Two Years of Using Nix and Home Manager


Table of Contents


After utilizing Nix and HM to manage both a MacOS and a NixOS machine for a solid two years, I can confidently say that the experience has been incredibly pleasant overall. Reflecting back, the major advantages that stood out, and continue to do so, include:

  • Seamless project environment management with nix-direnv, which, in my opinion, is unmatched.
  • Having a single package manager instead of one for each application. This not only simplifies package management but also enables upgrading everything with just a single command. Nix has effectively replaced the following plugin/package managers for me:
    • Neovim plugins
    • Fish shell plugins
    • System packages (for example AUR, MacPorts)
    • tmux plugins
    • Language package managers (npm, cargo, and so on)1
    • Visual Studio Code plugins

At one point, I briefly reverted back to using only MacPorts and a basic dotfiles repository. I questioned whether the added complexity of Nix and HM was truly worth it. But without the integration between nix-direnv and my shell, switching between projects became a chore. Upgrading packages now meant interacting with multiple, different upgrade processes instead of just a single command. Plus, if I ever decide to upgrade my desktop computer and go back to Linux, I’ll have to painstakingly sync both setups manually.

If you’re content with your current setup, then the effort of learning Nix might not outweigh its benefits.

However, if you see room for improvement, I strongly recommend exploring Nix.

What worked well

Unparalleled Reliability

If you’re someone who enjoys tinkering with Linux, then in my opinion, there’s simply no better alternative to NixOS. The ability to replace your boot loader, shell, Kernel parameters, and practically anything you want, reboot, and effortlessly revert back to the previous state of your system is an absolute superpower. It eradicates any fear of having to troubleshoot issues from a rescue USB stick, thereby empowering you to boldly experiment. The same level of confidence extends to system updates as well. I can’t recall a single instance where I was unable to use my NixOS system.

Another aspect I appreciate is how NixOS configuration options often go beyond merely mirroring the configuration of the underlying software in a one-to-one manner. Take, for instance, enabling wireplumber, which not only modifies files in /etc/ but also adds a DBUS_SESSION_BUS_ADDRESS environment variable, and so on. Another example is enabling bspwm, a tiling window manager. Setting just bspwm.enable = true; will install the package and add xserver configuration that also gets rid of some annoying issues in certain Java GUI applicatoins. This relieves me from meticulously keeping track of interactions between various services and tools. NixOS generally strikes a good balance between making these options genuinely useful while not having too many unexpected consequences. Ultimately, the ability to enable something and have it reliably do the right thing is something I really came to appreciate.

Effortless Configuration Sharing

Sharing configuration between MacOS and NixOS has been very straight forward overall. My approach is to have a .nix file to consolidate shared packages and configuration. This file is then imported into the host-specific home.nix file, which can include additional packages and configuration specific to each host. To illustrate, here are two code snippets demonstrating how to integrate tmux with the system clipboard on each respective platform. Both snippets are merged with the shared tmux configuration (in this case by simply appending the strings to the end of the shared configuration).

# NixOS
  programs.tmux.extraConfig = ''
    bind -T copy-mode-vi y send-keys -X copy-pipe-and-cancel "${pkgs.xsel}/bin/xsel -i --clipboard"
# MacOS
  programs.tmux.extraConfig = ''
    bind-key -T copy-mode-vi y send -X copy-pipe-and-cancel "pbcopy"

Project Environments With nix-direnv

One of the features I really missed when attempting to go back to a simpler setup was the ability to seamlessly switch between different work repositories. Each repository often required a distinct set of tools, such as varying NodeJS versions, language toolchains, database clients, S3 tools, and so on. Even in 2023, it appears that efficiently managing this is still an unsolved mystery problem.

You can put all of these things in a Docker container but to be honest, I have never found developing through a Docker container a pleasant experience. So in the end, at last at $DAY_JOB, we have Docker containers to run the actual software either locally or in production, but the development environment itself is something every developer handles differently. Most people rely on a mix of global tools that hopefully don’t conflict and a gazillion version managers.

