Deep dive into JavaScript Property Descriptors


Creating Object Properties

There are a couple of ways to assign properties to objects in JavaScript. The most common example is using obj.field = value or obj[‘field’] = value. This approach is simple however, it is not flexible because it automatically defines property descriptor fields

let obj1 = {
    foo: 'bar'
};

let obj2 = {
    get foo() {
        return 'bar';
    }
};

let obj3 = Object.create({}, { foo : { value : 'bar' } });

let obj4 = Object.create({}, {
    foo : {
        get : function() { return 'bar'; }
    }
});

obj1.foo; // bar
obj2.foo; // bar
obj3.foo; // bar
obj4.foo; // bar

In all 4 obj objects, the foo property returns the same result. But are they the same? Obviously not. This post series examines these differences and shows how you can apply and leverage these capabilities.

Data and Accessor Property Descriptors

Property descriptors hold descriptive information about object properties. There are two types of property descriptors:

  1. Data descriptors – which only hold information about data
  2. Accessor descriptors – which hold information about accessor (get/set) descriptors.

A property descriptor is a data structure with a couple of identifying fields, some are shared between both types while the others apply to a single type as shown below.

Data descriptor Accessor descriptor
value Yes No
writable Yes No
enumerable Yes Yes
configurable Yes Yes
get No Yes
set No Yes

Viewing Property Descriptor information

The getOwnPropertyDescriptor allows you to get the property descriptor for any object.

let dataDescriptor = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor(obj1, 'foo');
dataDescriptor;
// Object {
//     value: "bar",
//     writable: true,
//     enumerable: true,
//     configurable: true
// }

let accessorDescriptor = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor(obj2, 'foo');
accessorDescriptor;
// Object {
//     get: function foo () {}
//     set: undefined,
//     enumerable: true,
//     configurable: true
// }

Data Descriptor only fields

1. Value: Gets the value of the property.

2. Writable: Boolean indicating whether the property value can be changed. This can be used to create ‘constant‘ field values especially for primitive values.

Accessor Descriptor only fields

1. Get: Function which will be invoked whenever the property is to be retrieved. This is similar to getters in other languages.

2. Set: Function that would be invoked when the property is to be set. It’s the setter function.

Shared fields

1. Enumerable: Boolean indicating whether the property can be enumerated. This determines if the property shows up during enumeration. For example, with for..of loops or Object.keys.

2. Configurable: Boolean indicating whether the type of the property can be changed and if the property can be deleted from the object.

Setting Property Descriptors

The Object.defineProperty method allows you to specify and define these property descriptor fields. It takes the object, property key and a bag of descriptor values.

let obj5 = {};
Object.defineProperty(obj5, 'foo', {
  value: 'bar',
  writable: true,
  enumerable: true,
  configurable: true
});
obj5.foo; // bar

let obj6 = {};
Object.defineProperty(obj6, 'foo', {
  get: function() { return 'bar'; }
});
obj6.foo; // bar

Default values

All boolean descriptor fields default to false while the getter, setter and value properties default to undefined.  This is an important detail that is most visible when creating and modifying properties via object asssignment or  the  defineProperty method.

let sample = { a : 2 };
Object.defineProperty(sample, 'b', { value: 4 });
sample; // { a: 2, b:4 }

Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor(sample, 'a');
// Object {
//     value: 2,
//     writable: true,
//     enumerable: true,
//     configurable: true
// }

Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor(sample, 'b');
// Object {
//     value: 4,
//     writable: false,
//     enumerable: false,
//     configurable: false
// }

sample.b = 'cannot change'; //writable = false
sample.b //4

delete sample.b //configurable=false
sample.b //4

Object.keys(sample); //enumerable = false
// ['a']

Because the other properties of property b were not set on creation, they default to false. This effectively makes b immutable, not configurable and not enumerable on sample.

Validating property existence

Three tricky scenarios:

  • Accessing non-existent property fields results in undefined
  • Due to the default rules, accessing existing property fields with no value set also gives undefined
  • Finally, it is possible to define a property with the value undefined

So how do you verify if a property actually exists and has the value undefined or if doesn’t exist at all on an object?

let obj = { a: undefined };
Object.defineProperty(obj, 'b', {}); //use defaults

obj.a; //undefined
obj.b; //undefined
obj.c; //undefined

The way out of this is the hasOwnProperty function.

Object.hasOwnProperty('a'); //true
Object.hasOwnProperty('b'); //true
Object.hasOwnProperty('c'); //false

Conclusion

There is still a lot more about these values and how to use them. But that would make this post too long so this would be a series. In the next post, the theme would be about each field and what it can be used for.

Teasers before the next post

  • Try invoking a getter property as a function to see what happens. Can you explain why?
  • Try modifying some of the descriptor properties of native JavaScript objects e.g. RegExp, Array, Object etc. What happens?

Related

Read the second post in this series or check out other related articles:

3 thoughts on “Deep dive into JavaScript Property Descriptors

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