Ionic vs React Native: which mobile JS framework to choose for cross-platform app development?

With the growing number of smartphones and the skyrocketing global mobile app industry, more companies see the need to run their business on portable devices. By doing so, they get the opportunity to reach their customers anywhere, no matter the distance or location. What really matters and must be considered is which mobile platform their targeted audience uses.

There are thousands of smartphone models that vary widely in size, design, features, quality, and price. Yet whichever device you choose, it will most probably run one of two operating systems - Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS. The latest statistics show that Android has over 74% of market share worldwide, while iOS captures 23%. Other mobile platforms account for a little over 2% in sum.

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Image credit: Statcounter

Android, iOS or Both?

Given the stats, choices for businesses boil down to just the two major players. If opting for one of them at the expense of the other, you may lose 30 to 70% of smartphone users as potential customers. Obviously, it makes good sense to encompass both platforms, but how can that be accomplished without blowing a hole in the budget? To answer this question, we should consider two basic strategies in mobile app development.

  • Native strategy means building a mobile app with platform-specific programming languages and tools, provided by the operating system vendor. Developers use Kotlin or Java for Android apps and Objective-C or Swift for iOS apps. To reach users on both platforms, the company has to invest in two separate projects and employ two different technology stacks.
  • Hybrid/cross-platform strategy enables web developers to create mobile apps and owes its popularity to the unique business offer: ‘Use the same code across operating systems, and save 50 to 80% of engineering efforts!’ It is worth mentioning that cross-platform apps are not perfect. Their major advantages - shorter time to market, lower price, code reusability, and a wider pool of customers - often go hand in hand with UI issues and worse performance when compared to native apps. You can read our React Native vs native development analysis for more details.

Despite some cons, hybrid/cross-platform solutions are upgrading so fast that experts predict their total supremacy over native apps in the very near future. Currently, there are several technologies that set the tone in the cross-platform app development market. At DA-14, we advise our clients to consider one of two sought-after options, Ionic vs React Native, as a mobile framework for their project. Either of these is able to bring companies all the benefits associated with mobility adoption, though in different ways.

Opposites to compare

First things first -  both platforms are open-source and MIT-licensed, which add to their popularity. Yet, competing for the same audience and pursuing similar aims, they offer quite opposite app solutions. To conduct a thorough React Native vs Ionic comparison we should primarily delve into the main differences between technologies.

Approach: hybrid vs native

Ionic, launched in 2013 by Drifty.co, is an AngularJS / Angular-based framework for creating hybrid apps focused on native-like interface and a smooth user experience. It features a number of ready-to-use UI components and enables developers to build mobile projects with standard web technologies like HTML5, CSS, and Sass. Ionic utilizes Apache Cordova to package front-end parts for mobile platforms. By using different native-specific containers, the same codebase can be run on iOS, Android, Windows, web or desktop.

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Image credit: eLuminousTechnologies

Facebook’s React Native (RN), built on the top of ReactJS and introduced in 2015, aims at designing highly responsive UIs for iOS and Android platforms with JavaScript. Following the component-based approach, RN lets JavaScript communicate with native components through special event buses or bridges. This method allows for rendering the code to mobile without extra packages or wrappers.

Unlike with Ionic, you can’t reuse the entire RN codebase for both operating systems. Some parts should be written separately for each platform to provide seamless user experience. Yet, since  Android and iOS use different languages, many organizations find it advantageous to hire one React Native development team instead of two teams of ‘native’ engineers.

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Image credit: Smashing Magazine

Ecosystem: Angular vs React

The Ionic framework is tightly interwoven with the Angular ecosystem. The initial version was built on the top of AngularJS, while later releases adopted Angular 2+. Things are changing, starting from Ionic v4, released in January 2019. Among other improvements, it offers support for React, Vue.js and web components.

As for React Native, it inherits the main features of ReactJS and functions best with JSX, a syntax extension that mixes HTML with JavaScript. JSX facilitates a cleaner code and helps to prevent injection attacks, but also poses disadvantages such as complexity and steep learning curve.

Framework
Ionic
React Native
Main principleWrite once, run anywhereLearn once, write anywhere
EcosystemAngular, backed by GoogleReact, backed by Facebook
Initial release20132015
Nature of appsHybrid appsNative apps
Supported platformsiOS, Android, Windows, Web, PWAiOS, Android
Access to phone functionalitiesNeeds Apache Cordova packagingUses native iOS / Android building blocks and APIs
Tech stackCSS, HTML5, Sass, JavaScript, TypeScriptJavaScript, JSX
Well-known usersMarketWatch, McDonald’s Türkiye, DieselFacebook, Instagram, Yahoo

Ionic vs React Native benchmark

With the main distinction between React Native vs. Ionic explained, it’s easier to analyze their strengths and weaknesses as well as to compare the characteristics that impact project success.

