If you're looking to build a chat application, you already know that you need a mobile app. The next question is: how can I build it quickly and cheaply?
And the answer? It's by using a popular cross-platform framework such as Flutter or React Native. These frameworks allow you to target the biggest mobile platforms (iOS and Android) with the same codebase, thereby saving time and money.
In this article, we'll be comparing Flutter vs. React Native—from the perspective of a developer and in the context of building a chat app. By the end of this article, you'll confidently know which of these frameworks is best for your project.
Quick Overview of Flutter vs. React Native
Before diving into the comparison between Flutter and React Native, it’s important to know the basics.
As we mentioned already, both React Native and Flutter are frameworks that help developers build cross-platform (also known as hybrid) mobile apps using one codebase written in a single programming language.
Without one of these two frameworks, if you wanted to build a native app for both iOS and Android you would need two separate apps written in two different languages maintained in two distinct codebases. This can be a huge headache for smaller development teams as it means more time and more money. Even huge companies with plenty of resources, like Pinterest and Skype, have chosen to use a cross-platform framework to build their mobile apps.
History & Background
React Native started as an internal project at Facebook and was officially released as an open-source framework in 2015.
Flutter is an open-source project built by Google and was officially released in 2017.
As open-source projects, Flutter and React Native have one huge advantage—which is that both the company and the community contribute to the project with bug fixes and enhancements.
However, open-source projects also come with risks. The most significant risk is that the company behind the project can stop supporting it at any time— leaving you to fend for yourself when it comes to dealing with future development or bug fixes. For this reason, it's important to know the company behind open-source projects so you can make an educated choice. Luckily, both Google and Facebook have a track record of maintaining their open-source projects for a long time, and both have an incentive not to drop support.
Now that you know why you should use either Flutter or React Native (and a little bit about their origins), let’s start the Flutter vs. React Native comparison. We’ll be comparing the two frameworks on these metrics:
Expertise and difficulty
React Native vs. Flutter: Expertise & Difficulty
Understanding the difficulty level of a framework is essential as it allows you to determine how quickly your chat app could be built by a developer who's not familiar with that framework.
Each framework comes with complexities and nuances. For example, you’ll have to learn how each framework handles concepts such as state management and bridging to native modules. However, there isn’t much difference between React Native and Flutter when it comes to the level of complexity. It’ll take about the same time to learn each framework if you’re starting with a clean knowledge slate.
If you're proficient with the React framework, you can stop reading the rest of the article and just use React Native. The two frameworks share the same syntax and core concepts. The advantages of using a familiar framework outweigh any of the potential benefits of using Flutter.
React Native or Flutter: Which Is Easier To Learn?
React Native vs. Flutter: Developer Experience
Developer experience consists of the interactions and feelings that a developer has when working with a technology, or in this case, a framework to meet a specific objective. The better the developer experience, the more enjoyable it is to work with that technology. Factors such as ease of use, documentation, and tooling all come into play here.
Setup and Project Configuration
To provide a good experience, installing the framework and setting up a new project should be straightforward and easy.
Both frameworks require Xcode and command-line tools to be installed and working.
While both frameworks provide plenty of documentation to get up and running, we found that setting up a React Native project from scratch is a little bit faster and easier because of NPM.
One of the most important aspects of a developer-friendly framework is good documentation. Developers need to be able to quickly find an answer to any questions they have and troubleshoot any problems that arise.
Both React Native and Flutter have amazing documentation. React Native’s documentation even includes editable code examples with outputs. And, while Flutter's documentation lacks editable code examples, it makes up for it with the depth of knowledge provided. You don't have to go anywhere else to find what you need; Flutter's documentation has you covered.
Both frameworks offer excellent documentation—so this one is a tie.
Another big factor in the developer experience is tooling. A framework or technology is more enjoyable to use when tools are available to speed up the development process.
When it comes to mobile app development, two of the most important tooling options are hot reloading and debugging.
Hot reloading refers to the ability to make a code change and immediately see the effect on the client, rather than having to manually re-compile after every code edit. Both Flutter and React Native offer hot reloading.
As any developer will tell you, debugging can be the most time-consuming and aggravating part of development. Having a good debugger is essential for a positive developer experience. Flutter provides DevTools, which allows you to inspect and tweak the layout, debug memory issues, analyze app size, and much more. React Native also has a debugging tool. Theirs is called React Developer Tools. They also have an extensible desktop app called Flipper, which provides the same functionality that Flutter’s DevTools provides.
Again, we're looking at a tie. When it comes to developer tooling, the two frameworks are neck and neck.
IDE & Code Editor Support
Using your favorite code editor or IDE while developing with a framework really helps with speed and ease of adoption.
However, since Dart is less popular and less well-known, many IDEs and code editors don’t support syntax highlighting for Dart out-of-the-box. In fact, the Flutter maintenance team suggests you use one of the following IDEs for Flutter development: Android Studio, Inte lliJ, VS Code, or Emacs. This is because they’ve developed specific Dart plugins for those IDEs.
