React vs React Native: The Ultimate Comparison

React vs React Native: The Ultimate Comparison

Although they share the name and were both created by Facebook, they’re different technologies best utilized in different cases. Read on to discover which circumstances make them most beneficial, if not necessary.

React JS

What is it?

React is an open–source JavaScript library commonly used in web development, specifically in building user interfaces. It was developed by Facebook in 2011 to enhance performance of complex single–page applications. It was done by introducing Virtual DOM, a virtual representation of a Document Object Model, that serves as a temporary tree for updating and rendering. Once all the changes are made, the Virtual DOM calculates the most efficient way to update and render the real tree. And since the number of updates done on the real DOM is lower, the performance of the web app gets higher. 

React’s other undeniable strength lies in declarative, reusable components that manage their own state, which significantly speed up the development process. The process tends to be also described as pretty painless, smooth, and effortless. In result, React became one of the most loved technologies. Nowadays, it’s used by Netflix, Uber, Amazon, Twitter, Pinterest, and many other tech giants.

Benefits

There are several, additional reasons why React JS is such a popular choice in web development — and why React development services are on the rise — but let’s focus on the most important ones:

  • Interactive user interfaces can be done easily and quickly thanks to reusable UI components,
  • High performance can be achieved due to React’s Virtual DOM,
  • Clean abstraction layer additionally facilitates the development process,
  • Stable code and easy debugging are ensured due to one–way data flow,
  • Many useful developer tools make a developer’s life easier,
  • Support by Facebook and a big, active community makes React future–proof,
  • React is SEO–friendly, which translates into huge business benefits.

Disadvantages

Nothing’s perfect, even though React really tries. Let’s see where it falls short:

  • The rapid pace of development can leave some developers in the dust,
  • React, as a continuously expanding technology, lacks proper documentation that should have accompanied each update, 
  • Since React is only responsible for the UI, involving other technologies might be necessary,
  • JSX, a syntax extension that allows the mixing of HTML and JavaScript, can be troublesome to some developers due to its complexity.

React Native

What is it?

React Native is a JavaScript framework used in cross platform mobile development. This means that you can build mobile apps for both Android and iOS devices with just one codebase, reducing the manpower needed and saving both money and time. 

Developed by Facebook and released in 2015, its main goal was to make mobile development easier, faster, and more efficient, primarily by reusing the code across multiple platforms. In result, maintenance and support got affected as well, delivering a much smoother experience for developers. 

It’s important to keep in mind though, that with React Native you can’t make fully native mobile applications, despite the name. But unless there’s a need for a true native mobile app, React Native should do just fine, especially since the most crucial parts can be written in Java, Kotlin, Swift or Objective–C. 

Benefits

To see why React Native is eagerly used by the likes of Microsoft, Discord, and Shopify, among many others, let’s take a closer look at React Native’s biggest strengths. 

  • It can be used to improve existing app’s code or to create a brand new mobile app from start to finish,
  • Maintenance of two platforms is easier because of the shared codebase,
  • React Native uses the popular JavaScript, so it’s easier to introduce to new teams or new team members,
  • In React Native, native components are used during render, which gives mobile apps a truly native feel,
  • Fast Refresh ensures real–time–feedback, showing the changes made to the code immediately,
  • React Native apps have faster performance because of the use of the graphics processing unit (GPU).

Disadvantages

If something’s too good to be true, then it’s not. Thankfully, React Native has some drawbacks.

  • React Native is still in beta, so compatibility and debugging issues might arise,
  • Due to the lack of components, you might need to use external libraries,
  • Additional native platform knowledge might be required.

React vs React Native

As proven above, the React Native framework is another beast altogether, and the title of “React, but for mobile” is more than misleading. To truly understand the difference between these two technologies, let’s compare them more in depth.

Similarities

An image showing a yellow Rubik cube on a yellow background.

1. Overwhelming Support

Both technologies were developed by Facebook for its own use and were open–sourced later on. This makes React and React Native pretty much future–proof, since as long as Facebook is going to use it, both technologies will be maintained, updated, and supported. There’s no fear that this company will suddenly switch to Angular, React’s biggest competitor that’s been created by Google.

Additionally, Reactjs and React Native endeared themselves to a vast amount of developers, who built an active, rich community. Hence it’s easy to find a solution to any problem, learn new things via free tutorials, or gain the latest resources that will enrich the project.

2. General Benefits

Extremely fast performance, modern and dynamic web interfaces, component based architecture that makes everyone’s life easier, and all the other factors that make React such a delight are shared with React Native. You can expect to find the same or at least similar benefits with them both.

3. Learn Once, Write Anywhere

The main principle of React — “learn once, write anywhere” — is also shared with React Native. This proposed approach is an answer to a “write once, run anywhere” principle, which is well known for being downright unrealistic, as it leads to a constant debugging. 

“Learn once, write anywhere” ensures that a web developer familiar with React has an easier time understanding React Native, even though some native knowledge might be required as well. It definitely gives a head start that might make a difference in a tight spot.

Additionally, both React and React Native don’t make assumptions about used technology stack — which means that you can link these both technologies with others. You can jump right into another project already in progress with your React skills, or you can start one from scratch. No rewriting of the existing code required.

