Writing efficient React code

In this article we'll discuss about the various component types we can use, as well as discuss some tips to make your React application faster.

TL;DR tips

  • Prefer props and state immutability and use PureComponent components as a default
  • As a convention, the object reference should change if and only if the inner data changes.
    • Be careful to never use new instance of functions as props to a Component (it's fine to use them as props to a DOM element).
    • Be careful to not update a reference if the inner data doesn't change.
  • Always measure before optimizing to have a real impact on performance. And always measure after optimizing too, to prove your change had a real impact.

How React renders normal components

What's a normal component?

As a start let's discuss about how React renders normal plain components, that don't use shouldComponentUpdate. What we call plain components here are either:

  • classes that extend Component
    class Application extends React.Component {
      render() {
        return <div>{this.props.content}</div>;
      }
    }
    
  • normal functions that take some props as parameter and return some JSX. We call these functions either Stateless Components or Functional Components. This is important to understand that these Stateless Components are not especially optimized in React.
    function Application(props) {
      return <div>{props.content}</div>;
    }
    
    These functions are equivalent to classes extending Component. In the rest of the article we'll especially focus on the latter. Unless otherwise stated everything about classes extending Component is also true for Stateless/Functional Components.

Notes on the use of JSX

Because we don't use a build step in mozilla-central yet, some of our tools don't use JSX and use factories instead:

class Application extends React.Component {
  render() {
    return dom.div(null, this.props.content);
  }
}

We'll use JSX in this documentation for more clarity but this is strictly equivalent. You can read more on React documentation.

The first render

There's only one way to start a React application and trigger a first render: calling ReactDOM.render:

ReactDOM.render(
  <Application content='Hello World!'/>,
  document.getElementById('root')
);

React will call that component's render method, and then recursively call every child's render method, generating a rendering tree and then a virtual DOM tree. It will then render actual DOM elements to the specified container.

Subsequent rerenders

There are several ways to trigger a rerender:

  1. We call ReactDOM.render again with the same component.
    ReactDOM.render(
     <Application content='Good Bye, Cruel World!'/>,
     document.getElementById('root')
    );
    
  2. One component's state changes, through the use of setState. If the application is using Redux, this is how Redux-connected components trigger updates too.
  3. One component's props change. But note that this can't happen by itself, this is always a consequence of the case 1 or 2 in one of its parents. So we'll ignore this case for this chapter.

When one of these happens, just like the initial render, React will call that component's render method, and then recursively call every child's render method, but this time possibly with changed props compared to the previous render.

These recursive calls produce a new rendering tree. That's where React uses an algorithm called virtual diffing or reconciliation to find the minimal set of updates to apply to the DOM. This is good because the less updates to the DOM the less work the browser has to do to reflow and repaint the application.

Main sources of performance issues

From this explanation we can gather that the main performance issues can come from:

  1. triggering the render process too frequently,
  2. expensive render methods,
  3. the reconciliation algorithm itself. The algorithm is O(n) according to React authors, which means the processing duration increases linearly with the number of elements in the tree we compare. So a larger tree means a longer time to process.

Let's dive more into each one of these issues.

Do not render too often

A rerender will happen after calling setState to change the local state.

Everything that's in the state should be used in render. Anything in the state that's not used in render shouldn't be in the state, but rather in an instance variable. This way you won't trigger an update if you change some internal state that you don't want to reflect in the UI.

If you call setState from an event handler you may call it too often. This is usually not a problem because React is smart enough to merge close setState calls and trigger a rerender only once per frame. Yet if your render is expensive (see below as well) this could lead to problems and you may want to use setTimeout or other similar techniques to throttle the renders.

Keep render methods as lean as possible

When rendering a list, it's very common that we'll map this list to a list of components. This can be costly and we might want to cut this list in several chunks of items or to virtualize this list. Although this is not always possible or easy.

Do not do heavy computations in your render methods. Rather do them before setting the state, and set the state to the result of these computations. Ideally render should be a direct mirror of the component's props and state.

Note that this rule also applies to the other methods called as part of the rendering process: componentWillUpdate and componentDidUpdate. In componentDidUpdate especially avoid synchronous reflows by getting DOM measurements, and do not call setState as this would trigger yet another update.

Help the reconciliation algorithm be efficient

The smaller the tree is, the faster the algorithm is. So it's useful to limit the changes to a subtree of the full tree. Note that the use of shouldComponentUpdate or PureComponent alleviates this issue by cutting off entire branches from the rendering tree, we discuss this in more details below.

Try to change the state as close as possible to where your UI should change (close in the components tree).

Do not forget to set key attributes when rendering a list of things, which shouldn't be the array's indices but something that identifies the item in a predictable, unique and stable way. This helps the algorithm a lot by skipping parts that likely haven't changed.

