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Setting up Python is usually simple, but there are some places where newcomers (and experienced users) need to be careful. What versions are there? What’s the difference between Python, CPython, Anaconda, PyPy? Those and many other questions may stump new developers, or people wanting to use Python.

Note: this guide is opinionated.

Glossary and questions

Python versions: 2 vs 3

The Python community has undergone sort of a schism in recent years. Python 3, released in 2008, broke backwards compatibility: deprecated some bad constructs and libraries (eg. raw_input() became input() and the original Python 2 function that ran code input by users is gone; print() became a function; many things that returned lists now are iterators — zip, range), and completely remodelled strings (which are now Unicode by default, and the interpreter behavior is stricter when the wrong type is used)

For new code, you should use Python 3. Most popular packages support Python 3, and many of them support both Pythons at the same time. The early bugs were ironed out in the first few point releases, some features that made porting easier were added (back).

But what if you end up needing Python 2 later? No problem: you can learn the differences in a short time, and with the help of a few libraries (eg. six) you can easily write code that is compatible with Python 2 and 3 at the same time, using the same codebase (most libraries out there do that).

Python 2 will go EOL and lose official support and updates in 2020.

Read more: Python 2 or Python 3 on Python Wiki

Can I run multiple Pythons on the same machine?

Yes. Note that multiple Python interpreters are completely separate: they have their own pip and packages, and you can’t run Python 2 code in a Python 3 interpreter. You need to specify which interpreter to use when installing packages and running some scripts (eg. pip2, pip3 or python3 -m pip).

It’s best to limit yourself to the latest Python 2 and 3 versions. Python is backwards-compatible within the major release, so Python 2.7 runs code written with older 2.x versions in mind.

Implementations

A programming language is an abstract construct. To run code written in that language, an interpreter or compiler needs to be written. In Python’s case, there’s a plethora of implementations. Some of them are:

  • CPython is the reference implementation. This is the implementation distributed on https://python.org/ and as part of many operating systems. Most Python features are first implemented in CPython, and then they are ported to other implementations. If you don’t know what to choose, use CPython.
  • PyPy is a fast implementation, written in a subset of Python. It’s compatible with Python 2.7 and 3.5 (beta support). It can run all pure Python code, and many extension libraries that use CFFI.
  • IronPython is a .NET CLR implementation. It can integrate with .NET code.
  • Jython is a Java JVM implementation. It can integrate with Java code, as well as other JVM languages.

Read more: Python Implementations on Python Wiki

Distributions

There are also Python (CPython) distributions. They ship the CPython interpreter and add some extra packages/features. They are maintained by other communities or corporate entities.

The most popular third-party distribution is Anaconda from Continuum Analytics. It’s popular for data scientists, and includes over 100 packages, with extra pre-built binaries available from the conda package manager.

I personally recommend to avoid Anaconda:

  • Most packages have binary wheels for Windows, macOS and Linux (yes, Linux!) making the installation as simple as pip install numpy.
  • You waste disk space for packages Anaconda installs that you won’t ever need.
  • It’s provided by some random for-profit company.
  • I’ve seen bugs that were not reproducible outside of Anaconda.
  • You can still do data science using the official distribution. There’s nothing special about Anaconda.

Read more: Python distributions on Python Wiki

Can I make .exe files from Python programs?

Yes, you can. There are tools for this — PyInstaller is the best one. Note that you usually need to run it on the destination operating system. And remember that “compiling” to exe files like that is not a security measure — your source code is still easily recoverable. (It’s not a security measure in other languages either, even if getting source code back might be more expensive/tricky in those.)

Where to learn Python? Where to get help?

The choice of learning material is important. If you get a bad book, it might discourage you from learning (because it’s boring), or may teach you bad/outdated practices.

If you can already program in another language, I recommend the official Python tutorial. For newcomers to programming, I recommend Think Python or Automate the Boring Stuff with Python. They teach Python 3, and (mostly) best practices.

If you need help, try #python on freenode IRC, the Tutor or Python-list mailing lists, or a bunch of other communities. (I’m a regular on #python)

Installing Python

This guide will focus on installing CPython 2.7 and 3.x (latest), using the standard distribution. This choice is satisfactory for most people. Third-party distributions, while handy in some cases, are not needed for most. (See Distributions for arguments)

Throughout this guide, I’ll refer to the Python interpreter executable as python. The exact name depends on your system and desired version. On most OSes, python is Python 2 and python3 is 3; python2 should also exist. On Arch Linux, python is Python 3. On Windows, use the py launcher.

Windows

Download the installer(s): https://www.python.org/downloads/

Those installers come with pip, and modern Python 3.x versions come with the py launcher. You can use that launcher to pick a specific Python version, eg.:

  • py -3 -m pip install <package>
  • py -2 somefile.py
  • py -2.7
  • py (default system version)

It’s recommended for most use, and mandatory for upgrading pip.