What I do is create a repository that has a single flake.nix file. In that file, I define “development shells” for each project, like so:

  shared = [
    kubectl # pinned to a specific version

  project1 = {
    buildInputs = [
      go-migrate pgformatter

  project2 = {
    buildInputs = [

In every project directory, I then add a .envrc file, where I tell nix-direnv to use one of those development environments with a simple one-liner like this: use flake /path/to/flake#project. I can also put other code in that .envrc file2, but that’s not really different from using the non-nix version of direnv. Whenever I enter one of those directories, my shell magically has the tools I specified for that project available on PATH. This works with different shells (I use Fish for example).

In other words:

$ which go
$ cd my_project/
$ which go
$ cd ~
$ which go

I can not live without this feature anymore. The combination of effortlessly having per-project tools and being able to maintain those environments in a different repository if needed (so your coworkers don’t need to know about Nix), is just so good! Even if you don’t want to use nix-direnv I really encourage you to look at the non-Nix version of direnv!

Simple but not Easy

According to Rich Hickey, the distinction between “easy” and “simple” lies in the level of effort and complexity involved. “Easy” implies something intuitive and effortless initially but can lead to increasing complexity in the long run. On the other hand, “simple” requires more upfront investment but results in overall reduced complexity. This is how I’ll be using these terms in this chapter.

Recently, I contributed two packages to the MacPorts package repository. While the onboarding process was considerably easier compared to Nix, it didn’t take long until I encountered issues related to leftover build artifacts. Each build would yield different output, with the first build often returning errors that didn’t appear in subsequent ones. To address this, I resorted to deleting certain folders containing build-related files, hoping to restore a clean build environment. In other words, it was easy to get started but difficult to reach a comprehensive understanding of what’s actually going on.

With Nix on the other hand, the first steps are anything but intuitive. Nix is a functional programming language, which in itself can be quite demanding. Because it is used in so many different areas3, documentation is often abstract. There’s no such thing as a “definitive 10-step guide for managing your home folder with Nix” in the official manual. Compare this to MacPorts, which has a much narrower focus, and as such the documentation can be a lot more specific and hands-on.

However, Nix also embodies a sense of simplicity: same input, same output. This concept is tremendously powerful and empowering. It enables a highly motivating edit-compile feedback loop. I believe it is this simplicity that led me to contribute to Nixpkgs, making it the first package repository I ever contributed to.

Undoubtedly, certain aspects of Nix can be challenging. For instance, dealing with dependencies in JavaScript and Python applications can be incredibly messy. I’ve come to really hate Javascript’s postInstall scripts, which serve as an escape hatch allowing arbitrary actions during a build. They are often used to install binaries that are then called by the Javascript code of that package. Consequently, some packages incorporate a makeshift, ad-hoc package manager that determines the platform, downloads a binary, and places it in the hopefully correct location. However Nix doesn’t allow network requests in its build sandbox. Therefore, getting such Javascript packages to play nicely with Nix can be a challenge.

And that’s just one example. In general, the more complex and messy the packaging process, the greater the difficulty in making it work seamlessly with Nix.

But I believe that the eventual simplicity of Nix is often (not always) worth the initial cost.

Streamlined Package Management

When I switched from Nix to MacPorts, it became evident how many package managers I relied on:

  • MacPorts
  • Fish plugin manager
  • Vim/Neovim plugin manager
  • Visual Studio Code plugin manager
  • tmux plugin manager
  • NPM or Yarn

However, with Nix and HM, I can consolidate all of these into just Nix. This means I have a single command to update all my packages across all my tools, a single command to install everything on a new machine, and a unified set of concepts and knowledge applicable to all my packaging needs.

How much this matters to you depends on how many package and plugin managers you use right now. How well they work, how often you need to fiddle with what they do. Many of my colleagues are content with using an IntelliJ IDE and Homebrew, and that works perfectly well for them.

