React Christmas

Boost your performance!

A 4 minute read written by
Kristofer Giltvedt Selbekk
19.12.2017

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You can write some pretty fast and amazing apps with React without thinking twice about performance optimizations. However, there are some pretty cool tricks you can do whenever your app starts to slow down.

React is fast. I mean, real fast. It re-renders your entire app in a matter of milliseconds (if even that) whenever you make a change to the state or data feeding into it.

The way React does this is by minimizing the amount of operations it asks the browser to do. It keeps a virtual representation of the DOM (called a virtual DOM), and they only ask the browser to update what you see when there is an actual difference in the two. This latter process is called "reconciliation", and there's a ton of cool computer science stuff behind how it's made.

Whenever a change occurs in a component, React starts the process of re-rendering this component and all its descendants. It calls the render() method (and any life cycle methods) of each child all the way down - and passes that resulting virtual DOM tree to the reconciliation process. If there are any differences to the existing virtual DOM, a minimal set of updates are sent to the browser's DOM.

So what can go wrong?

Typically, this process of re-rendering and reconciliation goes by lightning fast. It's only in extreme rare cases you notice that things aren't going by as fast as it should.

One of those times can be when you are re-rendering a page with tons of components in it. Perhaps a long table or a complex list? That's going to trigger a ton of render() calls on a lot of components - and the update process might take a bit longer than those few milliseconds mentioned above. Luckily, React gives us a few tools to optimize those cases.

Skip the wait with shouldComponentUpdate!

A few days ago we learned about class-based components and how they supply us with some pretty powerful functions called "lifecycle methods". One of the most powerful is actually one you see used the least - shouldComponentUpdate.

This lifecycle method returns a boolean deciding whether this component should re-render (or update) based on its current and upcoming set of state and props. If this method returns false, no re-render will take place, and that part of your app will remain the same, at least until the next update.

This "short-circuting" of the rendering process can actually make a pretty large difference under the right circumstances. If you have a list of hundreds of items that never change, assuming they might change everytime an unrelated prop updates might be a huge waste of time. Since JavaScript is a single-threaded language, this waste of time might translate to what the users call "yank" or "a slow app". And we hate those words!

So how does it work?

By default, React assumes that all components should update at all times. If that doesn't fit your usecase, you can implement your own version like this:

class ListItem extends React.Component {
  shouldComponentUpdate(nextProps, nextState) {
    return this.props.text !== nextProps.text;
  }
  render() {
    return <li>{this.props.text}</li>;
  }
}

In this case, the render() method will only be called if the text prop changed. If not, that's where the update-process stops for this component. That might not mean a lot for this contrived example, but if you have thousands of list items, and each list item has some children, you might have a performance issue.

PureComponent bliss

If implementing these checks all over is starting to clutter your code, you're probably using them too much. But if not, there's actually a shortcut built in to React. Instead of extending React.Component, you can extend React.PureComponent! BOOM! This class already has a simple implementation of shouldComponentUpdate() that looks like this:

class PureComponent extends React.Component {
  shouldComponentUpdate(nextProps, nextState) {
    return (
      !shallowCompare(this.props, nextProps) ||
      !shallowCompare(this.state, nextState)
    );
  }
}

That's it! PureComponent does a shallow comparison of props and state, and if it's different, the component should update. If they are the same - the component should not update. This actually turns out to be enough for most cases, and it lets you focus on writing features, not performance optimalizations. Note that this is only a shallow comparison - if you have deeply nested prop or state structures, you might receive some false positives.

So... PureComponent all the things?

Nope! Turns out, React defaults to updating all components for a reason. First off, skipping re-renders might lead to hard-to-reproduce bugs that are going to drive you insane at some point. Second - doing all these shouldComponentUpdate checks all over the place takes some time as well - and if you use this check on components that usually updates, you'll waste time checking for something that's going to be true most of the time anyhow.

To summarize, shouldComponentUpdate and PureComponent are powerful tools - but only use them if you actually have performance issues.

I've found some really cool articles for you to read (or save for another day) below. Have a look!

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