React is a popular open source library for building web application user interfaces (UIs). It focuses on creating reusable UI components that update efficiently when the underlying data changes. Next.js and Gatsby are the two most popular frameworks in the React ecosystem that provide additional features and optimizations for building web applications. While they both leverage React, they serve different purposes and excel in different scenarios.
In this article, we’ll compare Gatsby and Next.js based on their processes for creating simple, static websites, large, multi-user websites, and more.
Gatsby is a modern web framework built on React and GraphQL that is particularly well-known for its static site generation capabilities. The main focus of the framework is built-in performance: it helps developers build fast, efficient, and optimized websites by leveraging the power of React, GraphQL, and a rich ecosystem of plugins.
Gatsby’s quick–start tutorials are an excellent place to get started. In essence, Gatsby is ideal for projects that require fast performance, good SEO, and the benefits of static site generation.
The main draw for Next.js is the developer experience that it offers, which reduces the hassle of creating full-fledged, SSR-friendly web applications.
Vercel recently released Next.js version 13. Next.js 13 is a must-have for developers looking to create high-performance, scalable, and effective web applications due to new features involving Incremental Static Regeneration (ISR), improved image optimization, automatic webpack configuration, improved API routes, automatic environment variable handling, and improved routing and layout experience with the introduction of the app directory.
Applications rendered on the server side are SEO-friendly by default. Server-side rendering (SSR) in Next.js is fast because it doesn’t wait for the browser to load the JS to show contents. SSR requires proper servers to send the response every time. In our case, Next.js is served using Node-based servers.
On the other hand, static sites are also fast because they serve the static HTML and CSS from the server without any processing in runtime. Static sites will be cached through a CDN and served faster than dynamic websites. Static sites are SEO-friendly, too, if the site has only static contents.
Both Gatsby and Next.js leverage SSR and SSG techniques to optimize performance, improve SEO, and enhance user experience.
Because Gatsby pre-builds all pages as static HTML files during the build process, it uses static site generation. This strategy produces outstanding performance because visitors receive completely rendered pages fast, and SEO is enhanced by using HTML, which is beneficial to search engines.
SSG is the best option for pages or components that can be pre-rendered at build time in Next.js, whereas SSR is appropriate when contents have to be created dynamically on each user request.
SSR and SSG are both supported by Next.js. Each page or route might have a different rendering technique selected by developers, a flexibility that makes a mixture of server-rendered and pre-rendered pages possible.
While Next.js has greater rendering flexibility and is frequently used for various applications, including hybrid server-side rendering and universal web apps, Gatsby shines at building efficient static web pages. They do, however, have some things in common:
Gatsby and Next.js also perform bright page loading by prefetching the links for the next pages asynchronously when you scroll through the page. The Lighthouse score for well-built Gatsby and Next.js sites will be outstanding.
Whether Gatsby or Next.js creates a faster web application depends on the use case. Instead of going through theoretical pros and cons, which you can find easily on the web, we’ll take a different approach and determine which framework will be better based on the problem at hand.
We will choose the best option between Gatsby and Next.js for these use cases:
Here, the number of pages is predictable and doesn’t need to be rendered through the server all the time because the contents will be static and the same for all users. Gatsby is tailor-made for such websites. Using its newly introduced static export feature, you can also create such static websites through Next.js.
Even so, Gatsby will win by a large margin because it offers support for plugins to get contents from almost all CMSs, databases, REST APIs, and GraphQL. It also has plugins that support different data formats like JSON, Markdown, and MDX (Markdown with JSX). It has easy options to build and host the website anywhere.
Gatsby isolates the data and website so that even non-programmers can edit the contents elsewhere, and it will still be compiled as the site in build time. Next.js won’t handle anything related to your data. You’ll need to build your way to fetch the data and show it as a website. You can create a static site, but non-programmers on your team will require help from you to change or update contents. It’s a big pain point any CMS solves, and Gatsby takes full advantage of that to connect to any CMS easily via the plugin.
Gatsby is our winner in building faster, performant static websites. The developer experience is the key to making this conclusion:
Next.js is ideal for such needs because you must show dynamic contents to unique, logged-in users. We can’t compile static HTML for each user with Gatsby (although there is a workaround, as we will see later in the use case for hybrid websites). SSR will help to render the site based on authentication.
Because many users create the contents and get incremented when new users join, compiling to a static site in build time will be practically impossible. It’s much easier to show the relevant contents in runtime.
For Gatsby, the major disadvantage of creating such websites is its building process and the time taken for the building process. Users often want to see their contents in real-time, not after a few minutes through a build process. And if the number of users is high, it might not be a few minutes; it could take up to a few hours.
Gatsby is working on optimizing this and already released initial support for faster builds in their commercial solution called Gatsby Cloud. But it may take a while until we get the complete, real-time incremental build feature, and we also don’t know whether Gatsby will choose to release that feature as part of their open source offering anytime soon.
For websites with multiple users accessing and editing the contents, it’s better to build using Next.js:
In such cases, building time-based frameworks won’t work well.
Here, SEO isn’t the key, but speed and fast response times for the user. For such websites, there is no clear winner between Gatsby and Next.js. We will see in the details below how both play out for developing such web applications.
So far, we’ve said Gatsby builds at build time and serves the static site. This is only half true. Why? Even though Gatsby serves the static site, it also re-hydrates the React on the page on the client side. So you can create any client-side application using Gatsby, the same as create-react-app (CRA). So why choose Gatsby instead of a CRA?
Gatsby supports code splitting by default. With CRA, you’d need to do it yourself. CRA also needs a built-in mechanism to support multi-page web apps. It is possible, but we need to do it manually. On the other hand, Gatsby supports multi-page applications.
