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React Native vs. React Demystified: What's the Difference?

React Native vs. React Demystified: What's the Difference?

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Both React Native and React are popular tools in the software development scene. However, these tools have several differences and similarities. In order to understand their differences and similarities, we can compare both side-by-side.

In this post, we'll use various parameters to compare them. But before we start let's look at what each is.

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What Is React Native?

According to its official documentation, React Native is a tool for creating native Android and iOS apps using React. A major advantage of React Native is that it allows you to develop apps for both Android and iOS using a single codebase: JavaScript.

Normally, to make your native app available on Android and iOS devices, you have to code each version using Kotlin for Android or Swift for iOS. But React Native eliminates this bottleneck through cross-platform development support. As a result, React Native saves you time and the cost of hiring different developers for each target platform.

What Is React?

React, on the other hand, is a JavaScript library for frontend development. Web developers can use React to build user interfaces for their web apps.

Some key features of React include the following:

JSX: This feature allows you to write XML code inside JavaScript. For example, you can add a text element to your React Native app by adding <Text>Message to display</Text> right inside your JavaScript code. One advantage of JSX is, since the code lives inside your JavaScript code, you can easily access your variables in JSX.

Components: Components are functions that return React elements that you can render on the screen. Components can also be classes that return React Elements. One benefit components have is code reusability. For example, the following code shows a component for displaying a paragraph and a customizable message.

function Message(props) {
 return <p>{props.message}</p>;
}

You can then use this component in multiple places within your app by calling it each time.

Props: Props is simply short for properties and it provides a way to customize React components. For example, in the Message component from earlier, the props variable makes it possible to customize the content of the HTML paragraph element.

State: State stores and handles data that change during user interactions with an application. In React, each time a component's state changes, the component is re-rendered.

Now that we have some basic understanding of what React Native and React are, in the next section, we'll take a look at their differences by comparing them side-by-side.

React Native vs. React (The Differences)

To further our understanding of both tools, let's look at using four different parameters (target platform, rendering elements, syntax and coding, and release history).

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1. Target Platform

React Native is popular for building applications that run on mobile devices. Hence the target platforms are iOS and Android. In order to run your React Native app, you need to set up a simulator for the target platforms. Or as an alternative, you can test your applications on a physical Android phone or iPhone.

React, on the other hand, mostly targets web browsers. It is also possible to build mobile-friendly web apps using React. For example, you can use it to develop a Progressive Web App (PWA) that can work offline.  React code is built and accessible via HTTP requests. In development mode, you can test your React app in a browser by running the command npm start. Once the build process completes, you can access the app via the following URL: http://127.0.0.1.

2. Rendering Elements

React Native renders UI elements into native components for Android and iOS. For example, React Native converts the React element <Text> into the equivalent native component for both iOS and Android. As a result, React Native apps run smoother and feel more like apps built using each platform’s actual native framework. Also, the React Native JavaScript bridge enables communication between JavaScript and native APIs. In other words, React Native can access the Objective C or Swift APIs and Java APIs in iOS and Android.

React, in contrast, uses HTML and JavaScript to render elements. This is perfectly fine since React applications mostly run on web browsers, and browsers already know how to run and render both HTML and JavaScript. You can also build mobile-friendly web apps with the main React library. But because React uses HTML and JavaScript for rendering, such apps must run in a web browser or inside WebView, and as a result, the speed and performance is slower and less robust than React Native apps.

3. Syntax and Coding

In React Native, to add a UI component like a text to a screen, you use the <Text> component. It has dedicated components for other UI elements, like images and input fields. You can’t write standard HTML elements in React Native components.

However, in React, in addition to components, you can simply write plain HTML code. In fact, when writing React components, your function can return HTML elements.

4. Release History

The latest version of React Native at the time of this post is v0.68. You can follow the full release history of React Native via the official GitHub repository at https://github.com/facebook/react-native.

The latest version of React is v18. The first version of React was released in May 2013. To learn more about various releases of the React library, you can check out its own dedicated GitHub repository here: https://github.com/facebook/react.

React Native vs. React (The Similarities)

1. Programming Language

React Native and React both use the same JavaScript programming language to enable you to build user interfaces. As a result, whether you are using React Native or React, the syntax should feel similar to a great extent. This means you don't need to learn a new programming language to switch between React and React Native.

2. Use of "React" in Their Names

The first and most obvious similarity between React Native and React is that both have "React" in their names. This similarity isn't an accident. React Native helps developers build native apps using the React JavaScript UI development library.

In other words, we can say that React Native makes it easier for someone already familiar with the React library to build mobile apps. You can use their environments to write code using a library and language you’re already used to. Since React Native is powered by React, it uses React features like JSX, components, and props.

3. Author and Ownership

Facebook, now under the umbrella Meta, developed both React Native and React. Both tools are open source and have a lot of contributions from the open-source community. React Native, for example, currently has over 2000 contributors on the official GitHub repository. Likewise, the React library has over 1500 contributors.

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React Native vs. React, Which is Better?

In this post, you learned that React is a JavaScript library for building user interfaces, and that React Native is a tool to build native apps for Android and iOS. React Native makes it possible for developers to make cross-platform applications using React and JavaScript.

Now back to the question: between React and React Native, which one is better? The answer to this question depends on what you want to build. If you’re already a React developer looking to make your software available as a native mobile application, you should consider using React Native.

To learn more about React Native, check out the official documentation on their website. Similarly, you can get started with React from its official documentation.

This post was written by Pius Aboyi. Pius is a mobile and web developer with over 4 years of experience building for the Android platform. He writes code in Java, Kotlin, and PHP. He loves writing about tech and creating how-to tutorials for developers.

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