Playing with Mercurial

· by Steve · Read in about 3 min · (620 Words)

I’ve been interested in DVCS for a while; having done my fair share of branch management, something which makes that process easier and more transparent is definitely very attractive. I particularly like the way a DVCS makes it easier for people to collaborate in pockets of their own, away from the centralised environment, and track other repositories and keep their local mods up to date more easily - public-branch-on-demand if you will. However, I’m yet to be convinced by Git for everyday use. As noted, I love the idea, but Git comes across as - and this is an ironic thing for me to say - excessively geeky. At one time I might have believed there was no such thing as a plethora of geekery, but I like to think I’m a more rounded individual now 😉

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Git is technically excellent. But a number of things about it remind me of the somewhat stubborn purisms of  ‘old Linux’, such as:

  • The documentation is hugely daunting. Whenever anyone tried to convince me why Git is amazing, they point me at documentation that just makes me not want to touch it for anything important. The impression I get is akin to some Linux forums: - this thing is powerful, but it gives you plenty of rope to if not hang yourself, then to tie yourself in knots if you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • It requires a Unix back end, to the extent that you have to run it under Cygwin on Windows, and its rigid filesystem requirements mean it won’t work on FAT or Windows network drives. I get the impression there’s something rather aloof about the fact that the core team don’t consider it an issue that Git won’t run on native Windows environments. There are external projects working on that, but the fact that it’s not core is a concern, since I prefer all my 3 platforms to be supported equally.
  • The UIs still don’t seem very user-friendly, and most responses I see to the question of why that is boil down to “Git is too powerful to be captured in a GUI”. Sorry, but I don’t buy that - no system is too complex to be captured in a user-friendly tool, it just takes the will to do it, and like ‘old Linux’, there seems to be little will to make Git more approachable.

So, I’ve never had great vibes from Git, despite it’s doubtless technical merits. So, I decided to check out Mercurial instead - from what I read, Git is the fashionable DVCS that all the cool kids want to be seen using, but when it comes down to it Mercurial does exactly the same thing - except that it has native support for all platforms out of the box and TortoiseHg is looking pretty mature. I also read that it handles binary files better than Git too, since it does binary diffs everywhere. The documentation seemed much more approachable too, so I figured I’d have a play.

My first impressions are incredibly positive. The most impressive thing of all is that I imported a (relatively small- about 100 revisions) Subversion repository, with all the history intact, about 5 minutes after installing it, and was bouncing that across Linux and Windows immediately afterwards (haven’t tried OS X yet). TortoiseHg is instantly familiar, and despite the fact that the concepts are the same as Git, the presence of some familiarity, together with some distinctly less intimidating documentation, has me feeling far happier than the times I’ve dipped into the Git docs. Mercurial’s approachability is a positive contrast to Git’s Unix-purist, RTFM style I think. I know which I prefer so far.