Ionic framework is the youngest in our top 5 stack, as the alpha was released in late November 2013. Built on top of the popular AngularJS framework from Google, Ionic utilizes AngularJS to provide the application structure, while Ionic itself focuses on the user interface. In other words, we see a match between the power of Angular and the beauty of Ionic UI.
Ionic provides a set of Angular directives (custom HTML elements) for it’s own components, making it as easy to use the widgets as writing a line of HTML code. In addition to directives, Ionic uses Angular’s touch recognizers, view animation logic, HTML sanitation, and asynchronous communication.
While you can use Ionic straight after cloning or unpacking the library zip, you can also install their Node.js-based CLI through NPM and start quickly with their seed project.
Even though Angular is currently the Ionic’s workhorse, the developers are keeping their (and ours) options open with plans to support other frameworks such as Knockout or EmberJS. This particular review is strongly influenced by AngularJS and it doesn’t vouch for the accuracy with other frameworks when Ionic support emerges.
Angular JS used to be an MVC framework, but over time it became closer to MVVM where the $scope object acts as a ViewModel, manipulated through a Controller function. With such a flexible approach developers can use MVC or MVVM per their liking, as long as the goal is achieved: separating presentation from business logic while boosting maintainability and productivity.
Angular embeds jqLite, a fraction of jQuery that allows DOM manipulation in a cross-browser compatible manner, leaving a very small footprint. For extended functionality, jQuery can be loaded with the document.
UI and Theming
When it comes to UI, Ionic shows its potential. Ionic’s true beauty is its simplicity. In almost Google-like (but not Android-like) style it uses the existing HTML5 and CSS3 capabilities to deliver fast experiences. The speed is exactly in its simplicity – no unnecessary shadows, rounded corners, gradients but just flat, clean simple, powerful, unadulterated HTML5. Ionic doesn’t promise you native-looking UI, but it does deliver very fast and consistent interface, even on the devices you considered to be slow with rendering HTML5 apps.
Customizable through SASS, Ionic comes with handy variables and mixins to extend for customized appearance. Additionally, it’s packaged with its own open sourced icon library featuring over 440 icons to chose from.
Ionic’s components are powerfully simple. They are custom HTML elements, as per Angular directive principles, but Ionic also provides Controllers to complement configuration and interaction. While some frameworks may provide more complex widgets, Ionic offers somewhat simpler building blocks that can be combined to deliver rich user interfaces. As of alpha version, the framework provides with a plethora of form elements, header and footer bars, buttons, a simple list with customizable items, grid elements, and more.
Responsive Design (RWD)
Internally, Ionic leverages Responsive Web Design principles to yield optimized experience such as based on screen size or pixel density. Any app-specific RWD scenarios are welcome and will play very nicely with Ionic.
Meant for hybrid mobile applications (installable on a mobile device through an app store), Ionic is not meant to be be used for desktop web apps/sites. While the content will be displayed nicely, it will be optimized for its intended purpose. Those wishing to create apps that fit both environments can stay with Angular JS, but use Zurb Foundation, Twitter Bootstrap or similar UI library.
Third party plugins
No third party plugins or extensions are available at the moment.
Much of extensibility in Ionic will come either from (S)CSS or creating Angular directives and controllers. That makes extensibility an integral part of application development – unavoidable, but not demanding at all. Even the developers new at Ionic and Angular won’t struggle.
Ionic apps will require external tools for packaging purposes. It is tested to work with PhoneGap, Cordova, and Trigger.io.
Ionic does not support device APIs.
Ionic’s documentation is decently complete considering the alpha stage of the framework. Example rich, the docs show a preview of what most of components will do on a mobile device. And the preview is very attractive, too.
Angular’s documentation will satisfy beginner developers, but may soon become insufficient. As the appetites for information grow to expert levels, developers may be forced to resort to the source code or elsewhere.
Both Ionic and AngularJS are available under the MIT license.
Since it’s in a very early stage of life, Ionic still doesn’t have a mature community. However, given the same circumstance, its popularity is raising faster than for many other (and older) frameworks.
What would they say?
Passionate designers will love Ionic as it allows them to customize the layout to their liking, without having to modify someone else’s complicated widgets and potentially break the app’s functionality. Customizing the UI may remind of working with Zurb Foundation or Twitter Bootstrap.
The initial barrier to get started with AngularJS is very low, without needing to know the entire framework in order to build an easy app. However, beginners faced with more advanced tasks in a complex application will face an increasingly steep learning curve. Also, Angular is built with testing in mind. Make use of it early in the game.
Keep in mind that Ionic is meant to be used for hybrid apps and not mobile websites.