React vs. Angular: 5 main differences

The biggest difference between the two is that React is a library and not a framework per se. Imagine it like an actual library; a huge place with wonderful books, aka “coding pieces” in software development, that you can use to add new functions to a website or app. Angular is a framework; picture it as an actual frame. To fit a certain picture into that frame you have to cut it, meaning you can’t go back. In software development, a framework comes with a specific standard for an app or website. It is limited, setting an unchangeable project architecture. Once cut, you can’t uncut it.

React gives you more coding freedom because it enables you to use the library and add new functions to an existing website or app. With Angular, you must always abide by the rules of the initial framework. While both are powerful development technologies, additional core differences between AngularJS (the framework) and ReactJS (the library) are mentioned in the lines below.

1. Componentization - the path to coding freedom

Because it is based on three layers (Model-View-Controller), Angular comes with a fixed, complex structure. It provides numerous directives, standard services, controllers, and additional components that require time for a developer to master. When coding in Angular, the application code is broken into files. When creating a reusable component, each piece of code must be described in a separate file. Angular directives are your application’s template logic written as attributes/tags.

There’s no right or wrong structure for apps developed using React. As a library and not a framework, the community has built many libraries on top of React to help with data flow - Flux, Redux, MobX, ReactN, React-hooks. This way, component trees are much easier to build given the functional programming style with declarative component definitions.

React-based code is more readable and logically structured due to better component availability. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t have specific writing demands, allowing developers to make their applications adaptable. As opposed to Angular, coding in React feels easier; although, prior to getting started developers should dedicate some time to designing an initial application structure.

2. Data binding: two-way or one-way?

Angular uses two-way data binding, connecting DOM values to model data to enable perfect sync between the view and the model. Whenever data in the model changes, it reflects on the view as well. The benefit is that it helps developers change between logic and UI automatically, saving them from manually managing complex rendering.

On the downside, the two-way data binding model has a negative effect on performance. For each binding, Angular creates an automatic watcher. In development, too many watchers in an app may pose challenges related to performance issues. Almost every HTML element has a watcher on it, and for every change, Angular checks all watchers to see what needs to be updated. The more watchers you have, the higher the risk for the app to freeze.

An additional shortcoming of Angular is connected to the way it handles the DOM. As opposed to React, Angular makes changes in the browser, in the real DOM directly. When this happens, numerous changes to internal values must be applied to the browser, thus impacting application performance.

On the other hand, we have React’s one-way data binding model that enables data flows in one direction only. The main benefit is that it helps developers know which specific parts of the data were modified. For this implementation to happen, Facebook crafted its very own architecture - Flux. Its aim is to control data flow to components via one control point, aka the dispatcher to improve code base effectiveness.

React’s one-way data flow eases code complexity. For us, it’s a lot simpler to debug components that are self-contained using React rather than Angular when managing large applications.” (Malina, front-end developer)

3. Learning curve: TypeScript, JavaScript ES6 & JSX

Angular leverages TypeScript, an open-source programming language, to be able to handle larger development projects. It is compact and it enables developers to spot mistakes while typing. An additional benefit of TypeScript is the autocompletion, great navigation, and excellent code refactoring. For enterprise-size projects, TypeScript seems perfect as it is clean and scalable. React works pretty great with TypeScript too, as it ensures the health of the syntax; additionally, it also uses JavaScript ES6+ and JSX, a JavaScript syntax extension meant to ease UI coding and make it look like HTML. From a visual perspective, JSX makes the code simpler, allowing developers to create independent components that manage both their own UI and logic in the same file, thus helping React give more useful error prompts.

The beauty of React lies in its minimalistic nature - no classic templates, no dependency injection, and no complicated features. If you’re a JavaScript fan, you shouldn’t have a problem learning (and at some point mastering) React. But then again, it does take some time to get the feel of it given the absence of a predefined project structure. As for Angular, the library itself is massive. In simple terms, you’ll never stop learning because the framework constantly updates itself; which is not necessarily a bad thing, but you need to be prepared to accept the complexity and put in some extra learning effort.

4. UI design elements: the mechanical, prebuilt vs. the creative?

Some software engineers fancy the Material Design Language with pre-built design components. If that’s you, then Angular might suit you better. Angular Material comes with a range of interaction patterns like pop-ups, indicators and buttons, form controls, layout, data tables, and more. The purpose of pre-built elements is to speed the whole UI process. React, on the other hand, features UI tools made by its community.

Material UI, for example, pledges to be one of the world’s most popular UI libraries for React. Backed by over 1M developers in 180+ countries, Material UI’s mission is to make developing UIs efficient, fun, and accessible. The vision is to help developers build experiences that are easy to use on any type of device. Its biggest strength is that it doesn’t offer tools to help you develop a website, but a list of themes for you to select from; this comes in handy when you feel challenged by the design part of front-end development.

5. Performance: complex & challenging vs. fast & scalable

When it comes to performance, Angular can divide tasks into chunks due to its MVC structure; reducing webpage loading time. Angular’s MVC model enables separation of concerns due to the presence of the view part on the side of the client. It can instantly and intuitively replicate changes done to the model into the views. However, because the framework is packed with numerous features, it is sometimes difficult to decide which ones suit your project best. Some pointers from a senior front-end developer at Thinslices on both Angular and React:

“As a front-end developer with 5 years experience, I had the chance to work with both Angular and React. One particular project I’ve been working on for the past 2 years greeted me with a legacy web application written in Angular. After some time, my team and I realised that things weren’t going in the right direction and we needed a way to catch up with the new tech stack available. Therefore, we started to make a progressive transition from Angular to React. What helped us make this decision?

The code became very rigid and the dependencies used weren’t as flexible as we had hoped. The amount of watchers slowed our app, the compatibility between third party packages became a big issue, and the solutions to our problems were pretty limited by the existing implementation. React brought us speed in rendering complex UI, ease in managing data fetched from the API, minimum to none of boilerplate and third party dependencies, flexibility and a more stable architecture. Also, the support of the React community is way more generous than that of Angular, so you can hardly get the feeling that you’re alone in a pool of development issues.” (Malina, front-end developer).

Final thoughts

React’s mission is to be fast, user-friendly, and scalable. Additional performance benefits are greatly linked to the virtual DOM; a technology that can attain maximum efficiency via node re-rendering when needed. Using the virtual DOM helps with app workload optimization, too. The one-way data binding provides better project control because the data only flows in one direction when coding in React. Last but not least, monitoring action output and testing components make the whole development process a lot easier.

Both React and Angular are excellent at coding single-page applications. However, they are different instruments. We, at Thinslices, believe it’s a matter of personal preference. At the end of the day, it should be about which of the two suits best a given project.

Coding in React, for example, is a great starting point if you’re already familiar with JavaScript and HTML. The novelty element is that it allows developers to expand their skills and learn other connected libraries (such as Redux) that match with the needs of their assigned project. As for Angular, the approach is different in solutions and syntax; at first sight, expect to feel a little confused. Regardless, the vast library of tools will come in handy as you understand the feel of the framework.

This article was initially published in March 2020 on Digital Knights’ blog.

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