React.createClass vs. ES6 Class Components

New React developers are often confused when they encounter two different styles for declaring React components. The React ecosystem is currently split between the React.createClass component declaration:

const MyComponent = React.createClass({
  render() {
    return(<p>I am a component!</p>);
  }
});

And the ES6 class component declaration:

class MyComponent extends React.Component {
  render() {
    return(<p>I am a component, too!</p>);
  }
}

Have you been wondering what the difference is between React.createClass and ES6 class components? And why they both exist? And which you should use? Read on ...

First, a little history...

As a prototypical language, JavaScript didn't have classes for much of its existence. ES6, the latest version of JavaScript finalized in June 2015, introduced classes as "syntactic sugar." From MDN:

The class syntax is not introducing a new object-oriented inheritance model to JavaScript. JavaScript classes provide a much simpler and clearer syntax to create objects and deal with inheritance.

Because JavaScript didn't have classes, React included its own class system. React.createClass allows you to generate component "classes." Under the hood, your component class is using a bespoke class system implemented by React.

With ES6, React allows you to implement component classes that use ES6 JavaScript classes. The end result is the same -- you have a component class. But the style is different. And one is using a "custom" JavaScript class system (createClass) while the other is using a "native" JavaScript class system.

In 2015, when we broke ground for our book, it felt like the community was still largely mixed. Key figures from Facebook were stating that the React.createClass style was just fine. We felt it was easier to understand given that developers were still adopting ES6.

Since then, the community has been shifting towards ES6 class components. This is for good reason. React used createClass because JavaScript didn't have a built-in class system. But ES6 has enjoyed swift adoption. And with ES6, instead of reinventing the wheel React can use a plain ES6 JavaScript class. This is more idiomatic and less opaque than the custom class generated by createClass.

So, responding to the momentum, we decided to move over to ES6 class components in the book.

For the developer, the differences between components created with ES6 classes and createClass are fortunately minimal. If you've learned how to write React components with createClass, should you ever want to use ES6 classes you'll find the transition easy.

Creating components with createClass()

To compare the two component styles, let's implement a checkbox as a React component.

In the CSS framework we're using, we can toggle whether or not a checkbox is checked by changing the class on a div:

Checkboxes

When using React's createClass() method, we pass in an object as an argument. So we can write a component using createClass that looks like this:

const ToggleCheckbox = React.createClass({
  getInitialState() {
    return {
      checked: false,
    };
  },

  toggleChecked() {
    this.setState((prevState) => (
      { checked: !prevState.checked }
    ));
  },

  render() {
    const className = this.state.checked ?
      'toggle checkbox checked' : 'toggle checkbox';
    return (
      <div className={className}>
        <input
          type='checkbox'
          name='public'
          onClick={this.toggleChecked}
        >
        <label>Subscribe to weekly newsletter</label>
      </div>
    );
  }
});

Using an ES6 class to write the same component is a little different. Instead of using a method from the react library, we extend an ES6 class that the library defines, Component.

Let's write a first draft of this ES6 class component. We won't define toggleChecked just yet:

class ToggleCheckbox extends React.Component {
  constructor(props, context) {
    super(props, context);

    this.state = {
      checked: false,
    };
  }

  render() {
    // ... same as component above
  }
}

constructor() is a special function in a JavaScript class. JavaScript invokes constructor() whenever an object is created via a class. If you've never worked with an object-oriented language before, it's sufficient to know that React invokes constructor() first thing when initializing our component. React invokes constructor() with the component's props and context.

Whereas before we used the special React API method getInitialState() to setup our state, with ES6 classes we can set this.state directly here in the constructor. Note that this is the only time we'll ever use this.state = X in the lifetime of our component. Beyond initializing the state we must call this.setState() to modify the state.

We invoke super() at the top of constructor(). This invokes the constructor() function defined by React.Component which executes some necessary setup code for our component. It's important to call super() whenever we define a constructor() function. Furthermore, it's good practice to call it on the first line.

Because our component doesn't use props or context, it's OK to not pass those along:

class ToggleCheckbox extends React.Component {
  constructor() {
    super();
    // ...
  }
}

Now let's add toggleChecked. The implementation of the method is the same as before:

class ToggleCheckbox extends React.Component {

  // ...

  toggleChecked() {
    this.setState((prevState) => (
      { checked: !prevState.checked }
    ));
  }

  // ...
}

Except, this wouldn't work as expected. Here's the odd part: Inside both render() and constructor(), we've witnessed that this is always bound to the component. But inside our custom component method toggleChecked(), this is actually null.

