Josef “Jeff” Sipek

Modern Mercurial

I’ve been using both Git and Mercurial since they were first released in 2005. I’ve messed with the internals of both, but I always had a preference for Mercurial (its user interface is cleaner, its design is well thought-out, and so on). So, it should be no surprise that I felt a bit sad every time I heard that some project chose Git over Mercurial (or worse yet, migrated from Mercurial to Git). At the same time, I could see Git improving release after release—but Mercurial did not seem to. Seem is the operative word here.

A couple of weeks ago, I realized that more and more of my own repositories have been Git based. Not for any particular reason other than that I happened to type git init instead of hg init. After some reflection, I decided that I should convert a number of these repositories from Git to Mercurial. The conversion itself was painless thanks to the most excellent hggit extension that lets you clone, pull, and push Git repositories with Mercurial. (I just cloned the Git repository with a hg clone and then cleaned up some of the mess manually—for example, I don’t need the bookmark corresponding to the one and only branch in the original Git repository.) Then the real fun began.

I resumed the work on my various projects, but now with the brand-new Mercurial repositories. Soon after I started hitting various quirks with the Mercurial UI. I realized that the workflow I was using wasn’t really aligned with the UI. Undeterred, I looked for solutions. I enabled the pager extension, the color extension, overrode some of the default colors to be less offensive (and easier to read), enabled the shelve, rebase, and histedit extensions to (along with mq) let me do some minor history rewriting while I iteratively work on changes. (I learned about and switched to the evolve extension soon after.) With each tweak, the user experience got better and better.

Then it suddenly hit me—before these tweaks, I had been using Mercurial like it’s still 2005!

I think this is a very important observation. Mercurial didn’t seem to be improving because none of the user-visible changes were forced onto the users. Git, on the other hand, started with a dreadful UI so it made sense to enable new features by default to lessen the pain.

One could say that Mercurial took the Unix approach—simple and not exactly friendly by default, but incredibly powerful if you dig in a little. (This extensibility is why Facebook chose Mercurial over Git as a Subversion replacement.)

Now I wonder if some of the projects chose Git over Mercurial at least partially because by default Mercurial has been a bit…spartan.

With my .hgrc changes, I get exactly the information I want in a format that’s even better than what Git provided me. (Mercurial makes so much possible via its templating engine and the revsets language.)

So, what does all this mean for Mercurial? It’s hard to say, but I’m happy to report that there is a number of good improvements that should land in the upcoming 4.2 release scheduled for early May. For example, the pager and color functionality is moving into the core and they will be on by default.

Finally, I like my current Mercurial environment quite a lot. The hggit extension is making me seriously consider using Mercurial when dealing with Git repositories that I can’t convert.

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