There is one aspect of this I want to emphasize. Even though Nixpkgs is already one of the biggest package repositories out there, I occasionally come across missing packages. For instance, as of writing this article, ojroques/nvim-lspfuzzy is not part of Nixpkgs. In the absence of Nix, I would have resorted to manually cloning the repository and placing the files in the appropriate directories (or install a Neovim plugin manager). However, with Nix, I can leverage the power of overlays4:

(self: super: {
  vimPlugins =
    // {
      lspfuzzy = super.pkgs.vimUtils.buildVimPluginFrom2Nix rec {
        version = "latest";
        pname = "lspfuzzy";
        src = lspfuzzy;

Applying this overlay to the Nix package set allows me to introduce a new package called nix-env-fish into my locally available packages. It works as a form of dependency injection, seamlessly integrating into my configuration as if it were a part of Nixpkgs itself. The fact that it’s added through an overlay doesn’t matter.

Overlays are a bit like a gateway drug into authoring your own packages. They let you quickly experiment with something locally, while still using the infrastructure of Nixpkgs. Once your overlay is stable, it’s easy to convert it into a standalone package and create a pull request.

What didn’t work so well

Missing or Broken GUI Apps

At times, certain GUI apps on NixOS would simply display a black screen. This issue appeared to be specific to Electron-based applications, although I never found the motivation to debug these problems. On MacOS, I faced another limitation as not all the GUI apps I wanted to install were available. Some apps were either unavailable for the Darwin platform or failed to launch. For example, Sublime Text Editor, Obsidian, and Ledger Live Desktop are examples of applications that are not accessible for Darwin systems, as can be seen in each respective package’s “Platforms” list.

Small Frustrations

A Nix and HM setup can come with its fair share of small nuisances. I sometimes wish I were the type of person who kept a meticulous journal with tags and all, as the issues I’ve listed here are just the few that I can recall from memory.

One of the trade-offs of having Nix manage your configuration files is that it’s more or less no longer possible to edit them directly in place (which is a somewhat obvious requirement for such a highly deterministic build system). Even if you do make edits, they will eventually be overwritten. If you tweak your Vim configuration file every five minutes then this will really annoy you.

On MacOS, launcher entries for applications may be missing. For example, if I install the Alacritty terminal emulator through HM, I can’t simply use “cmd+space” and type “Alacritty”, to launch it because MacOS is unaware of its existence. Although HM creates the necessary files, Finder does not index them. Here’s the GitHub issue.

I was also missing some man pages at some point, but I think that was fixable, and I think that this is the now closed GitHub issue.

Integrating Nix and HM with Fish requires you to find some plugins first. Initially I used but later I switched to

It took a few years until Visual Studio Code in Nix was in a state where most things just work. It’s still a bit complicated to setup because there are various options that all have some pros and cons. You can see the documentation here. Also getting LiveShare to work on MacOS and NixOS requires you to be a bit mindful about which plugins you need on which platform.

Nix also demands more hard disk space, and the installer needs to create a new volume. Fortunately, the Determinate Nix Installer project nowadays provides a straightforward installation process on MacOS.

Added Complexity & Home Manager Abstractions

This was the reason I tried to live without Nix and HM for a while! Nixpkgs is an enormous repository, and the Nix language itself adds to the complexity. According to tokei, the nix-community/home-manager repository has over 50_000 lines of code! It can be a bit unsettling to think about the sheer number of the layers of technology involved in “just” installing a few applications and placing files in specific locations.

Of course, for the most part you don’t care how many lines of code go into home-manager. Similar to how I have no idea about the size of Vim and Neovim, yet I rely on them daily.

However, you’ll notice the complexity when something breaks. Fixing issues in individual packages is usually manageable, but problems stemming from the underlying infrastructure of Nixpkgs can be daunting. Nix, being a functional, domain-specific language, is used with a significant level of abstraction in Nixpkgs. It can be frustratingly difficult to trace the origin of certain function arguments for example.

