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Tabs vs Buffers

The rest of the article is an outdated almost copy-paste of joshldavis post which is what I've been using for years.

First I have to admit, I was a heavy user of tabs in Vim.

I was using tabs in Vim as you’d use tabs in most other programs (Firefox, Terminal, Adium, etc.). I was used to the idea of a tab being the place where a document lives.

When you want to edit a document, you open a new tab and edit away! That’s how tabs work so that must be how they work in Vim right?


Stop the Tab Madness

If you are using tabs like this then you are really limiting yourself and using a feature of Vim that wasn't meant to work like this.

Before I explain that, let’s be sure we understand what a buffer is in Vim as well as a few other basic things.

After that, I’ll explain the correct way to use tabs within Vim.


A buffer is nothing more than text that you are editing. For example, when you open a file, the content of the file is loaded into a buffer. So when you issue this command:

vim .vimrc

You are actually launching Vim with a single buffer that is filled with the contents of the .vimrc file.

Now let’s look at what happens when you try to edit multiple files. Let’s issue this command:

vim .vimrc .bashrc

In Vim run :bnext

Vim does what it did before, but instead of just 1 buffer, it opens another buffer that is filled with .bashrc. So now we have two buffers open.

If you want to pause editing .vimrc and move to .bashrc, you could run this command in Vim :bnext which will show the .bashrc buffer. There are various other commands to manipulate buffers which you can see if you type :h buffer-list. Or you can use easymotion.


A window in Vim is just a way to view a buffer. Whenever you create a new vertical or horizontal split, that is a window. For example, if you were to type in :help window, it would launch a new window that shows the help documentation.

The important thing to note is that a window can view any buffer it wishes; it isn't forced to look at the same buffer. When editing a file, if we type :vsplit, we will get a vertical split and in the other window, we will see the current buffer we are editing.

That should no longer be confusing because a window lets us look at any buffer. It just so happens that when creating a new split: :split or :vsplit, the buffer that we view is just the current one.

By running any of the buffer commands from :h buffer-list, we can modify which buffer a window is viewing.

For an example of this, by running the following commands, we will start editing two files in Vim, open a new window by horizontally splitting, and then view the second buffer in the original window.

vim .vimrc .bashrc

In Vim run: :split and :bnext

So a Tab is…?

So now that we know what a buffer is and what a window is. Here is what Vim says in the Vim documentation regarding a buffer/window/tab:


  • A buffer is the in-memory text of a file.
  • A window is a viewport on a buffer.
  • A tab page is a collection of windows.

According to the documentation, a tab is just a collection of windows. This goes back to our earlier definition in that a tab is really just a layout.

A tab is only designed to give you a different layout of windows.

The Tab Problem

Tabs were only designed to let us have different layouts of windows. They aren't intended to be where an open file lives; an open file is instead loaded into a buffer.

If you can view the same buffer across all tabs, how is this like a normal tab in most other editors?

If you try to force a single tab to point to a single buffer, that is just futile. Vim just wasn't meant to work like this.

The Buffer Solution

To reconcile all of this and learn how to use Vim’s buffers/windows effectively, it might be useful to stop using tabs altogether until you understand how to edit with just using buffers/windows.

The first thing I did was install a plugin that allows me to visualize all the buffers open across the top. I use bufferline for this.

Instead of replicating tabs across the top like we did in the previous solution, we are instead going to use the power of being able to open many buffers simultaneously without worrying about which ones are open.

In my experience, CtrlP gives a powerful fuzzy finder to navigate through the buffers.

Instead of worrying about closing buffers and managing your pseudo-tabs that was mentioned in the previous solution, you just open files that you want to edit using CtrlP and don't worry about closing buffers or how many you have opened.

When you are done editing a file, you just save it and then open CtrlP and continue onto the next file.

CtrlP offers a few different ways to fuzzy find. You can use the following fuzziness:

  • Find in your current directory.
  • Find within all your open buffers.
  • Find within all your open buffers sorted by Most Recently Used (MRU).
  • Find with a mix of all the above.

Using Tabs Correctly

This doesn't mean you should stop using tabs altogether. You should just use them how Vim intended you to use them.

Instead you should use them to change the layout among windows. Imagine you are working on a C project. It might be helpful to have one tab dedicated to normal editing, but another tab for using a vertical split for the file.h and file.c files to make editing between them easier.

Tabs also work really well to divide up what you are working on. You could be working on one part of the project in one tab and another part of the project in another tab.

Just remember though, if you are using a single tab for each file, that isn't how tabs in Vim were designed to be used.

Switch to the previous opened buffer

Often the buffer that you want to edit is the buffer that you have just left. Vim provides a couple of convenient commands to switch back to the previous buffer. These are <C-^> (or <C-6>) and :b#. All of them are inconvenient so I use the next mapping:

nnoremap <Leader><Tab> :b#<CR>

Default option when switching

The default behavior when trying to switch the buffer is to not allow you to change buffer if it's not saved, but we can change it if we set one of the next options:

  • set hidden: allow to switch buffers even though it's changes aren't saved.
  • set autowrite: Auto save when switching buffers.

Share buffers and all vim information between vim instances.

This is not my ideal behavior, nvim should let the user use the window manager to manage the windows... duh, instead of vsplitting buffers or using tabs.

But sadly as of Nvim 0.1.7 and Vim 8.0 it's not implemented. You have the --server option but it only sends files to the already opened vim instance. you can't connect two vim instances to the same buffer pool.

It's been discussed in neovim 1, 2.

Currently gVim cannot have separate 'toplevel' windows for the same process/session. There is a TODO item to implement an inter-process communication system between multiple Vim instances to make it behave as though the separate processes are unified. (See :help todo and search for "top-level".)

There is an interesting hax formalized in here which I will want to have time to test.

Another solution would be to try to use neovim remote