Now, consider an example in which you have three different sets of users with three different UX designs. Gatsby’s multi-page nature easily helps you isolate and send those users to relevant pages after authorization. In CRA, you need to handle it through your router. Gatsby has built-in routing support for client-side routes. CRA doesn’t come with its router implementation, but adding one is easy.
Prefetching the next links and assets is easy in Gatsby and makes the page load faster. Such a high-level optimization is quite challenging to achieve in CRA on your own.
All in all, building a client-side rendered application is entirely possible using Gatsby. So don’t ever think of Gatsby as just a static site generator — it does more than that. It’s a complete framework for building modern web applications.
Now let’s see how Next.js helps to build modern, dynamic web applications. Up until now, we know Next.js is capable of SSR, which is true, but that’s not all it does. It also re-hydrates React on the client side so that you can build a complete client-side React app on top of Next.js.
Most of the benefits are the same as Gatsby, but Next.js has a few more advantages using its SSR. For example, you can render a static site and do all your logic on the client side, like Gatsby apps or CRA. So technically, you don’t need to use the SSR capabilities of Next.js; you can build a complete, client-rendered SPA or multi-page application using Next.js.
The most significant advantage of Next.js is that it offers the best of both worlds. It has both SSR capabilities and client-side app capabilities. It supports code splitting based on pages and allows dynamic importing to split code into chunks based on need.
The first paint of the UI with client-side apps is usually slow, and then the browser will handle the routing faster. But with SSR, we can load to paint the UI more quickly than any client-side framework, and subsequent pages will be loaded through client-side routes. This way, we can benefit from both worlds in Next.js (i.e., SSR and CSR).
So for dynamic web applications, both Gatsby and Next.js are equally capable. Next.js edges a bit in the first painting of the UI.
My firsthand experience with Gatsby was excellent. In my day job, we have used Gatsby for our product, which is quite complex and has three different sets of users. So far, we are thrilled, and the developer experience building the platform with an eight-member dev team was fantastic. Their documentation is one excellent source for gaining web development knowledge.
We have also used Next.js for simple dynamic websites (not the same scale as the Gatsby application). It was equally good but had a learning curve for doing advanced work in its configuration. Luckily, their contributors and docs are pretty friendly.
Hybrid web apps are the last type in our example. We already covered briefly that Next.js offers the best of both worlds in that it renders the page UI using SSR and then hands off the data responsibility to the client-side React application. But when would we need both functionalities?
For hybrid web apps that don’t require SEO, both Gatsby and Next.js are capable. But for applications that require SEO for publicly accessible dynamic contents, then Next.js is the best option.
Now let’s check out a different use case for a hybrid web app and website in a single codebase. Say you have a company website and a web app product, and you want to build it with a single codebase, instead of as two independent sites. In such situations, it’s much easier to handle both with Next.js and Gatsby, too. We can render the static pages for the company website and CSR for the web app product. In the same way, we can use SSR for the website and a combination of SSR and CSR for the web app.
The Incremental Static Regeneration (ISR) functionality allows on-demand updating and regenerating of static pages while serving them from a cache to deliver the latest contents without rebuilding the entire website.
The use of Gatsby as a data source for a Next.js application may necessitate looking for alternatives to ISR for data updates. For instance, you may schedule recurring Gatsby builds to update your data source, after which you redeploy your Next.js application. However, this method would deliver a different real-time data update than ISR in Next.js.
Gatsby does not currently offer ISR in the same way Next.js does. Instead, Gatsby previously introduced the concept of “Automatic Static Regeneration” (ASR), which is similar to ISR, with a focus on rebuilding pages during the build process based on your defined schedules, but it doesn’t allow you to set up an on-demand regeneration of individual pages at runtime like ISR would.
Recently, Gatsby introduced Deferred Static Generation (or DSG), first used in Gatsby 4. DSG aims to postpone or defer building specific pages until runtime. These postponed pages are identified during build time and subsequently created during run time, just like ISR does, or even better.
When the application is deployed, only the first user’s request causes each deferred page to be built. The page is instantly built upon request, and users are presented with contents. The page behaves precisely like any other static page after that initial build.
Next.js introduced a built-in feature called Incremental Static Regeneration (ISR) that allows you to update static contents after the build process without rebuilding the entire site. Static pages can be generated during runtime thanks to Next.js’ recently introduced ISR functionality. This is an SSG and SSR hybrid system.
On receiving a request, a page is created. Unlike SSR, a fallback page is served right away, which makes the visitor wait while the data is fetched.
Next.js will serve the cached static page while revalidating the data at the specified interval. If the data has changed, Next.js will regenerate the page in the background and update the cache.
Gatsby has a powerful image processing feature that optimizes image loading for better performance. It is possible and may sound attractive to use Gatsby’s image processing as a service in a Next.js application, but there are some considerations to keep in mind:
As a result of these drawbacks, it may be more convenient to use Next.js’ built-in features for image optimization and rendering.
A site setting can be packaged as a reusable module using Gatsby themes. If you have created Gatsby themes and want to use them in a Next.js site, you can set up a Gatsby site to use the theme and produce static HTML and CSS, which you can serve from your Next.js application.
However, using a Gatsby theme within a Next.js application is not an easy operation, as they are developed specifically for Gatsby projects and follow the Gatsby architectural pattern. Next.js has its own unique structure and set of procedures.
Nevertheless, you may include some elements and functionality from a Gatsby theme into a Next.js application, but it requires significant adjustments.
Both Gatsby and Next.js are fantastic frameworks. Choosing the best one ultimately depends on your project requirements; choose the framework that best suits your needs.
Check out their official documentation for more information. I hope you enjoyed reading this article. Let me know what you think of both frameworks and your firsthand experience with them in the comment section below.
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