In JavaScript, the special this variable has a different binding depending on the context. For instance, inside render() we say that this is "bound" to the component. Put another way, this "references" the component.

Understanding the binding of this is one of the trickiest parts of learning JavaScript programming. Given this, it's fine for a beginner React programmer to not understand all the nuances at first.

In short, we want this inside toggleChecked() to reference the component, just like it does inside render(). But why does this inside render() and constructor() reference the component while this inside toggleChecked() does not?

For the functions that are part of the standard React component API like render(), React binds this to the component for us.

Indeed, this is why we had no issues when using createClass to define our component. When using createClass, React binds every method to the component. That's one of the biggest differences between createClass components and ES6 class components: Any time we define our own custom component methods for an ES6 class component, we have to manually bind this to the component ourselves.

There's a few patterns that we can use to do so. One popular approach is binding the method to the component in the constructor(), like this:

class ToggleCheckbox extends React.Component {
  constructor(props, context) {
    super(props, context);

    this.state = {
      checked: false,
    };

    // We bind it here:
    this.toggleChecked = this.toggleChecked.bind(this);
  }

  toggleChecked() {
    // ...
  }

  render() {
    // ...
  }
}

Function's bind() method allows you to specify what the this variable inside a function body should be set to. What we're doing here is a common JavaScript pattern. We're redefining the component method toggleChecked(), setting it to the same function but bound to this (the component). Now, whenever toggleChecked() executes, this will reference the component as opposed to null.

At this point, both of our components will behave exactly the same. While the implementation details under the hood are different, on the surface the variance is relatively minimal.

The "binding" quirk for ES6 class components is a little perplexing. You'd be right to ask: React aside, why doesn't this inside an ES6 class method reference the instantiated object?

We think this answer on Reddit sums it up nicely:

Because ES6 classes are mostly syntactic sugar for the existing Javascript prototype inheritance behavior, per this example:

function MyFunction() {
    this.a = 42
}

MyFunction.prototype.someMethod = function() {
    console.log("A: ", this.a);
}

var theInstance = new MyFunction();
theInstance.someMethod(); // "42"

var functionByItself = theInstance.someMethod;
functionByItself(); // undefined

In the same way, a function defined as part of a class doesn't get this auto-bound by default - it's based on whether you're calling it with the dot syntax, or passing around a standalone reference.

An alternative ES6 class component style using property intializers

Because of this, ES6 class components come with this bit of extra ceremony. In our own projects, we use an experimental JavaScript feature called property initializers. While not yet ratified for JavaScript adoption, the proposed syntax is compelling. It provides a terser syntax for both initializing state and ensuring custom component methods are bound to the component. To give you an idea of why this experimental feature is popular among React developers, here's what our component would look like re-written using property initializers:

class ToggleCheckbox extends React.Component {
  // state initialized outside constructor
  state = {
    checked: false,
  };

  // Using an *arrow* function ensures `this` bound to component
  toggleChecked = () => {
    this.setState((prevState) => (
      { checked: !prevState.checked }
    ));
  }

  render() {
    // ...
  }
}

We'll discuss property initializers -- and how to use them in your projects -- in further detail in a subsequent blog post.

EDIT: That blog post is live!

Which should you use?

Ultimately, which component declaration method you use is up to you and your team. While the community is moving towards ES6 class components, if you're already using createClass widely there's no need nor rush to upgrade. And should you decide to change to ES6 class components in the future, there are automated tools to help you do this easily like react-codemod. (If there's enough demand, we'll write a blog post about this process, too)

If you'd like to read more about binding and ES6 classes, check out these two links:


Because you found this post helpful, you'll love our book — it's packed with over 800 pages of content and over a dozen projects, including chapters on React fundamentals, Redux, Relay, GraphQL, and more.


Anthony Accomazzo

Passionate about teaching, Anthony has coached many beginning programmers through their early stages. Before Fullstack React, he led the development of IFTTT's API platform. A minimalist and a traveler, Anthony has been living out of a backpack for the past year.