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Create React App vs. Next.js - how are they different and similar in 2023

Well, for React apps, the most obvious solutions for frameworks are Create React App vs. Next.js. In this article, we’ll bring in our expertise in front-end development services to explain and compare the two, with all their latest benefits and drawbacks.

23 August, 2022
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If you're here, it's likely because you're interested in building a new React application. That's great, and our team is happy to hear it! But now, a choice lies in front of you - which tool to choose that will best help you build your app quickly and efficiently? For React apps, the two most popular frameworks are Create React App and Next.js. In this article, we’ll bring in our expertise in front-end development services to explain and compare the two, highlighting their latest benefits and drawbacks.

For more information on this topic, check out our Next.js vs. Gatsby article to learn more about Next.js and Gatsby features and uses and why you should choose any of them. Also, did you know that JavaScript can be used on either the front-end or back-end? The proper framework is all it takes to go from one to the other. Anyway, enough with the self-promoting chit-chat. Let’s go back to the article.

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Create React App (CRA) basics

Before we begin, here is a little memo for the most frequent term abbreviations that’ll pop up here and there throughout the article.

  • So, CRA is, obviously, the Create React App;
  • Then there’s SPA, which means single-page application;
  • CSR stands for client-side rendering, and it’s when JavaScript renders HTML in the browser in frontend development;
Create React App basics
Create React App basics

So, you probably know that creating a new React project usually comes with lots of time spent choosing and configuring the right tools for the job. Well, create-react-app is one of the two of those tools we’re going to discuss today. It is both a framework and a command-line toolchain for building React applications, acting as a highly comfortable environment for learning React from scratch, building SPA’s, and the overall development process.

CRA was created by developers over at ye old Meta (formerly Facebook) and is now an essential part of React’s development ecosystem, giving other developers a pre-configured webpack of tools necessary to alleviate most of the struggles that come with maintaining time-consuming projects with complex build pipelines. Instead, you focus your attention and efforts on the application itself.

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Alex Ratushnyi

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CTO, Javascript engineer: TypeScript, React, Next.js

This client-side framework is relatively simple - you only need to run a command, and it will set up everything you need to create your React project.

CRA works only for frontend development and CSR, though, as it doesn’t cover databases, SSR, and backend development - you’ll need a different tool for that, such as Node. Create React App also supports all the latest JavaScript features and is optimized for production usage.

The basic CRA attributes include a local development server for setting up your environment, two JavaScript improvement versions called ECMAScript (ES6 and ES7), asset import for importing images, CSS files, and fonts from JavaScript modules, also running unit tests, and adding styles. Development features also include environment variables, code splitting, PWA (progressive web apps), and Typescript support.

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Overall, Create React App is a robust and agile tool in the software development landscape that enables the rapid and practical creation of React applications. Mainly its user-friendly interface, streamlined architecture, compliance with current JavaScript specifications, and a few more benefits we will discuss later position it as an excellent preference for developers with varying levels of expertise. Let's see how else CRA can expedite your app-building process.

Advantages of Create React App

Create React App has many pros to offer for fellow developers. Here are some of them:

  • CRA is very easy to learn and use since it lacks a steep learning curve. It’s perfect for beginners because it has lots of useful documentation, tutorials, and other resources. Anyone versed in JavaScript will be able to quickly understand Create React App.
  • While historically challenged by SEO due to its client-side rendering, React and Create React App can now be optimized for search engines with appropriate strategies and tools.
  • It has reusable components. Having its own logic, each component is made for rendering small chunks of HTML code, and you can reuse them any time you want.
  • Create React App helps React application developers with their project’s productivity and performance.
  • It helps you build dynamic web applications without complex coding on your part.
  • Create React App also provides improved security by default, including features like Content Security Policy and strict mode.
  • Tool support and instant reloads. The packages you’re using get automatically reloaded and enhanced while you’re busy with the development process.
  • Only one build dependency is required.
  • You can use whatever routing library you want, thanks to ready-made templates.
  • Furthermore, it enables developers to easily integrate with various backend technologies and frameworks, such as Node.js, GraphQL, and Firebase, allowing for greater flexibility and scalability in application development.

Disadvantages of Create React App

Meanwhile, for balance, we’ll list a few cons so that you can make a well-rounded decision if you think this framework is for you:

  • Lack of customization options. If you want to modify a configuration of, for example, Babel or Webpack, you have to do it manually through a third-party tool and risk losing future support in the process.
  • It can be somewhat limiting, especially if there are some tools that CRA doesn’t support right away.
  • Because Create React App only supports CSR and not SSR, it’s not enough to ensure your app’s higher performance.
  • The development environment is changing rapidly, and so is documentation. Even though updates are good, constantly re-learning is not very amusing. Plus, the documentation updates are sometimes written hastily by the developers themselves.

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Next.js explained

Next.js, on the other hand, is similarly a React framework and a single-command toolchain based on Node.js and Babel (a JavaScript compiler), but for both server-side rendering and static site generation support. Next.js comes in handy when developers need to save some time doing setup configuration, being advertised as “zero configuration” by its creators.

It's also worth noting that Next.js now supports both Static Generation and SSR out-of-the-box, making it easier to implement than before. Next.js also enhances application performance through automatic code splitting, SSR, and static generation, while React's Virtual DOM optimizes rendering efficiency.

How does SSR, provided by Next.js, help developers? Well, for starters, when the rendering gets moved from the client to the server, the client receives an already finished HTML that requires less JavaScript code in order to load properly. As a result, both the application's performance and its SEO-friendliness improve immensely.

