Understanding the Key Distinctions of React and React Native for Web and Mobile Development

React and React Native have quickly become two of the most popular open-source frameworks for front-end development. Both were created and are maintained by Facebook.

React first came out in 2013 and is now one of the most widely used libraries for building user interfaces for web applications. It allows developers to build reusable UI components that manage their own state and render themselves reactively based on data. React is primarily used for building complex single-page applications or SPAs.

React Native, introduced in 2015, is essentially the React framework adapted for mobile app development. It uses the same design as React, letting developers build mobile applications for iOS and Android using React architecture. This allows building mobile apps that look and feel fully native while using shared JavaScript code.

In this blog post, we’ll do a deep dive into the key differences and similarities between React vs React Native. We’ll compare their architecture, build process, performance, developer experience and use cases to help you decide which framework is better for your needs.

Head-to-Head Comparison Between React vs React Native

Feature React React Native
Target Platform Web/Browser Mobile
Language JavaScript + JSX JavaScript + JSX
UI Components React DOM components like div, span etc. Custom mobile components like View, Text, Image etc.
Styling CSS stylesheets and modules JavaScript stylesheets
DOM Manipulation Uses virtual DOM that syncs with real DOM Doesn’t use DOM, re-renders native components when state changes
Gesture System No built-in support for touch gestures Has PanResponder API for gesture and touch handling
Animation Uses ReactTransitionGroup for animations Provides Animated API
Testing Enzyme, React Testing Library, Jest etc. Jest + react-native-testing-library
Bundle Size Typically larger bundle size due to inclusion of entire DOM Leaner bundle as includes only required native components
Optimization Needs optimization using route-based code splitting etc. Metro bundler handles optimization automatically
Access To API Can access browser APIs easily Can access phone hardware APIs like camera, location etc
Publishing Platform Can be published to web servers Can be published to App Store and Play Store

Key Differences Between React vs React Native

Platform and Target User Interface

The most fundamental difference between React and React Native is the platform and target environment they are designed for.

React is a JavaScript library for building user interfaces for the web. It targets web applications rendered in a web browser. React handles web components like div, span, inputs, buttons etc. and interacts with the DOM.

React Native is a mobile framework for building native mobile applications on iOS and Android. Instead of web components, it provides mobile components like View, Text, Image, ScrollView etc. React Native invokes native API calls and doesn’t interact with the DOM directly.

Programming Languages 

React applications are written in JavaScript and JSX, an XML-like syntax for defining React components.JSX code is compiled to JavaScript so browsers can render it. 

React Native also uses JSX for structuring component markup, but the JavaScript code is run on a separate thread instead of the main UI thread. It translates the UI component code to native platform components using a JavaScript bridge. 

Besides JavaScript and JSX, React Native allows accessing native APIs of platforms like camera, location etc. It requires knowledge of mobile platforms and languages like Objective-C/Swift for iOS and Java/Kotlin for Android.

Architecture and Major Components

React applications have a unidirectional data flow between components. The ReactDOM module handles rendering React components to the DOM and keeping it in sync with data changes.

At the core of React’s architecture is the concept of a virtual DOM. Instead of manipulating the browser’s DOM directly, React maintains a lightweight virtual representation of the real DOM in memory. When the underlying data changes, the virtual DOM is updated instead of the real DOM. The ReactDOM then compares the virtual DOM with the real DOM and only updates elements in the real DOM that changed. This process is extremely performant compared to direct DOM manipulation.

On the other hand, React Native does not use the DOM since mobile apps do not have one. Instead, it builds fully native mobile app components. The React Native architecture is also unidirectional but has extra native components.

For each platform like iOS and Android, React Native contains a rendering bridge that communicates with the native UI backend. This backend handles converting React Native commands to native code and displaying native views on screen. There is no virtual DOM since the UI is rendered natively.

Build Process and Tools

The build process for React apps involves using tools like Create React App, Next.js or custom Webpack configuration. Components are built as reusable modules and bundled using bundlers like Webpack and Parcel. The bundle is then loaded in the browser at runtime.

React Native bundles use the Metro bundler. Instead of targeting a browser, the bundle files contain logic for native components. React Native uses additional tools like Xcode and Android Studio to compile the app and platform-specific code. Apps can be run on simulators or physical devices.

There are also end-to-end testing frameworks like Detox for testing React Native apps. React apps can be tested using tools like Jest and React Testing Library.

Performance and User Experience

One of the biggest selling points of React Native is the ability to build mobile apps with native performance and UX. React web apps cannot fully match the smoothness and consistency of a fully native mobile experience.

React Native provides the performance benefits of a native app along with the development advantages of React patterns. By using native components and APIs, React Native does not face the reliability and performance issues of hybrid mobile app frameworks.

The major bottleneck for React web apps is the DOM. Since React Native directly renders native platform UI, it avoids additional layers of abstraction and can better optimize rendering cycles. Smooth animations with 60fps are easier to achieve using React Native.

However, React also has excellent performance with its virtual DOM diffing algorithm. Carefully optimized React code can get close to native performance for most use cases.

Developer Experience

For front-end developers used to building websites and web apps, React is very familiar and easy to get started with. React Native introduces some complexity with its mobile-focused architecture and build process.

React uses standard web development skills like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that most frontend devs possess. React Native requires knowledge of React patterns as well as mobile platforms like iOS and Android. Developers need to get acquainted with mobile-centric concepts to build full-featured apps.

React Native also requires setting up the native toolchain for each target platform. Developers must be comfortable with Xcode, Swift, Java, and Android Studio to access all native device capabilities. React just needs a text editor and browser.

React has a much wider pool of skilled developers compared to React Native. Hiring React Native talent can be challenging as developers need expertise across web and mobile platforms.

Use Cases and Industry Adoption

Let’s look at some typical use cases where React and React Native excel to understand when to choose which framework.

React is the go-to choose for building interactive web user interfaces for browsers. It powers a vast variety of websites and web applications across sectors like social media, e-commerce, gaming, media and more. Any application rendered in the browser is a great fit for React – examples are Facebook, Netflix, Dropbox, Airbnb and more.

React Native dominates the cross-platform mobile app development space. It is used to build and iterate on apps much faster across iOS and Android. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Uber Eats, Tesla, Walmart and many more use React Native for their mobile apps.

React Native best suits applications that require high performance, great UX and fast development cycles across platforms. Apps with complex UI like social media, gaming, messaging etc. greatly benefit from React Native. It may be overkill for simpler list-style enterprise apps.

For mobile applications with very specific native requirements like 3D games or hardware optimization, native development in Swift/Kotlin may be more suitable than React Native.

Our Key Takeaways on React vs React Native Comparison

React and React Native offer compelling benefits for front-end development. React is ideal for web applications with rich UI that demand high interactivity and performance. React Native extends the React approach to building mobile apps that feel natural on iOS and Android.

While their programming model is similar, key differences lie in platform support, architecture, tools, and developer experience. For the web, React is the undisputed leader while React Native dominates cross-platform mobile development.

Consider your target environment, performance needs and in-house skills to decide between React vs React Native. For the best user experience, choose the framework aligned closely to the platform – React for web and React Native for mobile. Both are excellent choices for building modern applications that users love.

Learn more about React and React Native

Amelie Lamb

Amelie Lamb

Amelie Lamb is an experienced technical content writer at SoftwareStack.co who specializes in distilling complex software topics into clear, concise explanations. She has a talent for taking dense technical jargon and making it engaging and understandable for readers through her informative, lively writing style.

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