Notes on returning to Angular 1

This post is written for the purpose of covering some gotchas and observations when going back to using Angular 1.x. For reference, we’ll use react components and lifecycles.

This might seem backwards, but has come up when returning to a large legacy codebase.

Digest cycles and blessed $services

Angular, unlike React, uses a digest loop to figure out when things have changed. This means it’s possible to write small mutations to objects, and then wait for (or trigger) the checker, which will update the views accordingly.

As long as we’re doing updates in synchronous code, angular will automatically pick up our changes. If we are using asynchronous code, such as doing XHR or setTimeout, we need to tell angular that something has happened.

Angular provides a set of services that do the digest stuff for us such as $http and $q, but If we are doing async updates outside of these, we need to trigger angular. If we do setTimeout we’re basically leaving angular land. In order to get back in, we can use

Be aware that triggering a digest cycle in the middle of an existing cycle will throw an error. It is commonly handled by implementing a $safeDigest or $safeApply method, which checks the $phase before doing so.

Handling events from outside the digest cycle will also come up if we’re implementing a wrapper for a third party library such as a jQuery based date picker, or anything using document events. Unlike react, angular does not abstract and handle DOM events as synthetic events. The most common ones are covered by directives such as ngFocus, but binding via DOM methods will cause the callback to happen outside of angular land.

Take care not to create side-effect loops from the $digest cycle. If we get an infiniteDigest, this means we’ve created a loop in our $watch logic.

ngHTML: It’s all in the directives

In react, every component is either a pure function or a class, with it’s associated markup inside. Everything is being handled by the react-dom library, which transforms the components into DOM elements.

In angular, things get a bit more fuzzy. ngHTML works as a superset of HTML, with the angular directives added in. This means when we’re writing our templates, we can use things like ng-if to create a subtree that will only render if a condition is true. But how does this actually work?

Whenever we encounter an ng- attribute, or custom element tag, it’s probably a directive. Directives can be much more than “expanding” tags into templates though.

Directive types: Elements, attributes and classes

Angular supports more kinds of directives than the element type known from react. This is expressed in directives as restrict: 'EAC'.

Angular has defined element directives for input, just like react has custom semantics for value on input elements. ng-model would be a matching attribute directive commonly used to do value binding.

Class directives can be combined with the two others, to create an element with a whole list of directives applied to it. Watch out to keep things simple, since each can create scopes, bindings and mutations.

Directive scopes: Passing around values

Where in react we’re passing down props, in angular everything is handled via $scope. A directive can have inherited scope, isolated scope or different bindings. Scopes defined with the binding keys is how we pass values to our directives.

Some directives create new scopes, which might create hard to debug situations. This comes up with ngIf for instance, which creates a new scope for the conditional part of the template. Depending on the directives we use, the same template might create several scopes.

  <h1>I am controller scope</h1>
  <div ng-if="shouldShowWarning">
    <h2>Watch out! I am a new scope!</h2>
  <div ng-if="shouldShowWarning">
    <h2>Watch out! I am another new scope!</h2>

We can check the documentation if the directive is an official one. If we’re not that lucky, we can read the code and look for the scope property.

angular.module('myInputModule', [])
.directive('myInput', function() {
  return {
    // ...
    scope: {}
    // ...

Directive scope is a complex thing. Understanding it will make tracing values and debugging much easier.

If the value is not there, or is falsy, the directive will execute in the parent scope. This should only be used if the directive doesn’t modify scope in any way, since it will modify the parents data. A truthy value will create a fresh scope that inherits from the parent.

Isolated scope is what we want, when coming from react though. This creates a scope that does not inherit any values, and we can rely on only the attributes that are passed down via scope bindings:

scope: {
  value: '=' // two-way binding to the value property on the element

We can do a lot crazier things than that with angular, but building simple components like we know from react is easy enough with just this kind of isolated scope bindings and E type directives.

Triggering actions on change

In react land, we have componentWillReceiveProps, componentWillUpdate etc. $scope.$watch serves this purpose.

One thing to be aware of when writing mutating code is the depth of the $watch. We can tell angular to $watch deep on the list of objects that we’re rendering, and while that will work for most cases, it’s also extremely slow.

Consider a (contrived) list of users, where we want to react when the list is empty:

$scope.$watch('users', () => {
  if (!$scope.users.length) {
    alert('No users found, sorry');

The values will be shallow compared, unless the deep flag is added. This is equivalent to a PureComponent in react.

