Client-Side Applications with AngularJS

Posted Monday, August 12, 2013

The last time I wrote about client-side applications, I demonstrated an application I had built using Backbone. Since then, I, like many others, have tried out many other libraries for building client-side applications with JavaScript. Recently, I’ve taken a strong liking to AngularJS by Google. Let’s take a look at Angular by comparing the app I built last time with a version built using Angular.

The full source code for the application is available on GitHub, and the application is running on GitHub pages. Just as in the Backbone example, this application is written in CoffeeScript.

AngularJS Basics

One of the core concepts in AngularJS is two-way data binding. This means that manipulating a variable controlled by Angular—for example, in a text box—will automatically update any other places that variable is bound. Here’s a very basic example: a text box that updates a value in the DOM as you type.

AngularJS uses dirty-checking for data binding, meaning that you get to use plain ol’ JavaScript objects—POJSO’s, if you will—as your models. It also supports a robust dependency injection system, which aids in testing, and allows for the registration various application components, including controllers, services, and filters.

A full exploration of the Angular framework is beyond the scope of this post, so we’ll stick to the features I used in rebuilding the app.


In Angular, services are where you put your business logic; you can liken them to models in a server-side MVC framework like Ruby on Rails, but are more generic. In our case, we’ve created two new services.

Realms, which depends on the built-in $http service (Angular’s built-in services begin with a dollar sign), simply defines a function that takes a callback, makes the JSONP request to the Blizzard API, and then calls the callback with the resulting data once complete. This replaces the RealmList collection from the Backbone app, and the Realm model from the Backbone app is replace with plain JavaScript objects from the API’s JSON response.

hashChange simply watches for the URL’s hash to change and calls a provided function with its new value whenever it does. The call to the function is wrapped in $rootScope.$apply, which ensures that the function runs within the context of Angular’s dirty tracking. This is only necessary when dealing with asynchronous code that isn’t managed by AngularJS by default—for example, when dealing with native browser events or third-party jQuery plugins. This will replace the routing features from the Backbone app (AngularJS has a full-featured router, but we don’t use it for this app.)

Once registered, both services are available to other services and controllers in our application by name; we’ll see this in a moment when we define our controller.


Controllers are the glue between your views and your models. User events on the DOM will generally trigger functions on a controller, which will then in turn manipulate some model. The change in the model will automatically be propagated back into the view via Angular’s two-way data binding.

I only defined one controller for this application; though the terminology is a little different, this will basically replace all three of the views we created in the Backbone application. The controller uses various dependencies, injected in at runtime, to manage the interaction between the user and the models. You can see the list of dependencies in the controller’s function definition:

app.controller 'RealmsController', ($scope, $timeout, $window, Realms, hashChange) ->

We defined Realms and hashChange ourselves in the previous section; the other three variables, which start with a dollar sign, are provided to us by the framework:

  • $scope is an object that is shared between the controller and the view; any property attached to the scope is automatically available in the view. $scope is where we put all our models, so that they can be shown in the view. Every controller gets its own $scope variable.
  • $timeout is a special version of JavaScript’s setTimeout that ensures that Angular’s dirty-checking is triggered in the asynchronous function, similar to the $rootScope.$apply trick we used in the hashChange callback.
  • $window is a wrapper around the JavaScript window object, provided mostly for its ability to be easily mocked out in tests.

The controller itself sets up four values on the $scope object:

  • realms is an array of servers that we’ll eventually get from the JSONP API, but for now we initialize it as an empty array.
  • search is the current search term, initialized to an empty string.
  • lastUpdate holds the Date for the last time we got fresh data from the API; here we initialize it to null.
  • updateHash is a function that, when called, will take the current value of the search scope variable and make sure the current URL shows it in its hash. This is defined on the scope because we will be accessing it from the view later.

We then use our hashChange service to make sure that our search scope variable changes automatically when the URL’s hash changes. Finally, we create a local function called refresh that fetches new data from the API and schedules another update in five minutes. The refresh function uses the Realms service to fetch the data and set all the relevant data in its callback.

