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Stateful vs. Stateless Functional Components in React

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Read Time: 12 mins

React is a popular JavaScript front-end library for building interactive user interfaces. React has a comparatively shallow learning curve, which is one of the reasons why it's getting all the attention lately. 

Although there are many important concepts to be covered, components are undeniably the heart and soul of React. Having a good understanding of components should make your life easy as a React developer. 

Prerequisites

This tutorial is intended for beginners who have started learning React and need a better overview of components. We will start with component basics and then move on to more challenging concepts such as component patterns and when to use those patterns. Different component classifications have been covered such as class vs. functional components, stateful vs. stateless components, and container vs. presentational components. 

So, let's get started. 

What Are Components?

Components are self-sustaining, independent micro-entities that describe a part of your UI. An application's UI can be split up into smaller components where each component has its own code, structure, and API. 

Facebook, for instance, has thousands of pieces of functionality interfaced together when you view their web application. Here is an interesting fact: Facebook comprises 30,000 components, and the number is growing. The component architecture allows you to think of each piece in isolation. Each component can update everything in its scope, without being concerned about how it affects other components. 

If we take Facebook's UI as an example, the search bar would be a good candidate for a component. Facebook's Newsfeed would make another component (or a component that hosts many sub-components). All the methods and AJAX calls concerned with the search bar would be within that component.

Components are also reusable. If you need the same component in multiple places, that's easy. With the help of JSX syntax, you can declare your components wherever you want them to appear, and that's it. 

Props and State

Components need data to work with. There are two different ways that you can combine components and data: either as props or state. props and state determine what a component renders and how it behaves. Let's start with props.

Understanding props

If components were plain JavaScript functions, then props would be the function input. Going by that analogy, a component accepts an input (what we call props), processes it, and then renders some JSX code.

Stateful vs Stateless Component Component with props

Although the data in props is accessible to a component, React philosophy is that props should be immutable and top-down. What this means is that a parent component can pass on whatever data it wants to its children as props, but the child component cannot modify its props. So, if you try to edit the props as I did below, you will get the "Cannot assign to read-only" TypeError.

State

State, on the other hand, is an object that is owned by the component where it is declared. Its scope is limited to the current component. A component can initialize its state and update it whenever necessary. The state of the parent component usually ends up being props of the child component. When the state is passed out of the current scope, we refer to it as a prop.

Stateful vs Stateless Component Component with State

Now that we know the component basics, let's have a look at the basic classification of components.

Class Components vs. Functional Components

A React component can be of two types: either a class component or a functional component. The difference between the two is evident from their names. 

Functional Components

Functional components are just JavaScript functions. They take in an optional input which, as I've mentioned earlier, is what we call props.

Stateful vs Stateless Components Functional Components

Some developers prefer to use the new ES6 arrow functions for defining components. Arrow functions are more compact and offer a concise syntax for writing function expressions. By using an arrow function, we can skip the use of two keywords, functionandreturn, and a pair of curly brackets. With the new syntax, you can define a component in a single line like this. 

Functional Components also offer the ability to use states and lifecycle events through hooks. Hooks are functions that can be run in a functional component to do certain things. For example, the useState() hook is used like this:

Then, you could get the current count by using count() and set the count using setCount().

Class Components

Class components can be more complicated than functional components, but some people prefer this style.

The state = {count: 1} syntax is part of the public class fields feature. More on this below. 

You can create a class component by extending React.Component. Here is an example of a class component that accepts an input prop and renders JSX.

We define a constructor method that accepts props as input. Inside the constructor, we call super() to pass down whatever is being inherited from the parent class. 

Note, the constructor is optional while defining a component. In the above case, the component doesn't have a state, and the constructor doesn't appear to do anything useful. this.props used inside the render() will work regardless of whether the constructor is defined or not. However, here's something from the official docs:

Class components should always call the base constructor with props.

As a best practice, I will recommend using the constructor for all class components.

Also, if you're using a constructor, you need to call super(). This is not optional, and you will get the syntax error "Missing super() call in constructor" otherwise. 

And my last point is about the use of super() vs. super(props). super(props) should be used if you're going to call this.props inside the constructor. Otherwise, using super() alone is sufficient.

Stateful Components vs. Stateless Components

This is another popular way of classifying components, and the criteria for the classification is simple: the components that have state and the components that don't. 

Stateful Components

Stateful components are either class components or functional components with hooks. Most stateful components use hooks nowadays, but class components are still available.

