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Use trackBy in Angular ngFor Loops and MatTables

Software Engineer @ Google. New York, NY.
Originally published at ・3 min read

A missing trackBy in an ngFor block or a data table can often result in hard-to-track and seemingly glitchy behaviors in your web app. Today, I’ll discuss the signs that you need to use trackBy. But first—some context:

More often than not, you’ll want to render some repeated element in Angular. You’ll see code that looks like this:

More often than not, you’ll want to render some repeated element in Angular. You’ll see code that looks like this:

<ng-container *ngFor="let taskItem of getTasks(category)">

In cases where the ngFor is looping over the results of a function that are created anew each time (e.g. an array being constructed using .map and .filter), you’ll run into some issues.

Every time the template is re-rendered, a new array is created with new elements. While newly-created array elements might be equivalent to the previous ones, Angular uses strict equality on each element to determine how to handle it.

In cases where the elements are an object type, strict equality will show that each element of the array is new. This means that a re-render would have a few side-effects:

  • Angular determines all the old elements are no longer a part of the block, and
    • destroys their components recursively,
    • unsubscribes from all Observables accessed through an | async pipe from within the ngFor body.
  • Angular finds newly-added elements, and
    • creates their components from scratch,
    • subscribing to new Observables (i.e. by making a new HTTP request) to each Observable it accesses via an | async pipe.

This also leads to a bunch of state being lost:

  • selection state inside the ngFor is lost on re-render,
  • state like a link being in focus, or a text-box having filled-in values, would go away.
  • if you have side-effects in your Observable pipes, you’ll see those happen again.

The Solution

trackBy gives you the ability to define custom equality operators for the values you’re looping over. This allows Angular to better track insertions, deletions, and reordering of elements and components within an ngFor block.

<ng-container *ngFor="let taskItem of getTasks(category); trackBy: trackTask">

... where trackTask is a TrackByFunction<Task>, such as:

  trackTask(index: number, item: Task): string {
    return `${}`;

If you run into situations where you have Observables that are being subscribed more often that you expect, seemingly duplicate HTTP calls being made, DOM elements that lose interaction and selection state sporadically, you might be missing a trackBy somewhere.

It’s not just For Loops

Any kind of data source that corresponds to repeated rows or items, especially ones that are fetched via Observables, should ideally allow you to use trackBy-style APIs. Angular’s MatTable (and the more general CdkTable) support their own version of trackBy for that purpose.

Since a table’s dataSource will often by an Observable or Observable-like source of periodically-updating data, understanding row-sameness across updates is very important.

Symptoms of not specifying trackBy in data tables are similar to ngFor loops; lost selections and interaction states when items are reloaded, and any nested components rendered will be destroyed and re-created. The experience of trackBy-less tables might be even worse, in some cases: changing a table sort or filtering will often be implemented at the data source level, causing a new array of data to render once more, with all the side effects entailed.

For a table of tasks fetched as Observables, we can have:

<table mat-table [dataSource]="category.tasksObs" [trackBy]="trackTask">

Where trackTask is implemented identically as a TrackByFunction<Task>.

This article originally appeared in my blog.

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