The 32-bit versions are more versatile. Most packages support both (the only exception I’m aware of is Tensorflow, which only allows 64-bit Python 3.5 as of now).

macOS

macOS ships with Python 2.7.10 (as of macOS Sierra). It’s not the latest version; it’s good enough for most people, but I still recommend installing your own (the system Python doesn’t include pip, for example). You can install the latest 2.7 version, as well as Python 3, using a package manager. I recommend Homebrew — it’s the most popular solution, and lets you install many other packages.

DO NOT use the python.org installers: they do not have uninstallers, so you will have outdated versions lying around after some time. There is no auto-update as well. DO NOT attempt to remove the system-installed Python, this will only damage your system and you’ll need to reinstall.

If you already have a package manager installed (MacPorts, Fink), don’t install a new one and just use the existing one.

  1. Install Homebrew.
  2. Run brew install python python3.
  3. You should now have python, python3, pip and pip3.

To update Homebrew and Python, run brew update.

Linux (and other Unix-like OSes)

On Linux, there usually are good enough packages in your OS repositories. You should be able to install the appropriate package for Python (2 and/or 3). Most (if not all) distributions require Python — do not remove the pre-installed packages, and be careful not to overwrite them with something newer.

If the version that ships with your distribution is too old, there are some options. There might be some repositories with better versions, eg. the deadsnakes PPA for Ubuntu. Then there’s the other option of compiling Python manually. The instructions depend on your exact requirements, but here’s a summary:

  1. Download the source distribution from Python.org and unpack it. Go into the unpacked source directory.
  2. Ensure you’ve got a functional C compiler and Python’s dependencies. You can usually use your system’s package manager to install the build dependencies of your system Python. Some dependencies are optional (eg. sqlite3 requires SQLite headers).
  3. Run ./configure --prefix=/opt/python3.6 and then make. (You may add other options to both. It will take a while.)
  4. Run make altinstall as root. Avoid make install, as it can override python executables.

Alternatively, you can try pyenv or pythonz — tools that can be used to install and manage different Python versions. Remember: compiling Python should be considered a last resort.

Installing packages

To install third-party packages, you should use pip, the Python package manager. If you’re using Windows or macOS (from Homebrew), pip is included with your copy of Python. If you’re on Linux and installed Python from a system repository, install the correct system package (python-pip, python3-pip). If you compiled your own Python, pip is also included.

To run pip, use py -m pip (Windows), python -m pip (other platforms), or the short pip/pip3 commands.

NEVER use sudo pip. This can cause numerous problems:

  • conflicts between packages installed by pip and your system package manager
  • pip modifying system packages, leading to issues when updating them, or breaking dependencies
  • no isolation between package versions, which is sometimes needed to satisfy dependencies

Note that a package install is specific to the Python interpreter used to run pip. Packages installed to a virtualenv are separate from system packages; packages installed for “global” Python 2.7 are separate from 3.6 packages. Virtual environments generally don’t use the system packages, unless specifically enabled during creation.

Some distros have popular packages in their repositories. Sometimes they’re good; in other cases they’re terribly outdated or they lack important components, making package managers angry and sick of supporting a 2-year-old version. (Especially since most bugs are closed with “we’ve fixed that long ago”)

User installs

At a small scale, you can install packages with pip for a single user. Use pip install --user PACKAGE to do this. If your package installs scripts, they will be installed to ~/.local/bin on Linux, and ~/Library/Python/X.Y/bin on macOS (X.Y is Python version), or you can use python -m if the package supports it.

For most people and projects, virtual environments are better. There are, however, use cases for putting some packages user-wide — if you don’t work on projects, but instead are doing one-off research projects, those are better suited by user-wide installs.

Virtual environments

Virtual environments are the best way to install and manage Python packages. Advantages include:

  • Isolation of projects and their requirements: if one app/package requires library version X, but another requires version Y, they can live in separate virtual environments
  • Independent from system-wide packages
  • Lightweight (an empty virtualenv is about 10 MB)
  • Simple to re-create in any place (pip freeze > requirements.txtpip install -r requirements.txt)

Tools and management

There are two tools to facilitate creation of virtual environments: the older virtualenv project, and the newer venv module. The venv module is shipped with Python 3.x; some distributions may put it in a separate package or remove it altogether. I recommend using virtualenv — it’s compatible with more Python versions (it’s better to use the same tool for both Pythons) and cannot be broken by incompetent OS package maintainers (venv fails on Debian due to no ensurepip; there is a python3-venv package that fixes it but that’s hard to discover)

There are multiple schools of thought regarding virtualenv placement and content. Myself, I use virtualenvwrapper to manage virtualenvs and put them in ~/virtualenvs. Other people put virtualenvs inside their git repositories (but they must be in .gitignore) Virtualenvs should only contain packages installed with pip so they can be recreated quickly.

