I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to work productively on Windows in the past. Probably because my work requires a lot of Unix tools and libraries, probably because of the absence of certain Unix utilities Emacs wasn’t as useful on Windows (e.g. ls powers dired, many Emacs commands shell out to tools like grep, ag, git, etc).

In recent years, however, Microsoft has been trying to make amends with the broader developer community in the form of the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL). WSL is a fancy way of calling their native VM-like functionality that allows you to run easily Linux within Windows. Microsoft also created a powerful terminal application called Windows Terminal (naming is hard!) that is actually capable of running Emacs in text mode (and it does so quite well).

One practical problem with WSL, however, is that you can’t really leverage any of the Linux tools from native Windows apps (unless you’re using VS Code, that has some special support for this). If you have a native Windows Emacs installed the only way it can interact with the Linux VM is via TRAMP or some similar tool.

Turns out, however, you don’t really need to do this, as it’s quite simple to run a GUI Emacs frame from your Linux installation inside Windows. All you need to make this happen is an X server. There are several options around, but I went with X410 as it had the simplest setup and the broadest feature set. Yeah, yeah - it’s proprietary, it’s paid, but it gets the job done really well. As far as I’m concerned those are 10 EUR very well spent.

So, time for the step by step guide:

  • Setup WSL2 as documented here (don’t forget to enable Virtualization support from your CPU from your BIOS). This guide also covers installing Windows Terminal and some Linux distro. I’ll assume you went with Ubuntu 20.04.
  • Install X410 from the Microsoft Store and start it.
  • Allow public access in X410’s settings panel (it’s in the systray, that’s something I didn’t notice at first). Technically speaking, you’re punching a hole in your Windows firewall by doing this (you’ll be prompted by it to approve this), so be careful on public networks like those at airports. My Windows computer is a desktop on a secure home network, so that’s not really a concern for me.
  • Add this to your .bashrc:
export DISPLAY=$(cat /etc/resolv.conf | grep nameserver | awk '{print $2; exit;}'):0.0
  • Reload your .bashrc using source .bashrc.
  • Start Emacs from a WSL terminal with emacs &.

At this point an Emacs frame will appear on your Windows desktop. It will have an icon in the Windows task bar and will feel like any other Windows app. Appearances are deceiving, however, as it actually runs inside your Ubuntu VM. I have to admit I was shocked how easy this was and how well it worked, even though running GUI apps over X is not officially supported by WSL (at least not yet).

A note for HiDPI display owners - HiDPI scaling didn’t work properly for me (despite setting GDK_SCALE to 2 in my .bashrc) and the text in Emacs was tiny at first, but that was easy to address - just double your default font-size in Emacs (assuming you went with scaling factor of 2 (200%) in Windows). I went for the following addition to my Emacs config:

;; the default font size was 14
(set-frame-font "DejaVu Sans Mono 28")

Perhaps there are better way to handle this, but that gets the job done. I tried some HiDPI scaling options in X410, but the results were somewhat blurry, so I prefer my simple approach which resulted in crisp and sharp text. Check out X410’s documentation on HiDPI for more details.

One small annoyance to keep in mind is that putting your computer to sleep will kill your Emacs GUI frame. From what I got that’s a limitation of WSL2 that can’t be circumvented for now.

Also note that systemd doesn’t work on WSL2, so you won’t be able to use it to start Emacs in daemon mode, as discussed here. Not a big deal, by any means, just something to keep in mind.

If you run into any problems with this setup, check out X410’s excellent documentation. That’s the only resource I needed.

If you feel strongly against paying for X410 there are some other X server options that you can consider:

I haven’t tried them, however, so I can’t comment on how good they are. If you’re running Emacs using some other X server for Windows, please share your experience in the comments.

And that’s a wrap for today. I’m happy to report that Windows has never been a better option for Emacs users, and developers in general, than it is today. This post was authored in Emacs running on WSL2, and there’s a high chance I’ll keep using Windows and WSL2 for the foreseeable future.1 Keep hacking!

P.S. After writing this article I learned that soon you’ll be able run Linux GUI apps in WSL out-of-the-box! Check out this article for more details.

  1. My intention was to use Linux directly, but some unfortunate driver issues with my GPU (Radeon RX 5500 XT) forced me to switch to Windows 10 for now. Once again I was reminded it’s unwise to buy recent hardware and expect it to work properly with Linux. Better luck next time!