4. Flexible and Dynamic User Interfaces 

Although both were meant for different platforms — React for web and React Native for mobile platforms — they were created with the same goal in mind: to take the user interface to the next level without compromising on quality. That’s why both web and mobile apps heavily rely on composable, declarative components instead of templates, and they both use internal representation of the rendered UI for quick updates.

And if you’d like to heavily control the behavior of even the tiniest components, lifecycle methods come to the rescue. Although they’re recommended to be used sparingly, they can still be helpful in specific situations. And once you get the hang of them — of mounting, updating, unmounting, and errors — you don’t have to worry about learning new lifecycle methods while switching from web to mobile, or from mobile to web. The only catch is the rendering, which can be a bit different for these two.

5. Core React Library

With the v0.14 release, came the split of React into two packages: React and React DOM. The former consists of universal components and isomorphic helpers that support them, while the latter has everything that’s needed for the browser and rendering. The goal of this divide was to facilitate building more environments, and to share components and parts of the code between React and React Native. That’s why you can stumble upon the same code components across different platforms, as well as business logic, and as a developer you’re free to use them as you wish to achieve quick results.

In other words, with React Native you use the exact same library like with React, only with additional native UI components.

6. JSX

Using JSX in either React or React Native is not necessary, but it definitely makes life easier. But what is it in the first place?

JSX is an extension to JavaScript and it facilitates writing and adding HTML–like text in React. HTML–like, because it might look like HTML, but it’s actually a set of React components. But if you already know HTML, getting the hang of JSX should be a piece of cake.

JSX is commonly used for defining tree structures with attributes to describe the UI within JavaScript. It serves as a visual aid to developers, making the code more elegant and simpler, which is particularly useful in writing complex apps. It’s also faster than vanilla JavaScript and it lets React show more accurate error messages. 

Differences

An image of black and white chess pieces turned towards each other on a chess board.

1. Web Development versus Mobile

The most important distinction between React and React Native is that they’re meant for completely different platforms: the former was created for web developers, and the latter for the mobile ones. And although it might seem like it, React Native isn’t “React, but for mobile” at all — the difference in platforms brings a new set of challenges altogether. Because of that, learning one technology after learning the other won’t be a breeze, but it’ll definitely be smoother.

For example, a React developer wanting to switch to mobile would have to learn React Native’s built–in UI components (ScrollView, ListView, Text, etc), layout with Flexbox and styling, navigation and routing, to name a few. 

And of course, you’ll have to learn platform specific code, in case you’d like to differentiate Android’s UI from iOS’, or were forced to by those platform’s guidelines.

2. User Interface

Although the general principles of UI stay the same, it’s important to note that React uses HTML and CSS for styling, which is impossible to reproduce with React Native — here, it’s necessary to use Native Components instead.

Native Components are React components, which are backed by either Android or iOS views, giving the app an almost true, native experience, from look, to feel, and performance. Views, in turn, are the most fundamental and common elements used to build user interfaces. In Android development they’re written in Kotlin or Java, while in iOS development, Swift or Objective–C are used.

React Native has its own set of Native Components that can be used at once — those are Core Components. Anyone can create their own Native Components as well, or use those made by the community.

3. Virtual DOM versus Native APIs

React’s most famous feature is Virtual DOM, which in short, is responsible for improving the overall performance of the product thanks to partial refresh. React Native though doesn’t render to the browser’s DOM, but uses native APIs. It’s possible due to React Native acting as a bridge between its JavaScript side and its Native side, also referred to as threads.

It should be also noted that React Native doesn’t render web–views, but native UI components, which gives it a significant advantage.

4. Navigation

To build proper navigation and transition between pages, especially in complex projects, using external libraries might be necessary. The most well known one is React Router, a collection of navigational, declarative components, created by Michael Jackson and Ryan Florence. With it, you can create a fast and smooth user experience thanks to dynamic client–side routing. It helps you in keeping the UI in sync with browser URL and doesn’t reload at every instance of the user’s every action.

Additionally, React Router goes by the “learn once, route anywhere” rule, which means that it can be used no matter the rendering process. That’s why React Router can be used hand in hand with React Native.

But React Native comes with its own Navigator components, which facilitates the process of building transitions and animations that have a native feel. In case it’s not enough, there’s always the native navigation implementation React Native Navigation that can help you out, developed by Wix.

5. Animations

There are several ways of making animations in React. The easiest one is to use CSS for that purpose, which is more than enough for simple animations. Also, it keeps the app lightweight.

In case that’s not enough, you can install an add–on component ReactTransitionGroup for transitioning components in an efficient way — but it still deals with pretty basic CSS animations and transitions. The React–animations library, on the other hand, is a big collection of animations for inline style libraries. There’s also Remotion, which lets you do videos as well, React Spring or React Move — and many more.

In React Native however, you can make use of a built–in animation library, so no external libraries are necessary. Animated ensures that your dynamic elements are smooth and fluid without compromising the performance, but enhancing it instead. Its biggest advantage is that the animations run on the UI thread — not on the JavaScript thread — so seamless transitions in your React Native app are guaranteed.

Key Takeaways

React and React Native are similar enough to give developers some head start when it comes to learning the two, but different enough to warrant additional time spent on education — especially React Native requires mastering the native side of it, whether it’s Android development or iOS. As a reminder, let’s take a last look at all the similarities and differences between the two.

Comparison of differences between React and React Native

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