The tool can be smoothly installed using Yarn (Yet Another Resource Negotiator) and NPM (Node Package Manager). Both are JavaScript package managers to help you control your project’s dependencies. The framework itself supplies a very familiar structure, allowing developers to handle the front-end part of the React application while taking care of the server-side rendering.

Primary Next.js features, besides SSR, include static site generation, hot code reloading (the page gets reloaded after a change is saved), pre-rendering, automatic routing and build size optimization, single file components, and prefetching, as well as automatic code splitting and Typescript support, same as with CRA.

Advantages of Next.js

The advantages of Next.js are pretty straightforward:

  • It’s easy to get started. The toolchain is exceptionally simple to install, and since Next.js doesn’t require any additional environment configuration, you can begin your React project straight away. And deploy it just as easily.
  • Hosting is also simple. There are Next.js packages for almost anything that requires Webpack configuration - TypeScript, Babel, SASS, CSS, PostCSS, TS, etc.
  • Provides ecosystem compatibility. The framework has proven to be sufficiently compatible with JavaScript, Node, and React ecosystems.
  • It’s super fast. React applications made with Next.js can be very fast due to the tool’s both server-side rendering and static-site generation support.
  • Rendering gets much easier because, for Next.js, it doesn’t matter where the data came from.
  • Increased performance thanks to automatic server rendering, code splitting, and SSR, as well.
  • It offers its own API routes, so you won’t have to search for proxies when connecting third-party APIs.
  • Lots of straightforward customizations. You can easily add Babel plugins or Webpack loaders.
  • Even though it supports both static and server-rendered JavaScript applications, it still remains very lightweight.
  • Thanks to server-side rendering, it also plays well with search engine optimization (SEO).
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Disadvantages of Next.js

The drawbacks, on the other hand, include:

  • Difficulties with adding plugins. And there are not many of them either.
  • High development complexity on the backend side. A few JavaScript libraries and plugins you need to use to support Document Object Model (DOM) manipulation run only on the front-end and require more effort to set up.
  • Numerous developers also mention that it’s highly opinionated, which means you have to adjust to its certain way of doing things. For example, you can only use its file-based router with no way of modifying it. Plus, you need to use the Node.js server for dynamic routes.
  • There’s no state manager built in. You need to use something else, like Redux or MobX, etc.
  • Limited control over server-side rendering: While server-side rendering can provide performance benefits, it can also limit the control that developers have over the rendering process. For example, Next.js may not allow developers to fully customize the HTML structure of the rendered pages, which can be a limitation for some projects.

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Image optimization in React development

When building React applications, image optimization is a crucial aspect of improving load times and overall performance. Next.js offers a significant advantage with its built-in next/image component, a modified HTML <img> element that includes performance optimizations for image rendering. 

This component automatically serves device-specific images using modern formats and implements lazy loading, only fetching images as they enter the viewport. Feature significantly speeds up page loading times and enhances user experience by reducing unnecessary data transfer. 

In contrast, Create React App doesn't offer native solutions as robust as Next.js, often requiring additional configurations or libraries for similar optimizations​​.

Should you use Next.js or Create React App for your next React project?

While the Create React App generates HTML code in the browser, Next.js does this in the server. That’s pretty much the main difference between the two. So whether you should choose one over the other just boils down to your needs - you want to leverage React to either support SSR or CSR. Some would argue that having SSR support in your applications leads to better performance since the HTML gets delivered to the browser much quicker.

To paint an even fuller picture, both tools would help you build React applications pretty easily without bundling them with Webpack. Regarding the overall performance, Next.js has shown a better score in the Lighthouse tests for page loading, as well as in image optimization tests, compared to CRA.

Both Create React App and Next.js have a gentle learning curve, especially for those already familiar with React principles, making them accessible tools for developers of varying skill levels. Both offer out-of-the-box support for TypeScript, allowing developers to leverage static typing for more robust and maintainable code.

Next.js is also more inherently SEO-friendly with its server-side rendering and static generation capabilities, while React apps can achieve similar SEO success with proper implementation and potentially integrating Next.js for improved performance and indexing.

If you still question what tool to choose, here’s when you should definitely pick Create React App for your project:

  • If you want a private application with authentication layers for your users, that’s also cheaper and a bit easier to host. Also, with private apps, you don’t need to worry about SEO.
  • If you want a web app that’s going to be frequented by your established audience.
  • If you need to promptly develop your React app or you’re just testing out functionality and other ideas - since you can skip the configuration part.
  • When you need to create single-page React applications.

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Meanwhile, there are times when you should choose Next.js for your technology stack. For example:

  • If you want to build a landing page or something a little bit more marketing-focused, like a full-fledged marketing website.
  • When you need to add more SEO-friendliness to your React application, which can be a bit heavy, to begin with.
  • If you want to create an eCommerce store or platform that is received well by Google and has high performance.
  • If you want to cater to the needs of a part of your audience that has older devices because, with Next.js, the load times are going to be faster.

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Wrap-up

Ultimately, the choice between the two tools should depend on your project’s specific needs and requirements. Overall, in our Next.js vs. Create React App debate, we recommend using the Create React App framework if you’re just learning React or building a new single-page application. However, if you’re developing a server-rendered website with Node.js, then choose Next.js. Or if you want SEO, SSR, and API support for your app.

Also, perhaps you’re set to create a static and more content-oriented website - then try adding Gatsby to your development process, but that’s a different piece altogether. Go check that one out! Links are at the beginning of the article. And stay tuned for more interesting pieces on design and development.

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CEO and Founder of Merge

My mission is to help startups build software, experiment with new features, and bring their product vision to life.

My mission is to help startups build software, experiment with new features, and bring their product vision to life.

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