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*ngIf vs [hidden]

A Primer On Angular HTML Syntaxโ€‹

Take the following HTML snippet from an Angular template:

<input *ngIf="showInput" [value]="inputValue" class="messages" />

This has three attributes on it. Letโ€™s explain each one:

AttributePurpose
*ngIfThis is the shorthand form of the ngIf Angular directive. This is equivalent to [ngIf]. Angular treats the value as code, executes it, and if true, puts this div into the DOM.
[value]This signifies that the value of the value HTML attribute should be determined by running the code in the value. In this case, the value of the input is the result of the inputValue attribute on the Component.
classAn HTML attribute. Because this has no leading asterisk and is not wrapped in square brackets, this is an HTML literal. Angular does not acknowledge this in any way.

Note the difference between Angular directives and HTML attributes. Angular directives are evaluated by the Angular framework. HTML attributes are treated as literal values and are effectively ignored.

What Does ngIf Do?โ€‹

ngIf, as mentioned above, is an Angular directive. This is evaluated when running change detection. When truthy, the HTML element the directive is attached to is put into the DOM at the specified location. Otherwise, the HTML element is removed from the DOM. In other words, it doesnโ€™t exist. Weโ€™ll come back to this later.

Put another way, when ngIf evaluates to false, this element would not be queryable using Javascript. This โ€” for reasons weโ€™ll cover later โ€” is a good thing!

What Does The Hidden Attribute Do?โ€‹

hidden is a valueless HTML attribute. When present on an HTML element, the element is not visible on the screen, but is still present in the DOM. This is functionally equivalent to using the display: none CSS attribute.

To use the same analogy from ngIf, if the element is hidden, this element would still be queryable using Javascript.

So, Which Should I Use?โ€‹

ngIf. (Almost) always ngIf.

Keeping the DOM clean makes things more efficient. First, there are fewer DOM traversals required when accessing elements. This has both an Angular performance improvement as well as a browser rendering improvement. The browser still looks at the hidden elements, even if it doesnโ€™t show them. This is how Bootstrapโ€™s sr-only class (โ€œscreenreader onlyโ€) works!

But I Need To Use A Query Selector To Access The Element On The Screenโ€‹

If you find yourself in this situation, youโ€™ve almost certainly done something wrong. What do I mean by that?

The point of using frontend frameworks such as Angular is that it provides a layer of abstraction around the maintenance of your DOM. You donโ€™t worry about the adding and removing of elements. Instead, you tell Angular when something should be displayed, and Angular does the adding and removing for you. (This is the power of declarative programming, which we can do in Java too, but thatโ€™s a story for another time).

When you write <div *ngIf="foo">, what youโ€™re really saying is โ€œHey Angular, this section should be present when foo is true. Take care of that for me, please!โ€, and Angular is happy to oblige. If, on the other hand, weโ€™re directly accessing HTML elements by something like document.querySelector(), weโ€™re now doing Angularโ€™s job.

This is the key point here: if youโ€™re directly interacting with the DOM, youโ€™re actively working against Angular.

This also means that the use of global variables such as document and window are also code smells in Angular. Angular provides wrappers around those, which means they can be mocked during your unit tests. Handy!

But I Have A Valid Edge Case, I Swear! (When Should I Use Hidden?)โ€‹

There may be conditions where you may have a valid condition. This probably means that youโ€™re interacting with something outside of the Angular application. This might be a valid option, but please be very, very careful about what we do in those cases. Consider instead thinking โ€œAngular should have a way to do this!โ€

But What About Nested Conditions?โ€‹

What happens if you have nested ngIf statements? Thatโ€™s bad, right? Nope, it still works fine, and in fact is more efficient.

In this case, the outer ngIf is evaluated first. Because itโ€™s false, thereโ€™s no reason to evaluate the inner contents, and so itโ€™s skipped. Itโ€™s objectively faster by having less conditions to evaluate.

<div *ngIf="false"><div *ngIf="false"></div></div>

I can prove it, too. Run this Stackblitz, and youโ€™ll see a console message show up for the inner DIV evaluation only if the outer DIV is visible.