How Svelte Makes Two-Way Binding Safe

Written

When React was released, it famously omitted two-way binding between components. This style of binding automatically detects when an attribute on an element or component changes, and reflects that change into a local variable in your component where you can use it.

This seems convenient at first, but traditional implementations are error-prone, as it becomes difficult to keep the bound value and any derived data in sync.

The Svelte framework reintroduces first-class support for two-way binding, to the confusion of those who have long heard – and rightfully so – that it is a bad idea. But Svelte has certain other features that make it not only more convenient to use, but safe as well.

One-Way Binding 🔗

First, let’s take a look at one-way binding, since it is how React and “plain” JavaScript work. With this paradigm, attributes are set on elements and components in the normal HTML way, and changes in those attributes are handled by added event handlers to the components.

In Svelte, one-way binding might look like this:

<script>
  let value = 'Hello world!';
  let numWords = 2;

  function handleUpdate(e) {
    value = e.target.value;
    numWords = value.split(' ').filter(Boolean).length;
  }
</script>

<input type="text" {value} on:input={handleUpdate} />
<p>
  {numWords} words
</p>

Every time you type in the text field, an event is fired and handleUpdate recalculates the numWords variable. A bit boilerplate-y, but pretty easy. As more complex code is added with more components, handlers, and derived state, it can get a bit unwieldy, but most people consider this inconvenience worth it compared to the problems of two-way binding.

Two-Way Binding 🔗

Two-way binding works similarly behind the scenes. The syntax is more terse, and the framework automatically adds the event handler.

<script>
  let value = 'Hello world!';

  $: numWords = value.split(' ').filter(Boolean).length;
</script>

<input type="text" bind:value />
<p>
  {numWords} words
</p>

With traditional two-way binding, you don’t really have a way to know when value has been updated, and so it becomes difficult to make sure that any state derived from it is actually up to date. AngularJS (aka Angular 1) has a “digest” and “watchers” that rerun all template expressions in a component when something might have changed, and yes it does become a performance problem.

But for anything outside a template, you may be out of luck, and these bugs may manifest in weird ways where sometimes your derived state ends up with the right value and other times it does not, depending on what else is going on and if one of your code paths that happens to update the state gets run.

In AngularJS you can sometimes use $scope.watch to handle this, but you have to explicitly remember to use it where appropriate, and it can be easy to miss if your state happens to update due to other events half the time.

How Svelte Makes it Safe 🔗

So with all these issues, why is it safe in Svelte? You’ll notice in the example above, numWords is in an expression starting with $:. This prefix tells the Svelte compiler to track the dependencies of that expression (here, just value), and automatically rerun the expression any time one of its dependencies changes.

So any time value is updated, whether from a bind: directive or from other code in the component, the Svelte compiler’s generated code automatically recalculates numWords. Even better, if numWords starts to depend on other variables, Svelte picks up on that. You don’t have to keep track of which variables your expression relies on since the compiler does it for you.

Having experienced two-way-binding hell in AngularJS, I was also initially wary of it in Svelte. But with more than a year of experience now I’ve found Svelte’s promises here to be true. There are still situations where you may want to use one-way binding, but they are intentional design choices in your code rather than a way to avoid consistency bugs.

The only caveat here is that you do have to remember to use the $: operator. This is true, but it’s not as big of a deal as it might seem to Svelte outsiders. The operator is such a core part of the framework that it becomes second nature after a short while, and I find myself doing it by default, only putting thought into if I might not want to use it for a particular expression.

The exact mechanisms in the Svelte compiler to track dependencies and rerun expressions aren’t particularly complex, but they are out of the scope of a quick blog post. Svelte contributor Tan Li Hau has covered the topic in great detail, so I recommend his excellent series on Svelte internals if you are interested.


Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, please send me a note on Twitter. And if you enjoyed this, I also have a newsletter where I sometimes write about tech thoughts, interesting things I've read, and project updates.

You can check out a recent issue, or enter your email below to subscribe.