Speed of development

Development speed is one of the primary considerations for businesses when building an app. Ionic boasts a rich library of pre-made components and lets you reduplicate the same codebase for all available platforms, making just slight changes. Additionally, when working with Ionic, developers can use TypeScript and other Angular tools which increase productivity.

React Native requires rebuilding a substantial part of the app when moving from Android to iOS or vice versa. As an option to speed up time-to-market, our engineers use Expo, a comparatively new toolchain around React Native. This open-source technology offers over-the-air updates and out-of-box solutions (e.g. push notifications) that work on both platforms. Most importantly, it undertakes much of native work and saves developers the trouble of opening Android Studio or XCode to link native libraries. However, Expo is still evolving and it has substantial limitations, so we can't recommend it for every RN project.

Winner:  admittedly, Ionic, but the possibility to use Expo for some React Native projects can change the game.

Platform coverage

Obviously, React Native framework loses this battle to omnipresent Ionic, as it officially supports only two platforms, Android and iOS. Moreover, RN behaves better on Apple devices, while its behavior on Android is far from perfect because of bugs and lower performance.

Winner: Ionic

Costs

To a large extent, the total project costs depend on its complexity and number of features. All other things being equal, Ionic apps are cheaper than those built with React Native, mainly thanks to the code reusability and higher development speed.

Winner: Ionic

App performance and responsiveness

App speed is the price Ionic pays for the above-mentioned pros of the hybrid approach. Currently, the React Native vs Ionic performance battle is won by the former as it renders the code directly to native APIs. RN also ensures better responsiveness that can be compared to native apps and stability when working with large volumes of data, which perfectly fits large-scale projects.

Ionic needs Web Views for rendering web apps on mobile, which reduces upload speed and requires more memory. However, the framework’s team is improving their product with each new release. Ionic 4 comes with smaller file sizes, better app startup time, and it is equipped with Ivy Renderer, the Angular’s fastest renderer ever. Overall, the new version is expected to operate 1.5 faster than its predecessor, yet it still can hardly outperform React Native.

Winner: React Native

User experience

Wherever you run an Ionic app, it will look and feel almost the same, not delivering a truly native experience. React Native is quite a different story; thanks to the use of platform-specific UI components, it provides authentic Android or iOS interfaces.

Winner: React Native

Learning curve

A lot of developers are familiar with web technologies (HTML, CSS, Sass) that Ionic has under the hood. Yet, they also need to know Angular, and this framework is renowned for its steep learning curve. On the other hand, React Native’s approach and JSX usually require more time to grasp for engineers without experience in ReactJS.

Winner: depends on the skillset of your team

Support from community

That’s where the React Native vs Ionic fight often ends in a draw as both frameworks originate from well-established ecosystems, React and Angular.  Being a part of the RN or Ionic community, you can easily find answers to any question and get access to third-party libraries created by developers. Both communities are very active on GitHub, though at the time of writing, RN had 1889 active contributors and 74, 5 stars  while Ionic was supported by only 292 contributors and featured 37, 2 stars.

Winner: at the time of writing, React Native was ahead of Ionic on GitHub.

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Image credit: Stackshare

Advantages of Ionic and React Native

In this table, we have summed up the main pros of either platform.

Ionic
React Native
Ability to build one app for many platformsAbility to share a part of code across Android and iOS apps
Rich library of pre-designed UI elementsClose to native iOS / Android UI
Better development productivityBetter app performance
Good for fast prototypingStable enough for large projects
Huge support from communityHuge support from community

Which solution fits your project best?

The answer to this question depends on many factors, from the available budget to your team knowledge and specific project requirements. Here are some practical tips on how to make the choice easier.

Ionic is a preferable technology for fast prototyping due to its large number of prebuilt templates and a variety of third-party kits which ensure greater productivity. It better fits MVP development and projects with a limited budget, as it allows for reusing code in different environments. Also, opt for Ionic if your goal is to test your idea on as many platforms as possible.

Saving time and money may backfire when considering performance, usability and interface quality. If the native look and feel is your priority, React Native will better meet your needs. However, truly native apps designed for a particular device still outrun RN projects in terms of speed and UI.

Besides that, you need to consider the actual skills of your team or the availability of engineers experienced in particular technologies. Programmers with a strong background in web app development and Angular will feel more comfortable with Ionic, while React Native requires expertise in React design principles and JSX.

Cost-efficiency is the killer feature attracting businesses to cross-platform technologies. Yet only a deliberate decision based on overall assessment can bring the expected results - otherwise, cutting costs at the start, you may face app failures and, consequently, end-user frustrations in the future. Our DA-14 team has developed successful projects with either technology, so we can share our experience to help you make the right choice and avoid extra charges for fixing issues after release. If you’re going to build a profitable and sleek cross-platform application, contact us and we’ll find the best solution together.

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