I also use the virtualenvwrapper plugin for Oh My Zsh, which also activates virtualenvs with the same name as a git repo, or the environment named by a .venv file.

Installation and usage

To install virtualenv user-wide, use pip install --user virtualenv. You can then use it with python -m virtualenv DIRECTORY. You may pass extra options, eg. interpreter to use (-p python3). Sometimes you need to install virtualenv for every Python version; usually, one copy is enough.

How to use them? This is a subject of heated debate in the Python community.

  • Some people believe that activating (source bin/activate on *nix; Scripts\activate on Windows) is the right thing to do and simplifies work.
  • Others think that you should use bin/python (or other scripts in that directory) directly, as activation only changes $PATH and some helper variables — those variables are not mandatory for operation, running the correct python is.
  • Others still think virtualenvs should be used in subshells.

In my opinion, if activating virtualenvs works in your environment, you should do it — it’s the most convenient option. There are, however, cases when activation fails, or is otherwise impossible — calling bin/python directly is your best bet in that case. If you are working inside shell scripts, do not activate virtualenvs. I’m not a fan of the subshell option, because it complicates stuff if you work on multiple projects, and requires tracking usage manually.

Upgrading and moving

Upgrading the system Python may make your virtualenvs unusable. For patch version upgrades, you can just update symlinks (see fix-venvs.sh). However, if the minor version changes, it’s best to re-create the virtualenv (you need to create requirements.txt ahead of time).

You cannot move a virtualenv between directories/machines or rename virtualenvs. You need to use pip freeze > requirements.txt, create a new virtualenv, and run pip install -r requirements.txt (you can then delete the old environment with a simple rm -rf)

Packages with C extensions (binary)

The situation improved drastically in the past year or so. Nowadays, almost all packages have a pre-compiled package available in PyPI. Those packages work for Windows, macOS, and Linux. There are packages for some of the most common offenders, including Pillow, lxml, PyQt5, numpy… However, there might still be packages without wheels on PyPI.

If there is no wheel for a package and you are on Windows, check out Christoph Gohlke’s unofficial binaries. If you can’t find any wheels online, you would have to resort to compiling it manually — this requires installing Visual Studio (Visual C++) in a version that matches your Python, and it’s kind of a pain to do.

If you are not on Windows, you must install a C compiler and toolchain. If you get a warning about missing Python.h, install the appropriate development package — for example, python-dev or python3-dev) on Debian/Ubuntu, python-devel or python3-devel on RHEL/Fedora. The package you’re trying to install might have other dependencies that you need to install (the -dev(el) part is important, too)

Other stuff

If you’re working on a project, use pip install -e . inside the project directory to install the package in your environment in development (editable) mode. This loads code directly from your repository — you don’t need to re-install on every change; you might need to re-install when your version number changes.

Editors and IDEs

Another important thing a developer should take care of is the choice of an editor. This is an important decision, and is the reason for many holy wars in the programmer community.

A good editor should have syntax highlighting for all languages you need to work with. It should also have features like visual block/multiple selections, sophisticated find-and-replace, file finding, code completion, and many more minor but helpful features.

Then there’s the difference between IDEs and text editors. Text editors are simpler, whereas IDEs try to include many extra things not necessarily related to writing code. IDEs often use more resources, but you won’t notice it with a modern computer (especially with a SSD).

I spend the most of my time in Vim (neovim/VimR to be precise). Vim is the most powerful text editor out there, and with the right set of plugins it can beat IDEs at speed and productivity. Vim has a steep learning curve, but it’s worth it — you can do large changes with just a few keystrokes. Vim is considered so good that many IDEs (Visual Studio, IntelliJ IDEA/PyCharm) have (mediocre) Vim emulation plugins.

However, if you would prefer an IDE, your best bet would be PyCharm from JetBrains. It has both a free Community and paid Professional edition. The JetBrains folks are experts at IDEs — they have fully-fledged tools for many languages. Their Python solution offers a plethora of options that aid programmers in their work. If you’re on Windows, you might try Python Tools for Visual Studio (although I haven’t worked with that and can’t vouch for it)

Another, lighter option is Visual Studio Code — it’s a text editor, but can offer many IDE-like features with the right set of plugins. It’s Electron-based architecture, or effectively being based on top of Google’s Chromium, is unfortunate and can lead to bad performance on lower-end machines. (In my experience, it’s better than Atom.) You can also try Sublime Text ($70).

But really, almost any editor will do. But please avoid IDLE, the editor included with Python. It lacks some of the most basic things — it doesn’t even have an option to show line numbers. Not to mention its ugliness. Also, don’t use Notepad and TextEdit. Those are too simple, and Notepad has encoding issues.

Update history

2017-07-19
Better description of problems caused by using sudo pip.
2017-07-10
Added notes about not removing built-in Pythons.
2017-07-07
Spelling fixes and updates to the virtualenv usage section.

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