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ES6 Collections: Using Map, Set, WeakMap, WeakSet

This article examines four new ES6 collections and the benefits they provide.

Most major programming languages have several types of data collections. Python has lists, tuples, and dictionaries. Java has lists, sets, maps, queues. Ruby has hashes and arrays. JavaScript, up until now, had only arrays. Objects and arrays were the workhorses of JavaScript. ES6 introduces four new data structures that will add power and expressiveness to the language: Map, Set, WeakSet, and WeakMap.

Searching for the JavaScript HashMap

HashMaps, dictionaries, and hashes are several ways that various programming languages store key/value pairs, and these data structures are optimized for fast retrieval.

In ES5, JavaScript objects — which are just arbitrary collections of properties with keys and values — can simulate hashes, but there are several downsides to using objects as hashes.

Downside #1: Keys must be strings in ES5

JavaScript object property keys must be strings, which limits their ability to serve as a collection of key/value pairs of varying data types. You can, of course, coerce/stringify other data types into strings, but this adds extra work.

Downside #2: Objects are not inherently iterable

Objects weren’t designed to be used as collections, and as a result there’s no efficient way to determine how many properties an object has. (See, for example, Object.keys is slow). When you loop over an object’s properties, you also get its prototype properties. You could add the iterable property to all objects, but not all objects are meant to be used as collections. You could use the for … in loop and the hasOwnProperty() method, but this is just a workaround. When you loop over an object’s properties, the properties won’t necessarily be retrieved in the same order they were inserted.

Downside #3: Challenges with built-in method collisions

Objects have built-in methods like constructor, toString, and valueOf. If one of these was added as a property, it could cause collisions. You could use Object.create(null) to create a bare object (which doesn’t inherit from object.prototype), but, again, this is just a workaround.

ES6 includes new collection data types, so there’s no longer a need to use objects and live with their drawbacks.

Using ES6 Map Collections

Map is the first data structure/collection we’ll examine. Maps are collections of keys and values of any type. It’s easy to create new Maps, add/remove values, loop over keys/values and efficiently determine their size. Here are the crucial methods:

Creating a map and using common methods

const map = new Map(); // Create a new Map
map.set('hobby', 'cycling'); // Sets a key value pair

const foods = { dinner: 'Curry', lunch: 'Sandwich', breakfast: 'Eggs' }; // New Object
const normalfoods = {}; // New Object

map.set(normalfoods, foods); // Sets two objects as key value pair

for (const [key, value] of map) {
  console.log(`${key} = ${value}`); // hobby = cycling  [object Object] = [object Object]

map.forEach((value, key) => {
  console.log(`${key} = ${value}`);
}, map); // hobby = cycling  [object Object] = [object Object]

map.clear(); // Clears key value pairs
console.log(map.size === 0); // True

Run this example on JSBin

Using the Set Collection

Sets are ordered lists of values that contain no duplicates. Instead of being indexed like arrays are, sets are accessed using keys. Sets already exist in Java, Ruby, Python, and many other languages. One difference between ES6 Sets and those in other languages is that the order matters in ES6 (not so in many other languages). Here are the crucial Set methods:

const planetsOrderFromSun = new Set();
planetsOrderFromSun.add('Venus').add('Earth').add('Mars'); // Chainable Method
console.log(planetsOrderFromSun.has('Earth')); // True

console.log(planetsOrderFromSun.has('Mars')); // False

for (const x of planetsOrderFromSun) {
  console.log(x); // Same order in as out - Mercury Venus Earth
console.log(planetsOrderFromSun.size); // 3

planetsOrderFromSun.add('Venus'); // Trying to add a duplicate
console.log(planetsOrderFromSun.size); // Still 3, Did not add the duplicate

console.log(planetsOrderFromSun.size); // 0

Run this example on JSBin

Weak Collections, Memory, and Garbage Collections

JavaScript Garbage Collection is a form of memory management whereby objects that are no longer referenced are automatically deleted and their resources are reclaimed.

Map and Set‘s references to objects are strongly held and will not allow for garbage collection. This can get expensive if maps/sets reference large objects that are no longer needed, such as DOM elements that have already been removed from the DOM.

To remedy this, ES6 also introduces two new weak collections called WeakMap and WeakSet. These ES6 collections are ‘weak’ because they allow for objects which are no longer needed to be cleared from memory.

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