This is the first major difference in developer experience. If you choose Flutter and you’re not familiar with one of the Flutter-approved IDEs, you’ll have to learn a new one. However, if you use React Native, you can stick with whatever IDE or code editor you currently use and love.
Flutter or React Native: Which Has a Better Developer Experience?
React Native vs. Flutter: Performance
Once upon a time, there was a huge difference in performance between the two frameworks. Flutter was leaps and bounds ahead of React Native. However, over the last few years, React Native has closed the gap. Now, unless your app is very complex, the difference in performance is most likely negligible.
To understand why they have different performance levels, we have to take a look at two things: how each framework gets compiled and how each framework interacts with the native modules.
Flutter, on the other hand, compiles its entire codebase into native ARM C/C++ libraries which are very close to the machine language. This gives Flutter a very close-to-native level of performance and makes it faster than React Native.
Flutter or React Native: Which Is Faster?
Because Flutter compiles into native ARM code, it has the upper hand over React Native when it comes to performance.
Flutter vs. React Native: Community
It's essential to have a good community around an open-source project like Flutter and React Native. The larger the community, the more likely it is that someone has created a beneficial open-source library, that more Stack Overflow questions get answered, or that bugs in the project are addressed faster. The developer community is a great litmus test for the health and expected longevity of an open-source project.
There are multiple indicators that can give us an idea of how strong the developer community around an open-source project is, including:
Stack Overflow tag trends measure how many questions get asked about a specific framework every month on Stack Overflow. Comparing Flutter vs. React, we see that in early 2020 Flutter flew past React Native in terms of the number of questions asked. And Flutter has stayed on top since.
Given these data points, we can conclude that while both frameworks have a mature and thriving developer community, Flutter has outpaced React Native in the last two years.
Flutter or React Native: Which One Is More Popular?
React Native is older and has a more established presence but, in the last two years, Flutter has exploded in popularity. It’s now the number one most popular cross-platform mobile app framework.
Flutter vs. React Native: Compatibility & Ecosystem
Another deciding factor between Flutter or React Native is compatibility. The framework you choose needs to be compatible with your target operating systems and third-party integrations. The ecosystem of open-source modules also needs to be taken into account.
Flutter supports five different operating systems: iOS, Android, Windows, macOS, and Linux. You can use the same codebase to ship apps on these OSs. React Native supports the following operating systems: Android, iOS, macOS, tvOS, Windows. Both frameworks also support web apps. As you can see, there’s not much difference between the two.
In contrast, Pub, a package repository for Dart and Flutter, has only 26,000 packages.
If you’re building a chat app, you’re most likely interested in if your chat SDK is compatible with React Native or Flutter. We at CometChat currently only support React Native. If you choose to use Flutter, you’ll have to find a different chat solution or code it from scratch.
React Native or Flutter: Which Has Better Compatibility and a Better Ecosystem?
React Native takes the gold in this category due to its compatibility with a large number of open-source modules, its compatibility with our chat SDK, and the number of operating systems it supports.
Flutter vs. React Native: The Future
This comparison of Flutter vs. React Native wouldn’t be complete without taking a few educated guesses at what’s to come.
Both frameworks seem to have bright futures—they’re consistently rolling out updates to each project and listening to their respective communities.
React Native is currently undergoing some massive architectural changes and is allowing the developer community to have a say. The React Native team also recently announced that they're adding desktop app support. This means the same codebase that runs your mobile app would be able to compile into a desktop app. It's huge news, especially for builders of chat apps, as most people expect chat apps to have desktop support.
But Google isn't one to be outdone—Flutter receives consistent updates and support from the main team. With the number of developers and companies flocking to Flutter in the last two years, there is no reason not to expect Google to keep innovating and improving Flutter.
Summary: React Native vs. Flutter
To summarize, here’s an overview of React Native vs. Flutter:
Official Release Date
Popular apps built with this framework
Pinterest, Skype, Instagram, Facebook
Alibaba, Google Ads, eBay Motors, Groupon
iOS, Android, tvOS, macOS, Windows, and Web
iOS, Android, Windows, macOS, Linux, and Web
# of open-source modules
1.3 million on NPM
26,000 on Pub
Stars on Github repo
Three years ago, React Native would be the go-to choice. Now, there’s no obvious choice between using React Native or Flutter. While each framework has its pros and cons, there’s no clear winner.
Choose React Native, if:
You need to rely on lots of open-source modules for functionality
You need to rely on the developer community for insights and guidance
You want to leverage native OS elements
Choose Flutter, if:
Your development team is familiar with Dart
Performance optimization is important to your project
You need to provide a customized experience outside of the typical native UI elements
At the end of the day, the choice between React Native and Flutter will not make or break your project.
Cosette Cressler is a passionate content marketer specializing in SaaS, technology, careers, productivity, entrepreneurship and self-development. She helps grow businesses of all sizes by creating consistent, digestible content that captures attention and drives action.