In both examples, we created the state count and the useState hook. If you are using class components, there is an alternative syntax proposed to make this easier called class fields.

You can avoid using the constructor altogether with this syntax.

We can now access the state using the count variable if you are using hooks, or this.state.count if you are using class components.

The this keyword here refers to the instance of the current component in classes.

Initializing the state is not enough, though—we need to be able to update the state in order to create an interactive application. If you thought the following would work, no, it won't.

React class components are equipped with a method called this.setState() for updating the state. setState() accepts an object that contains the new state of the count. The useState() hook returns a second function that allows you to update the state with a new value.

Then this.setState() and setCount() accept an object as an input, and we increment the previous value of count by 1, which works as expected. However, there is a catch. When there are multiple setState() calls that read a previous value of the state and write a new value into it, we might end up with a race condition. What that means is that the final results won't match up with the expected values.

Here is an example that should make it clear for you. Try doing something like this.

We want the setState() to increment the count by 100, then update it by 1, and then remove that 100 that was added earlier. If setState() performs the state transition in the actual order, we will get the expected behavior. However, setState() is asynchronous, and multiple setState() calls might be batched together for a better UI experience and performance. So the above code yields a behavior which is different from what we expect.

Therefore, instead of directly passing an object, you can pass in an updater function that has the signature:

prevState is a reference to the previous state and is guaranteed to be up to date. props refers to the component's props, and we don't need props to update the state here, so we can ignore that. Hence, we can use it for updating state and avoid the race condition.

The setState() method rerenders the component, and you have a working stateful component.

Stateless Components

You can use either a function or a class for creating stateless components. But unless you like the style of class components, you should go for stateless functional components. There are a lot of benefits if you decide to use stateless functional components here; they are easy to write, understand, and test, and you can avoid the this keyword altogether. However, as of React v16, there are no performance benefits from using stateless functional components over class components.

Container Components vs. Presentational Components

This is another pattern that is very useful while writing components. The benefit of this approach is that the behavior logic is separated from the presentational logic.

Presentational Components

Presentational components are coupled with the view or how things look. These components accept props from their container counterpart and render them. Everything that has to do with describing the UI should go here. 

Presentational components are reusable and should stay decoupled from the behavioral layer. A presentational component receives the data and callbacks exclusively via props, and when an event occurs, like a button being pressed, it performs a callback to the container component via props to invoke an event handling method. 

Functional components should be your first choice for writing presentational components. If a presentational component requires a state, it should be concerned with the UI state and not actual data. The presentational component doesn't interact with the Redux store or make API calls. 

Container Components

Container components will deal with the behavioral part. A container component tells the presentational component what should be rendered using props. It shouldn't contain limited DOM markups and styles. If you're using Redux, a container component contains the code that dispatches an action to a store. Alternatively, this is the place where you should place your API calls and store the result into the component's state. 

The usual structure is that there is a container component at the top that passes down the data to its child presentational components as props. This works for smaller projects; however, when the project gets bigger and you have a lot of intermediate components that just accept props and pass them on to child components, this will get nasty and hard to maintain. When this happens, it's better to create a container component unique to the leaf component, and this will ease the burden on the intermediate components.

So What Is a Memoized Component and a Pure Component?

You will get to hear the term "pure component" very often in React circles, and then there is React.PureComponent, or React.memo for hooks. When you're new to React, all this might sound a bit confusing. A component is said to be pure if it is guaranteed to return the same result given the same props and state. A stateless component is a good example of a pure component because, given an input, you know what will be rendered. 

If your components are pure, it is possible to optimize them using memo and PureComponent. These methods change the updating behavior of React components. By default, React components always update whenever the state or props change. However, if you use PureComponent or memo, React performs a shallow comparison of the props and state, which means that you compare the immediate contents of the objects instead of recursively comparing all the key/value pairs of the object. So only the object references are compared, and if the state or props are mutated, this might not work as intended.

React.PureComponent and React.memo are used for optimizing performance, and there is no reason why you should consider using them unless you encounter some sort of performance issue. 

Final Thoughts

Functional components and hooks are usually significantly simpler than their class counterparts, so unless you have a special preference, functional components are the way to go.

In this tutorial, you got a high-level overview of the component-based architecture and different component patterns in React.

This post has been updated with contributions from Jacob Jackson. Jacob is a web developer, technical writer, freelancer, and open-source contributor.

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