When to Use Map instead of Plain JavaScript Object

October 09, 2019 0 Comments

When to Use Map instead of Plain JavaScript Object



JavaScript plain objects { key: 'value' } are meant to hold structured data.

But one thing I find annoying: the object keys have to be strings (or rarely used symbols).

What happens if you use numbers as keys? There’s no error in such case:

const names = { 1: 'One', 2: 'Two',  
}; Object.keys(names); 

JavaScript just implicitly converts object’s keys to strings. That’s tricky behavior because you lose the consistency of the types.

In this post, I will describe how JavaScript Map object, available in ES2015, solves many of the plain object’s issues, including the conversion of keys to strings.

1. The map accepts any key type

As presented above, if the object’s key is not a string or symbol, JavaScript implicitly transforms it into a string.

Fortunately, the map has no problem with the key types:

const numbersMap = new Map(); numbersMap.set(1, 'one');  
numbersMap.set(2, 'two'); [...numbersMap.keys()]; 

1 and 2 are keys in numbersMap. The type of these keys, number, remains unchanged.

You can use any key type in maps: numbers, booleans, and classic strings and symbols.

const booleansMap = new Map(); booleansMap.set(true, "Yep");  
booleansMap.set(false, "Nope"); [...booleansMap.keys()]; 

booleansMap uses booleans as keys without issues.

Again, boolean keys would not work in plain objects.

Let’s push the boundaries: can you use an entire object as a key in a map? Turns out, yes!

1.1 Object as key

Let’s say you need to store some object-related data, without attaching this data on the object itself.

Doing so using plain objects is not possible.

A workaround is to use an array of object-value tuples:

const foo = { name: 'foo' };  
const bar = { name: 'bar' }; const kindOfMap = [ [foo, 'Foo related data'], [bar, 'Bar related data'],  

kindOfMap is an array holding pairs of an object and associated value.

The biggest issue with this approach is the O(n) complexity of accessing the value by key. You would have to loop through the entire array to get the desired value by a key:

function getByKey(kindOfMap, key) { for (const [k, v] of kindOfMap) { if (key = k) { return v; } } return undefined;  
} getByKey(kindOfMap, foo); 

You don’t need all this headache with WeakMap (a specialized version of Map): it accepts objects as keys.

The main difference between Map and WeakMapis that the latter allows garbage collection of the objects that are keys, preventing memory leaks.

Ok, the above code refactored to use WeakMap becomes trivial:

const foo = { name: 'foo' };  
const bar = { name: 'bar' }; const mapOfObjects = new WeakMap(); mapOfObjects.set(foo, 'Foo related data');  
mapOfObjects.set(bar, 'Bar related data'); mapOfObjects.get(foo); 

WeakMap, contrary to Map, accepts only objects as keys and has a reduced set of methods.

2. The map has no restriction over keys names

Any object in JavaScript inherits the properties from its prototype object. The same happens to plain JavaScript objects.

If you overwrite the property inherited from the prototype, you can potentially break the code that might rely on these prototype properties:

function isPlainObject(value) { return value.toString() = '[object Object]';  
} const actor = { name: 'Harrison Ford', toString: 'Actor: Harrison Ford'  
}; isPlainObject(actor); 

The property toString defined on the object actor overwrites toString() method inherited from the prototype. This breaks isObject() because it relies on toString() method.

Check the list of properties and methods that plain object inherits from the prototype. Avoid defining custom properties with these names.

For example, imagine a User Interface that manages some custom fields. The user can add a custom field by indicating the name and value:

Custom fields User Interface

It would be convenient to store the state of the custom fields into a plain object:

const userCustomFields = { 'color': 'blue', 'size': 'medium',  
 'toString': 'A blue box'};

But the user might choose a custom field name like toString (as in the example), constructor, etc. that could potentially break your object.

Don’t take user input to create keys on your plain objects!

The map doesn’t have this problem. You are not limited in the keys names:

function isMap(value) { return value.toString() === '[object Map]';  
} const actorMap = new Map(); actorMap.set('name', 'Harrison Ford');  
actorMap.set('toString', 'Actor: Harrison Ford'); isMap(actorMap); 

Regardless of actorMap having a property named toString, the method toString() works correctly.

3. The map is iterable

In order to iterate over the plain object’s properties, you have to use additional helper static functions like Object.keys() or Object.entries() (available in ES2017):

const colorsHex = { 'white': '#FFFFFF', 'black': '#000000'  
}; for (const [color, hex] of Object.entries(colorsHex)) { console.log(color, hex);  

Object.entries(colorsHex) returns an array of key-value pairs extracted from the object.

A map, however, is an iterable by itself:

const colorsHexMap = new Map(); colorsHexMap.set('white', '#FFFFFF');  
colorsHexMap.set('black', '#000000'); for (const [color, hex] of colorsHexMap) { console.log(color, hex);  

colorsHexMap is iterable. You can use it anywhere an iterable is accepted: for() loops, spread operator [...map].

The map provides additional methods that return an iterable: map.keys() to iterate over keys and map.values() over values.

4. Map’s size

Another issue with the plain object is that you cannot easily determine the number of properties that it holds:

const exams = { 'John Smith': '10 points', 'Jane Doe': '8 points',  
}; Object.keys(exams).length; 

To determine the size of exams, you would have to pass through all the keys to determine the number of them.

The map provides an alternative with the accessor property size counting the key-value pairs:

const examsMap = new Map([ ['John Smith', '10 points'], ['Jane Doe', '8 points'],  
]); examsMap.size; 

It’s simpler to determine the size of the map: examsMap.size.

5. Conclusion

Plain JavaScript objects normally do a good job to hold structured data. But they have some limitations:

  1. Only strings or symbols can be used as keys
  2. Own object properties might collide with property keys inherited from the prototype (e.g. toString, constructor, etc).
  3. Objects cannot be used as keys

All these issues are easily solved by maps. Moreover, they provide benefits like being iterators and easy size look-up.

Don’t consider maps as a replacement of plain objects, but rather a complement.

Do you know other benefits of maps over plain objects? Please write a comment below!

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