Useful Vim Plugins

This post is mostly a reference for folks that are interested in adding a little bit of extra polish and functionality to the stock version of Vim.  The plugin system in Vim is a little bit confusing at first but is really powerful once you get past the initial learning curve.  I know this topic has been covered a million times but having a centralized reference for how to set up each plugin is a little bit harder to find.

Below I have highlighted a sample list of my favorite Vim plugins.  I suggest that you go try as many plugins that you can to figure out what suits your needs and workflow best.  The following plugins are the most useful to me, but certainly I don’t think will be the best for everybody so use this post as a reference to getting started with plugins and try some out to decide which ones are the best for your own environment.


This is a package manager of sorts for Vim plugins.  Vundle allows you to download, install, search and otherwise manage plugins for Vim in an easy and straight forward way.

To get started with Vundle, put the following configuration at THE VERY TOP of your vimrc.

set nocompatible              " be iMproved, required
filetype off                  " required
set rtp+=~/.vim/bundle/Vundle.vim
call vundle#rc()
"" let Vundle manage Vundle
Bundle 'gmarik/Vundle.vim'

Then you need to clone the Vundle project in to the path specified in the vimrc from above.

git clone ~/.vim/bundle/Vundle.vim

Now you can install any other defined plugins from within Vim by  running :BundleInstall.  This should trigger Vundle to start downloading/updating its list of plugins based on your vimrc.

To install additional plugins, update your vimrc with the plugins you want to install, similar to how Vundle installs itself as shown below.

"" Example plugin
Bundle 'flazz/vim-colorschemes'

Color Schemes

Customizing the look and feel of Vim is a very personal experience.  Luckily there are a lot of options to choose from.

The vim-colorschemes plugin allows you to pick from a huge list of custom color schemes that users have put together and published.  As illustrated above you can simply add the repo to your vimrc to gain access to a large number of color options.  Then to pick one just add the following to your vimrc (after the Bundle command).

colorscheme xoria256

Next time you open up Vim you should see color output for the scheme you like.


Syntastic is a fantastic syntax highlighter and linting tool and is easily the best syntax checker I have found for Vim.  Syntastic offers support for tons of different languages and styles and even offers support for third party syntax checking plugins.

Here is how to install and configure Syntastic using Vundle.  The first step is to ddd Syntastic to your vimrc,

" Syntax highlighting
 Bundle 'scrooloose/syntastic'

There are a few basic settings that also need to get added to your vimrc to get Syntastic to work well.

" Syntastic statusline
 set statusline+=%#warningmsg#
 set statusline+=%{SyntasticStatuslineFlag()}
 set statusline+=%*
 " Sytnastic settings
 let g:syntastic_always_populate_loc_list = 1
 let g:syntastic_auto_loc_list = 1
 let g:syntastic_check_on_open = 1
 let g:syntastic_loc_list_height=5
 let g:syntastic_check_on_wq = 0
 " Better symbols
 let g:syntastic_error_symbol = 'XX'
 let g:syntastic_warning_symbol = '!!'

That’s pretty much it.  Having a syntax highlighter and automatic code linter has been a wonderful boon for productivity.  I have saved  myself so much time chasing down syntax errors and other bad code.  I definitely recommend this tool.


This plugin is an autocompletion tool that adds tab completion to Vim, giving it a really nice IDE feel.  I’ve only tested YCM out for a few weeks now but have to say it doesn’t seem to slow anything down very much at all, which is nice.  An added bonus to using YCM with Syntastic is that they work together so if there are problems with the functions entered by YCM, Syntastic will pick them up.

Here are the installation instructions for Vundle.  The first thing you will need to do is add a Vundle reference to your vimrc.

"" Autocomplete
Bundle 'Valloric/YouCompleteMe'

Then, in Vim, run :BundleInstall – this will download the git repo for YouCompleteMe.  Once the repo is downloaded you will need a few other tools installed to get things working correctly.  Check the official documentation for installation instruction for your system.  On OS X you will need to have Python, cmake, MacVim and clang support.

xcode-select --install
brew install cmake

Then, to install YouCompleteMe.

cd ~/.vim/bundle/YouCompleteMe
git submodule update --init --recursive (not needed if you use Vundle)
./ --clang-completer


Highlights pesky whitespace automatically.  This one is really useful to just have on in the background to help you catch whitespace mistakes.  I know I make a lot of mistakes with regards to missing whitespace so having this is just really nice.

To install it.

"" Whitespace highlighting
Bundle 'ntpeters/vim-better-whitespace'

That’s it.  Vundle should handle the rest.

ctrlp / nerdtree

These tools are useful for file management and traversal.  These plugins become more powersful when you work with a lot of files and move around different directories a lot.  There is some debate about whether or not to use nerdtree in favor of the built in netrw.  Nonetheless, it is still worth checking out different file browsers and see how they work.

Check out Vim Unite for a sort of hybrid file manager for fuzzy finding like ctrlp with additional functionality, like the ability to grep files from within Vim using a mapped key.

Bonus – Shellcheck

This is a shell and bash linting tool that integrates with vim and is great.  Bash is notoriously difficult to read and debug and the shellcheck tools helps out with that a lot.

Install shellcheck on your system and syntastic will automatically pick up the installation and automatically do its linting whenever you save a file.  I have been writing a lot of bash lately and the shellcheck tool has been a godsend for catching mistakes, and especially useful in Vim since it runs all the time.

By combining the powers of a good syntax highlighter and a good solid understanding of Bash you should be able to be that much more productive once you get used to having a build in to syntax and style checker for your scripts.

Josh Reichardt

Josh is the creator of this blog, a system administrator and a contributor to other technology communities such as /r/sysadmin and Ops School. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.