We then kick everything off by calling refresh once manually.


In Angular, your views are described declaratively with HTML. This is perhaps the biggest difference between it and a framework like Backbone. The view not only lays out the template, but also declares the bindings between the HTML and the controller. Here’s our full application view, defined in one file.

Let’s break this down piece by piece.

Angular views are described using directives, which are usually manifested as special HTML attributes or elements. For example, the ng-app attribute on the body tag tells Angular to kick off the wowRealmStatus module on that section of the DOM; the ng-controller directive on the first div tag tells Angular to load up the RealmsController for that particular part of the page. Angular has several useful built-in directives; we’ll cover only the ones that drive out the functionality of our application here.

First, notice that our search input has an ng-model directive on it. This tells Angular to bind the value of the text input to the search property on the view’s associated $scope (which, you may recall, is shared by the RealmsController we defined earlier). This means that every time the user types in the box, the $ property in the controller is automatically updated; conversely, when $ is updated in the controller, the value shown in the text box will automatically update.

There is also an ng-change attribute on the input; this tells Angular to call the given function every time the value in the input changes. In this case, it’s calling our updateHash function to ensure the URL is correct.

The image shown next to the input has an ng-show attribute on it; this ensures that the image is only visible if the expression passed to the attribute is true. In this case, we only show the loading spinner if the loading scope value is truthy, which we manage in our refresh function.

The paragraph containing the last updated time is interesting; it shows one of two spans depending on if the lastUpdate scope value is truthy or not; if it is, we use Angular’s curly-brace-based string interpolation to show the date. The pipe | character invokes a filter, and it works just like pipes do on UNIX-like systems—the value lastUpdate is passed to a function called date; the string 'MMM d, h:mm a' is passed as the second parameter to this function. In this case, we’re using the date filter, and it returns the given date formatted by the specified string. Filters allow you to keep all your formatting-related logic in the view, where it’s easy to see what’s happening and compose multiple filters together in interesting ways.

We then have a paragraph that is only shown if search is truthy (e.g., not an empty string). If it is, we see a link with the text “Show All” that uses the URL’s hash fragment to reset the search term to empty (remember our hashChange callback).

Finally, we get to the really interesting part. The final div tag has an attribute called ng-repeat. This causes the DOM element to be repeated for every element in an array or object. In this case, for every element in the realms scope property, we’re duplicating the div and assigning a new local scope variable called realm to the array value at the current iteration. Inside the div, we’re using curly-braces and filters (described in the next section) to show various pieces of information about each realm.

Additionally, the ng-repeat expression itself is being piped into a filter: the filter filter. In this case, we’re passing as a second argument an object literal, that says to filter out from the realms array any value that has a name property that doesn’t matche the current value of the search scope variable. In this way, we get search functionality for free!


We mentioned filters briefly in the last section, when we said that filters are special functions you can invoke in your views via the pipe | operator, and that they look and behave much like you’d expect based on their behavior on UNIX-like systems. Here are the filters I defined for the app.

The comments on each filter describe what it does; notice that they only return new values, not manipulate existing data. Filters allow you to transform data in your view so that you don’t have to worry about data formatting in your controllers or services, and make it easy to see how your data is transformed at a glance in your views.

In Conclusion

As you can see, the code for the Angular version of this app is quite short. The functionality is nicely encapsulated, and Angular’s data binding saves us a lot of boilerplate code that we’d normally have to write for view updates. You can check out the code for this project on GitHub, and the working implementation is up on GitHub pages.

If you’re interested in a more advanced example, take a look at MovieKue, which behaves more like a traditional single-page application. It’s still under development, but it’s feature-complete enough to garner useful information about writing a larger AngularJS app. (It also uses Firebase, a cool real-time database-in-the-cloud, which I recommend checking out.)

Overall, this was a whirlwind tour of the AngularJS framework. Be sure to check it out if you’re interested. I hope you found this example and comparison to the Backbone version of the app useful. Please let me know in the comments or via email if you have any questions!