More documentation

The React documentation has a very well documented page explaining the whole render and rerender process.

shouldComponentUpdate and PureComponent: avoiding renders altogether

React has an optimized algorithm to apply changes. But the fastest algorithm is an algorithm that isn't executed at all.

React's own documentation about performance is quite complete on this subject.

Avoiding rerenders with shouldComponentUpdate

As the first step of a rerender process, React calls your component's shouldComponentUpdate method with 2 parameters: the new props, and the new state. If this method returns false, then React will skip the render process for this component, and its whole subtree.

class ComplexPanel extends React.Component {
  // Note: this syntax, new but supported by Babel, automatically binds the
  // method with the object instance.
  onClick = () => {
    this.setState({ detailsOpen: true });
  }

  // Return false to avoid a render
  shouldComponentUpdate(nextProps, nextState) {
    // Note: this works only if `summary` and `content` are primitive data
    // (eg: string, number) or immutable data
    // (keep reading to know more about this)
    return nextProps.summary !== this.props.summary
      || nextProps.content !== this.props.content
      || nextState.detailsOpen !== this.state.detailsOpen;
  }

  render() {
    return (
      <div>
        <ComplexSummary summary={this.props.summary} onClick={this.onClick}/>
        {this.state.detailsOpen
          ? <ComplexContent content={this.props.content} />
          : null}
      </div>
    );
  }
}

This is a very efficient way to improve your application speed, because this avoids everything: both calling render methods for this component and the whole subtree, and the reconciliation phase for this subtree.

Note that just like the render method, shouldComponentUpdate is called once per render cycle, so it needs to be very lean and return as fast as possible. So it should execute some cheap comparisons only.

PureComponent and immutability

A very common implementation of shouldComponentUpdate is provided by React's PureComponent: it will shallowly check the new props and states for reference equality.

class ComplexPanel extends React.PureComponent {
  // Note: this syntax, new but supported by Babel, automatically binds the
  // method with the object instance.
  onClick = () => {
    // Running this repeatidly won't render more than once.
    this.setState({ detailsOpen: true });
  }

  render() {
    return (
      <div>
        <ComplexSummary summary={this.props.summary} onClick={this.onClick}/>
        {this.state.detailsOpen
          ? <ComplexContent content={this.props.content} />
          : null}
      </div>
    );
  }
}

This has a very important consequence: for non-primitive props and states, that is objects and arrays that can be mutated without changing the reference itself, PureComponent's inherited shouldComponentUpdate will yield wrong results and will skip renders where it shouldn't.

So you're left with one of these two options:

  • either implement your own shouldComponentUpdate in a Component
  • or (preferred) decide to make all your data structure immutable.

The latter is recommended because:

  • It's much simpler to think about.
  • It's much faster to check for equality in shouldComponentUpdate and in other places (like Redux' selectors).

Note you could technically implement your own shouldComponentUpdate in a PureComponent but this is quite useless because PureComponent is nothing more than Component with a default implementation for shouldComponentUpdate.

About immutability

What it doesn't mean

It doesn't mean you need to enforce the immutability using a library like Immutable.

What it means

It means that once a structure exists, you don't mutate it.

Everytime some data changes, the object reference must change as well. This means a new object or a new array needs to be created. This gives the nice reverse guarantee: if the object reference has changed, the data has changed.

It's good to go one step further to get a strict equivalence: if the data doesn't change, the object reference mustn't change. This isn't necessary for your app to work, but this is a lot better for performance as this avoids spurious rerenders.

Keep reading to learn how to proceed.

Keep your state objects simple

Updating your immutable state objects can be difficult if the objects used are complex. That's why it's a good idea to keep the objects simple, especially keep them not nested, so that you don't need to use a library like immutability-helper, updeep, or even Immutable. Be especially careful with Immutable as it's easy to create performance problems by misusing its API.

If you're using Redux (see below as well) this advice applies to your individual reducers as well, even if Redux tools make it easy to have a nested/combined state.

How to update an object

Updating an object is quite easy.

You must not change/add/delete inner properties directly:

// Note that in the following examples we use the callback version
// of `setState` everywhere, because we build the new state from
// the current state.

// Please don't do this as this will likely induce bugs.
this.setState(state => {
  state.stateObject.details = details;
  return state;
});

// This is wrong too: `stateObject` is still mutated.
this.setState(({ stateObject }) => {
  stateObject.details = details;
  return { stateObject };
});

Instead you must create a new object for this property. In this example we'll use the object spread operator, already implemented in Firefox, Chrome and Babel.

However here we take care to return the same object if it doesn't need an update. The comparison happens inside the callback because it depends on the state as well. This is a good thing to do so that the shallow equality check doesn't return false if nothing changes.

