Watching the Watchers in AngularJS


I have been doing quite a bit of AngularJS performance tweaking on my latest project. It is no secret that Angular performance can quickly degrade due to the implementation of its digest cycle. I’ll avoid Angular bashing here because this is well-documented and blogged about to death (Google it). You’re welcome.

Instead, I want to share a few learnings that I have picked up while attacking the performance problems with having too many bindings and watchers in any Angular application.

Should I even be worried?

The first step is actually knowing if you have a problem. Eventually, on my project, we could feel the responsiveness of our application start to slip. Rendering seemed to slow down. Interactions started to feel sluggish. You would click a toggle, it would wait a tick, and then change states. Things like that. Even if you aren’t noticing anything this drastic, its still a good idea to get some insight and follow best practices though.

In order to help pinpoint the hotspots in your Angular app, I developed this Chrome extension to count how many watchers different sections of your app contain.

Bind once is your friend

This one is the easiest and has a big ROI. When using the normal binding syntax ` {{ }} `, Angular sets up a two-way binding so that the view can be automatically upated when the underlying data changes. However, there are probably some static data in your app, which makes the two-way binding both redundant and costly because Angular re-evaluates that expression during every digest cycle to update your view with any changes. The bind once syntax eliminates that. Quick win.

{{ ::item.name }} // The '::' is the bind once construct

Note: only available in Angular 1.3 and later

Avoid excess use of ng-show/ng-hide

These directives are easy to abuse. When you have multiple elements that need to be hidden or shown based on similar conditions, you can often combine multiple ng-show/ng-hides into a single ng-class and sprinkle in some targetted CSS rules to achieve the same behavior with fewer watchers.

So this, which contains 3 ng-show/ng-hide watchers…

item.html
<div>
<div>
<span ng-hide="item.isSoldOut()">Price: $49.99</span>
<span ng-show="item.isSoldOut()">Not in Stock</span>
</div>
<div>{{ ::item.name }}</div>
<div ng-hide="item.isSoldOut()">
Ships within 3-5 business days
</div>
</div>

Can be turned into this, which contains 1 watcher - the ng-class:

item.css
.item .show-when-sold-out {
display: none;
}
.item.sold-out .show-when-sold-out {
display: block;
}
.item.sold-out .hide-when-sold-out {
display: none;
}
item.html
<div class="item" ng-class="{sold-out: item.isSoldOut()}">
<div>
<span class="hide-when-sold-out">Price: $49.99</span>
<span class="show-when-sold-out">Not in Stock</span>
</div>
<div>{{ ::item.name }}</div>
<div class="hide-when-sold-out">
Ships within 3-5 business days
</div>
</div>

Beware the ng-repeat

A = How many watchers does each element of your ng-repeat contain?
B = How many elements will you be iterating over?

if(A * B > 3000) { console.log("Houston we have a problem"); }

On my current project, we were blindly using ng-repeat on elements that contained over 50 watchers each. This was fine for some users who only had a few items in the list. But when we hit some users who loaded over 400 elements into that list, (50 * 400 = 20,000), our digest cycle slowed to a crawl and we even crashed the browser sometimes. (Especially mobile browesers.) Oops.

Besides using the other tips listed on this page to reduce the overall number of watchers, my advice is to think about the user experience of your app. Do you really need to render all those elements in one big list? Enter pagination. Enter filtering and searching.

We went with a hand-rolled pagination solution because the available plugins didn’t quite fit our needs.

Lazy evaluation of DOM elements

Take this example:

item.html
<div class="item">
<div class="item-header">
<span>{{ ::item.name }}</span><span ng-click="item.expand()">+</span>
</div>
<div class="item-info" ng-show="item.isExpanded()">
<p>{{ item.description }}</p>
<form ng-submit="item.addComment(comment)">
<input type="text" ng-model="comment" />
<input type="submit" />
</form>
<!-- More bindings and watchers -->
</div>
</div>

Even though the elements in div.item-info are hidden, the watchers and bindings on those elements will still be evaluated by Angular during the digest cycles. There is actually no point in compiling and linking all the DOM elements in the hidden div.item-info section until the user actually clicks the expansion trigger. We found that we could get a huge performance boost by taking advantage of templates and changing the structure of our HTML a bit. So when the user clicks on the expansion trigger, we grab the appropriate template, compile and link it with the data, and insert that into the DOM!

item.html
<div class="item">
<div class="item-header">
<span>{{ ::item.name }}</span><span ng-click="item.expand()">+</span>
</div>
<div class="item-info"></div>
</div>
<script type="text/ng-template" id="expandedItem.html">
<p>{{ item.description }}</p>
<form ng-submit="item.addComment(comment)">
<input type="text" ng-model="comment" />
<input type="submit" />
</form>
<!-- More bindings and watchers -->
</script>

The one caveat here is that once the user has expanded the item, all the watchers and bindings from the expanded item are now part of the digest cycle. The more elements you expand, the more watchers you end up with. This worked on my application because we expect the user to only expand a few elements out of a long list - a big savings. If you expect the user to quickly show all the elements you were initially hiding, this may not help much. In any case, it should at least help with initial page load time because the ng-templates are not compiled until you explicity tell Angular to.

Resources

I read a lot of blog articles and documentation while messing around with all of this. One that I found particularly useful was Ng Nuggets. Thanks!