Ember vs Knockout - Property Comparison

A small, appropriate comparison

At ModCloth, I've been working on an internal application that uses Ember.js as its front end framework. In learning Ember I've noticed some interesting architectural decisions they've made.

This article will concentrate on their Observable Models in comparison with how Knockout built the same functionality.

TANGENT

Ember.js and Knockout are great contrasts in the library vs framework debate in JS development.

Ember is

A framework for creating ambitious web applications.

(emphasis is mine).

Knockout is a library whose goal is to

Simplify dynamic JavaScript UIs with the Model-View-View Model (MVVM) pattern.

Ember is outspoken and proud of its framework status. Knockout makes it clear that it is a small library for building dynamic JavaScript UIs.

Ember, while a year younger than Knockout, has SIX TIMES as many commits as Knockout. It's also 4 times the size (71kb vs 17kb, once minified and gzipped).

/TANGENT

Read-only computed properties

Ember

  firstName: null,
  lastName: null,

  fullName: function() {
    return this.get('firstName') + ' ' + this.get('lastName');
  }.property('firstName', 'lastName')

Knockout

  this.firstName = ko.observable('Bob');
  this.lastName = ko.observable('Smith');

  this.fullName = ko.computed(function() {
    return this.firstName() + ' ' + this.lastName();
  }, this);

The differences here are trivial. Ember doesn't need you to tell it what properties to observe (all properties added to your models are observed). Ember uses getters and setters for each property.

Knockout asks you to state which properties you want to observe. Knockout then uses a named observable function instead of getters and setter.

Read/write computed properties

Ember

  firstName: null,
  lastName: null,

  fullName: function(key, value) {
    // setter
    if (arguments.length > 1) {
      var nameParts = value.split(/\s+/);
      this.set('firstName', nameParts[0]);
      this.set('lastName',  nameParts[1]);
    }

    // getter
    return this.get('firstName') + ' ' + this.get('lastName');
  }.property('firstName', 'lastName')

Knockout

  this.firstName = ko.observable('Planet');
  this.lastName = ko.observable('Earth');

  this.fullName = ko.computed({
      read: function () {
          return this.firstName() + " " + this.lastName();
      },
      write: function (value) {
          var lastSpacePos = value.lastIndexOf(" ");
          if (lastSpacePos > 0) { // Ignore values with no space character
              this.firstName(value.substring(0, lastSpacePos)); // Update "firstName"
              this.lastName(value.substring(lastSpacePos + 1)); // Update "lastName"
          }
      },
      owner: this
  });

I think this scenario shows where Knockout really shine. I find the Knockout code easily readable. The fact that the Ember code needs comments to explain what part of the code is the setter vs getter is damning.

Also, the fact that the Ember code has to explicitly call out what properties it is watching is frustrating as well.

Forcing a Property to Recompute Every Time its Called

Knockout

  myViewModel.fullName = ko.computed(function() {
      return myViewModel.firstName() + " " + myViewModel.lastName();
  }).extend({ notify: 'always' });

Ember

  fullName: function() {
    return this.get('firstName') + ' ' + this.get('lastName');
  }.property('firstName', 'lastName').volatile()

I think Ember gets the node here for the chainable extension method. Knockout's choice of passing in a extended configuration, while readable, seems a bit clunky to me.

Conclusion

The biggest difference I see in the two frameworks in regards to Observable Models is the need of Ember to register property dependencies. This seems like a huge drawback to me - what if you change your code and forget to update the dependencies? Or what if you have a typo in writing in the dependencies?

Since Knockout existed before Ember, it makes me wonder why the Ember creators didn't incorporate Knockout into their framework.

Solving a problem again after it's been solved by someone else reminds me of this famous XKCD cartoon:

Competing Standards

##Side Note - How does Knockout get away without explicitly defining dependencies?

Knockout's Algorithm for Dependency Tracking

It’s actually very simple and rather lovely. The tracking algorithm goes like this:

  1. Whenever you declare a computed observable, KO immediately invokes its evaluator function to get its initial value.
  2. While your evaluator function is running, KO keeps a log of any observables (or computed observables) that your evaluator reads the value of.
  3. When your evaluator finishes, KO sets up subscriptions to each of the observables (or computed observables) that you've touched. The subscription callback is set to cause your evaluator to run again, looping the whole process back to step 1 (disposing of any old subscriptions that no longer apply).
  4. KO notifies any subscribers about the new value of your computed observable.