// Updating one property in the state
this.setState(({ stateObject }) => ({
  stateObject: stateObject.content === newContent
    ? stateObject
    : { ...stateObject, content: newContent },
});

// This is very similar if 2 properties need an update:
this.setState(({ stateObject1, stateObject2 }) => ({
  stateObject1: stateObject1.content === newContent
    ? stateObject1
    : { ...stateObject1, content: newContent },
  stateObject2: stateObject2.details === newDetails
    ? stateObject2
    : { ...stateObject2, details: newDetails },
});

// Or if one of the properties needs to update 2 of it's own properties:
this.setState(({ stateObject }) => ({
  stateObject: stateObject.content === newContent && stateObject.details === newDetails
    ? stateObject
    : { ...stateObject, content: newContent, details: newDetails },
});

Note that this isn't about the returned state object, but its properties. The returned object is always merged into the current state, and React creates a new component's state object at each update cycle.

How to update an array

Updating an array is easy too.

You must avoid methods that mutate the array like push/splice/pop/shift and you must not change directly an item.

// Please don't do this as this will likely induce bugs.
this.setState(({ stateArray }) => {
  stateArray.push(newItem); // This is wrong
  stateArray[1] = newItem; // This is wrong too
  return { stateArray };
});

Instead here again you need to create a new array instance.

// Adding an element is easy.
this.setState(({ stateArray }) => ({
  stateArray: [...stateArray, newElement],
}));

this.setState(({ stateArray }) => {
  // Removing an element is more involved.
  const newArray = stateArray.filter(element => element !== removeElement);
  // or
  const newArray = [...stateArray.slice(0, index), ...stateArray.slice(index + 1)];
  // or do what you want on a new clone:
  const newArray = stateArray.slice();
  return {
    // Because we want to keep the old array if removeElement isn't in the
    // filtered array, we compare the lengths.
    // We still start a render phase because we call `setState`, but thanks to
    // PureComponent's shouldComponentUpdate implementation we won't actually render.
    stateArray: newArray.length === stateArray.length ? stateArray : newArray,
  };

  // You can also return a falsy value to avoid the render cycle at all:
  return newArray.length === stateArray.length
    ? null
    : { stateArray: newArray };
});

How to update Maps and Sets

The process is very similar for Maps and Sets. Here is a quick example:

// For a Set
this.setState(({ stateSet }) => {
  if (!stateSet.has(value)) {
    stateSet = new Set(stateSet);
    stateSet.add(value);
  }
  return { stateSet };
});

// For a Map
this.setState(({ stateMap }) => {
  if (stateMap.get(key) !== value) {
    stateMap = new Map(stateMap);
    stateMap.set(key, value);
  }
  return { stateMap };
}));

How to update primitive values

Obviously, with primitive types like boolean, number or string, that are comparable with the operator ===, it's much easier:

this.setState({
  stateString: "new string",
  stateNumber: 42,
  stateBool: false,
});

Note that we don't use the callback version of setState here. That's because for primitive values we don't need to use the previous state to generate a new state.

A few words about Redux

When working with Redux, the rules stay the same, except all of this happens in your reducers instead of in your components. With Redux comes the function combineReducers that obeys all the rules we outlined before while making it possible to have a nested state.

shouldComponentUpdate or PureComponent?

It is highly recommended to go the full PureComponent + immutability route, instead of writing custom shouldComponentUpdate implementations for components. This is more generic, more maintainable, less error-prone, faster.

Of course all rules have exceptions and you're free to implement a shouldComponentUpdate method if you have specific cases to take care of.

Some gotchas with PureComponent

Because PureComponent shallowly checks props and state, you need to take care to not create a new reference for something that's otherwise identical. Some common cases are:

  • Using a new instance for a prop at each render cycle. Especially, do not use a bound function or an anonymous function (both classic functions or arrow functions) as a prop:

    render() {
      return <MyComponent onUpdate={() => this.update()} />;
    }
    

    Each time the render method runs, a new function will be created, and in MyComponent's shouldComponentUpdate the shallow check will always fail defeating its purpose.

  • Using another reference for the same data. One very common example is the empty array: if you use a new [] for each render, you won't skip render. A solution is to reuse a common instance. Be careful as this can very well be hidden within some complicated Redux reducers.

  • A similar issue can arise if you use sets or maps. If you add an element in a Set that's already in there, you don't need to return a new Set as it will be identical.

  • Be careful with array's methods, especially map or filter, as they always return a new array. So even with the same inputs (same input array, same function), you'll get a new output, even if it contains the same data. If you're using Redux, reselect is recommended. memoize-immutable can be useful in some cases too.

Diagnosing performance issues with some tooling

You can read about it in the dedicated page.

Breaking the rules: always measure first

You should generally follow these rules because they bring a consistent performance in most cases.

However you may have specific cases that will need that you break the rules. In that case the first thing to do is to measure using a profiler so that you know where your problem are.

Then and only then you can decide to break the rules by using some mutable state and/or custom shouldComponentUpdate implementation.

And remember to measure again after you did your changes, to check and prove that your changes actually made an impact. Ideally you should always give links to profiles when requesting a review for a performance patch.

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