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Making sense of React components

Elijah Merrell
I'm a UI software engineer at Pulse Secure.
・3 min read

React, the JavaScript library that we all know and love (maybe?), revolves around the use of interconnected components that change through user interaction.

The React component architecture allows the developer to break up a user interface into small, standalone units that are easier to manipulate and debug. The React library provides developers with several options for writing components, and I often find it difficult to decide which component format to use for a given block of code. In order to demystify the variety of components in React, I'll attempt to compare and contrast the structure of each type and describe their best use case.

Being that React is just a library written in JavaScript, it's possible to write React components as plain old JavaScript functions. At their most basic level, React components are functions that accept properties (props) as a parameter and use or manipulate these props to render something to the DOM. If you’re comfortable writing JavaScript functions, you shouldn’t have trouble writing a functional React component.

Although React should feel mostly familiar to JS programmers, there is one curveball. React uses JSX (JavaScript XML), which goes against the typical separation JS and XML. When writing code with JSX, components include a render function that returns HTML-like element(s) to the page:

Although JSX may look like regular HTML, it’s important to remember that they are not technically the same. Now that we’ve had a brief introduction to React components, let’s take a look at the different ways we can write them.

Functional Components

Functional components are the most basic type of component in React. They are often referred to as “stateless” components or presentational components. You are unable to define state within functional components as there is no context for the JS this keyword in a function.

Functional components are an efficient way to render content to the page when defining state is not necessary. They are also advantageous and quicker to write if a component doesn’t require much logic. Here's an example of a functional component that renders "Hello, World" to the screen:

Another thing to note about functional components in React is that unlike their class counterparts, you cannot use React’s lifecycle methods. Lifecycle methods let you control the way your components are rendered or removed from the page by specifying a series of events for each individual component.

Class Components

React gives you the ability to write components using ES6 classes. React class components have more functionality that functional components and are often referred to as “stateful” or container components. What is state you might ask? State is a JavaScript object that defines the characteristics and behavior of a class component. State is defined within the class constructor and can be used to determine what information is displayed or changed as a user interacts with the page. State is isolated to the component where it is defined but can be passed to downstream components as props.

In the following example, I was building a page to display photos and information for various pigs. I used state in the Pig Container class to store a list of pig objects, and then rendered a Pig component for each pig. This highlights the usefulness of React classes as "container components":

Although class components often have state, they don’t have to. Thus, it’s possible for a React class component to act as either a stateful or stateless component. We can take our functional component example from earlier and easily change it to a stateless class component:

Conclusion

I had trouble figuring out when to use a class component and when to use a functional component. In the end, it really comes down to what you need your component to do. If your component will use state and have complex logic, use a class component. If you just need a bit of code to render something to the page, the functional component will be your best choice. I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion surrounding React components!

Discussion (1)

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Sung M. Kim

Thanks for the intro to React components, Elijah.

I might be a bit pedantic but IMHO, Functional Component should be a Function Component as specified in reactjs.org/docs/components-and-pr...

because Functional implies a Functional Programming and might confuse new users.