Scopes and data storage

In the same way that we try to move logic and state up the tree in react, we should try to move state and logic into services as much as possible. Putting data on the $scope or this of a controller can be considered equivalent to putting the values in a component via setState. As such, only values that should be considered implementation details should live here.

Another nice take-away that can be implemented when building angular apps is the immutable values in the datastore. For angular this could be done by returning clones to the controllers, so that mutations are local, or by returning frozen objects to enforce purity.

Prototypical inheritance gotchas

When writing a controller or ng-model that binds to $scope.username or similar, why is the value sometimes not properly propagated back to the parent scope? This happens because scopes use prototypical inheritance. Let’s explore what that looks like in an isolated way:

// Angular has `$rootScope` instance, which we'll define here:
const $rootScope = {};

// Let's define the username globally in our app:
$rootScope.username = 'test-user';

const $scope = Object.create($rootScope);
// Each scope gets a handle to it's parent via `$scope.__proto__`:
// $scope.__proto__ = $rootScope

// When we use this in a two-way binding, we set the property in the wrong place:
$scope.username = 'hi';

console.assert($scope.user.username === $rootScope.user.username, 'expected usernames to match');
// Assertion failed: expected usernames to match

What happened? Instead of going up the prototype chain and finding the existing property, javascript will set the property on the child object. It was simply being lazy. We can force a lookup up the chain, either by looking up a non-primitive value, or via reassignment (e.g. $scope.a += 'b';).

// Let's define the username globally in our app, on an object instead of a primitive:
$rootScope.user = {};
$rootScope.user.username = 'test-user';

const $scope = Object.create($rootScope);

// Now when we set the property;
$scope.user.username = 'hi';
console.assert($scope.user.username === $rootScope.user.username, 'expected usernames to match');
// It works!

So we want to be passing objects, not primitives around to other scopes and directives whenever possible. By doing so, we avoid creating weird edge cases if we’re doing mutations.

Of course, nothing prevents us from writing angular directives and controllers using the unidirectional dataflow principles from react, which makes these issues irrelevant.

Dependency injection and abstractions

Angular comes with a whole set of abstractions for creating and configuring services, values and templates.

Dependency injection annotation

Angular uses a bit of magic to figure out what our controllers and services need. It will try to read the function signature

module.exports = function myController($scope) {};

And inject the $scope instance. However, when doing minification of javascript, this might become

module.exports = function fn(a) {};

Which will trigger a message like Unknown service 'a'.

In order to write code that will survice minification, we have two equivalent options:

// return an array of dependencies before the function:
module.exports = ['$scope', function myController($scope) {}];

// Or using $inject if we prefer to set a property to passing around arrays
function myController($scope) {};
myController.$inject = ['$scope'];
module.exports = myController;

How does this survive minification when the variable names do not? Simple, uglifyjs etc will not touch string values and property names.

Services, factories, what? Different service abstractions

A service let’s us write the service definition as a constructor function. This means methods are are added via this context.

app.service('ping', ['$http', function($http) {
  this.request = function request() {
    return $http.send('/ping');

A factory let’s us write a service as a factory method, which will return the service in the end.

app.factory('ping', ['$http', function($http) {
  // Note the return
  return {
    request() {
      return $http.send('/ping');

A provider let’s us go up another level, and write a constructor function that’ll create the factory (that’ll return the service).

This is useful when adding configuration of the service before it is created. For instance by setting the $routeProvider to use html5 pushState instead of hash routing, changing the bindings it’ll do when created.

For our example, we can make the ping url configurable in the config phase, while effectively hiding it during runtime. The run phase has no way to see the provider.

function pingProvider() {
  let pingUrl = '/track';

  // Configuration functions/properties are instance properties on `this`.
  // A provider method for configuring where the ping events should be sent
  this.setPingUrl = function(url) {
    pingUrl = url;

  // The service factory function
  this.$get = ['$http', function($http) {
    return {
      // Call this to save the tracked events to the pingUrl
      request() {

app.provider('ping', pingProvider);
// Configure it early
app.config(($pingProvider) => {

// $get instance
}).run(($ping) => {

So we have three layers of abstraction at our disposal when creating a service. Consider carefully what kind of control is needed, and choose the least powerful/complex option that covers the usecase.

Config phases

We can only access a $provider type in the config step of our application. Everything else is available for injection during the run phases. To use the example above, this prevents us from accessing $pingProvider in a controller.

This will come up when using certain angular libraries such as ng-router, or when doing advanced configuration of services.

Posted in Programming with : Angular

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