One (more) Year with Ember: Thoughts on Ember vs React, Eight Years Later


Six years ago, I wrote a summary of my experience working with Ember for a year. I had been with Cinch Financial for a year, building their web & mobile apps with Ember and Elixir/Phoenix. After Cinch I joined Salsify, a leader in the Ember ecosystem, and shipped some great products built with Ember during my five-year tenure. I built their Catalog Sites product using an Ember admin app and a React/Next.js frontend. Building a single product with both frameworks was enlightening as it provided a day-to-day experience with both.

Almost a year of working in Ember, I'd like to summarize my thoughts about what makes it a great framework. There are a million articles comparing the big JS frameworks; this isn't one of those.

Almost eight years of working in Ember, I'd like to revisit some of the things I said about Ember. There are a million articles comparing the big JS frameworks, this one is mine.

Ember vs React

React allows us to create very declarative code, but to do it idiomatically, the way React wants takes quite a bit of experience and refinement to do it the right way. When examining purely declarative code, especially to the uninitiated, it can be hard to comprehend when states are responding to events, and what their downstream effects are. React code can be very composable, and their useEffect, useCallback, useState primitives can be combined to create a wide variety of functionality from these granular affordances.

With the composability of hooks, however, comes a level of complexity. We spend a lot of time thinking through how different code is going to run, when it was going to run, and how it could potentially interact with other hooks and code around it. It all makes sense in the end, and it’s also declarative, but it’s a bit harder to follow the intent all the way through.

React (for most of us) is usually only legible in motion, not at rest. This is to say that the only way to figure out how a given piece of React code works is by prodding it through use, it's not enough to just read it.

Differences in developer feeling of focus Reacts dogmatic re-running of a component when its state changes forces developers to consider all starting and possible states, and their dependencies. It requires juggling a lot of context on the part of the developer, and that is why reducing state to the minimum is considered a best practice. By contrast, Embers autotracking makes component development feel a lot less complicated, and an Ember developer can focus more on intent while React developer feels they must focus more on exactitude. These are just feelings, but they’re there.

Ember is more baroque with its @action and @tracked decorators, its template control logic with {{#if}} {{#each list of |item|}} and its native classes. With this baroque-ness however, comes an additional level of legibility one gets from reading Ember code. Ember code feels familiar everywhere, and separating arguments(props) from attributes really helped to clarify intent.

Ember suffers from a small and shrinking ecosystem. This could be due to early technical decisions that required all 3rd-party Ember npm packages to specifically adhere to Ember addon requirements. This meant that regular npm packages couldn’t be used in Ember apps until ember-auto-import arrived, and later, Embroider. Unfortunately this means most Ember addons aren’t compatible with the wider javascript ecosystem, and many Ember packages languish or are abandoned once maintainers move away from Ember. This means the Ember core-team is burdened with adopting these orphaned packages or risk losing them to the shifting sands of time.

Direct Comparison

When speaking to Ember devs about React, or React devs about Ember, I frequently use this chart to map concepts in one to the other:

ConceptEmberReact
File structureConvention
app/components/component.js, app/components/template.hbs
Configuration
use import to bring files from wherever, file may contain both logic and template.
Component primativeJavaScript classesJavaScript functions
RenderingGlimmer VMReact DOM
State transition detection@tracked decorator with autotracking provided by the frameworkReact.useState() function with dependency keys and memoization
Component lifecycleUse the classes constructor() to initialize the component for first-render and reuses that instance for the life of the component.Components are pure functions, relies on memoization or useEffect to run code conditionally after initial render.
Event handling@action decorator to bind context to event callback functions that respond to user inputs, event handler must be referred to in templates using Ember modifiers e.g. {{on 'click' (fn this.handleEvent value)}} and use the fn() helper to bind arguments to the callback.Pure function callbacks that are lexically in-scope and bound using standard closure onClick={() => handleEvent(value)} style invocations.
Template lexical scopeDouble curly {{this.value}} which requires this to reference lexically scoped variables available in the class.Single curly interpolation value={value} which is directly bound to the functions lexical scope.
Template interpolationSigils @value={{this.value}} to distinguish component arguments from standard HTML attributes. Ember requires using ...attributes to spread HTML attributes to HTML tags. Use {{yield}} to render child components.No difference between component props and HTML attributes.
Template Control Logichandlebars/HTMLbars
iteration
{{#each @list as item}}<Item />{{/each}}
conditionals
{{#if true}}its true{{else}}not true{{/if}}
pure javascript
iteration
lilst.map(item => <Item />)
conditionals
{item.isTrue ? <TrueItem /> : <FalseItem />}
Global State ManagementEmber ServicesReact Context API, React Query
Application RoutingEmber RouterReact-Router (not built-in)

Eight Years On

Revisiting my original post, I'd like to provide some updates to that thinking:

Ember feels familiar…

Ember still feels familiar, especially for teams that work across many Ember repos. Ember teams are very productive because of Embers convention-over-configuration approach. An Ember app is an Ember app is an Ember app. This familiarity isn’t always typical with React apps. React apps are to-each-their-own, and teams need to spend time to make their apps feel familiar enough to be seamless when moving between repos.

There is a single "Ember way" of doing things…

This isn’t as true as it used to be. Ember is wonderfully backwards compatible, but that also puts it into an awkward position when it comes to writing idiomatic Ember applications: It has become very difficult to discern what is idiomatic Ember, especially in real-world app ecosystems where you may have apps using Ember (classic) or Ember Octane, or an in-between state. Ongoing projects like template imports will make Ember apps even more difficult to determine what is "idiomatic".

At Salsify, there are a handful of Ember-gurus who shepherd the engineering org towards idiomatic Ember, but the average engineer doesn't necessarily know when:

  • Ember.get/set vs. native getters/setters
  • Component.extend({}) vs class Component extends Component {}
  • invoke component with {{my-component}} or <MyComponent />
  • render a value with {{value}} or {{this.value}} or {{@value}}
  • when to use @tracked or @action

The Ember cheat sheet is a great resource, but its there because people aren’t confidant. Tools like eslint, prettier, stylelint and others help migrating to idiomatic conventions.

Concluding

Ember and React are both great. There are tradeoffs on both sides. The answer is always it depends. React with class Components is very similar to Ember Classic. Ember is an amazing upleveler for bigger teams with novice and expert developers working across multiple codebases building ambitious applications. React is elegant in its simplicity, can be pure and precise. React has an amazing ecosystem, and is used to create enterprise applications. Ember has a larger API surface area, and while it seems to have a higher learning curve, I’d argue that it takes longer for an engineer to become an expert at React: one having the ability to see the forest for the trees.