I also have some doubts about the level of abstraction in HM. For instance, the existence of options like programs.neovim.enable in both HM and NixOS is highly confusing. And it’s not just confusing for beginners; I still find it confusing after 2 years. Are these options equivalent? How can I spot the differences? Options like programs.alacritty.settings allow you to write Nix code that gets translated into a .yaml file, which is neat, I suppose. However, I personally prefer the less sophisticated approach of directly writing .yaml inline within my Nix script (or write a separate .yaml file and import it). Otherwise I need to understand both the upstream configuration and the Nix equivalent of it. Many packages also have an extraConfig option for adding configuration that doesn’t have a HM equivalent. This abstraction level sometimes feels a bit off. I assume it creates a significant maintenance burden, as upstream configuration options need to be reflected in Home Manager options. Of course, you can ignore all this and manually create your configuration files with xdg.configFile.

I’d probably find the level of abstraction of nix-darwin better, but I haven’t had the time and energy to try it yet.

At the end of the day I really don’t need the per-user installation of packages and elaborate modules that HM gives me. I’d be perfectly content with providing a list of packages to install system-wide and a few basic primitives to generate configuration files in my home folder. Having said all that, I’m still a happy HM user.

Exploring Life Beyond Nix & Home Manager

I recently decided to give living without Nix and HM a try. This decision was actually inspired by a brief conversation I had with Gabriella Gonzalez years ago. I had noticed her using an incredibly simple setup during some Twitch streams, so I reached out and asked about it. She kindly provided thoughtful replies (thank you, Gabriella!) and, at least back then, seemed to be using a mostly stock macOS setup. That got me thinking… if someone like her can live without a billion fancy shell integrations and still be a billion times more productive than me, maybe I could achieve the same level of competence by emulating her approach?5

So I reverted to a simpler configuration where I relied on MacPorts for installing my system-wide tools. I kept Nix around for running nix develop and accessing the project-specific environments I mentioned earlier. However, I abandoned the fancy automation.

So, how did it turn out?

Well, typing nix develop ~/path/to/flake#project a thousand times a day isn’t exactly fun. And I dread the day I install a Neovim plugin that requires a Rust toolchain. Instead of using a Vim/Neovim plugin manager, I resorted to learning how packages work and ended up becoming my own package manager with Git submodules. As for tmux and Fish plugins, I simply stopped using tmux altogether. It’s a bit annoying because Alacritty lacks splits and tabs. Going without Fish plugins means living without a Git prompt in my shell, as the bundled Git prompts are unusable in large repositories like nixpkgs. Without nix-direnv, I no longer have the convenience of automatic sourcing of environment variables. Every time I try to replay a database dump on my local Postgres instance, I’m reminded of this when I encounter the error message: AWS_S3_REGION is not set.

Also, it’s quite funny when you run nix-store --gc to reclaim some space, only to realize that nix-direnv was also preventing your development environments from being cleaned up (check out this this insightful post).

But here’s the thing: Despite its flaws and complexity, I’ve become incredibly accustomed to the convenience of running nix flake update and having almost everything on my system updated. I’ve grown accustomed to typing cd and witnessing my environment magically and instantly switch.



Sometimes you want to install a tool that’s not yet packaged up in your system package manager of choice. In such cases it can be tempting to just use something like npm or cargo to install something globally in your system.


I really like PATH_add to automatically add ./node_modules/.bin/ to your $PATH whenever you are in a NodeJS project. That way it’s trivial to use the project-local formatter and linter, and so on.


You can manage your developer machine, build applications (kind of like Bazel), deploy code to remote machines, define those machines, and more.


I’ve ellided some details. You also need to add this input to your Nix Flake, so it can keep track of which version you’ve installed. This is done like this:

  lspfuzzy.url = "github:ojroques/nvim-lspfuzzy";
  lspfuzzy.flake = false;

It didn’t work.