thanks - I had heard of the "alternatives" mechanism but counldnt remember enough to find it. It is really complicated though. – justintime Aug 10 '10 at 20:23

the mechanism in ubuntu (debian) used to solve this problem is described in man update-alternatives. essentially it provides a "pseudo binary" (/usr/bin/editor) which points to the right binary (the "best" alternative)


% sudo update-alternatives --config editor

to change the current "default". with

% update-alternatives --list editor
% update-alternatives --display editor

you can see the currently available alternatives.

share|improve this answer
This is correct, but editor/sensible-editor is only meant as a fallback mechanism. You can just set $EDITOR. Also, editor/sensible-editor is a Debian convention. Third-party software may not use it, while $EDITOR is a general Unix tradition. – sleske Jul 28 '10 at 9:58
correct (i am aware of that). it is just a bit tricky to enforce EDITOR to all kind of shells (tcsh, zsh) anyway ... so changing /usr/bin/editor to the wanted default is enough, imho. as a "user" i set my own EDITOR anyway. – akira Jul 28 '10 at 10:23

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .