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Compiling modern language features with the TypeScript compiler

Preface

This article is part 2 of the series “Publish a modern JavaScript (or TypeScript) library”. Check out the motivation and links to other parts in the introduction.

How to use the TypeScript compiler tsc to transpile your code

If you are not interested in the background and reasoning behind the setup, jump directly to the conclusion

In the last article we set up Babel to transpile modern JavaScript or even TypeScript to a form which is understood by our target browsers. But we can also instead use the TypeScript compiler tsc to do that. For illustrating purposes I have rewritten my small example library in TypeScript. Be sure to look at one of the typescript- prefixed branches. The master is still written in JavaScript.

I will assume that you already know how to setup a TypeScript project. How else would you have been able to write your library in TS? Rather, I will focus only on the best configuration possible for transpiling for the purposes of delivering a library.

You already know, the configuration is done via a tsconfig.json in the root of your project. It should contain the following options that I will discuss further below:

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{
"include": ["./src/**/*"],
"compilerOptions": {
"outDir": "./dist",
"target": "es2017",
"module": "esnext",
"moduleResolution": "node",
"importHelpers": true
}
}

include and outDir

These options tell tsc where to find the files to compile and where to put the result. When we discuss how to emit type declaration files along with your code, outDir will be used also for their destination.

Note that these options allow us to just run tsc on the command line without anything else and it will find our files and put the output where it belongs.

Target environment

Remember when we discussed browserslist in the “Babel” article? (If not, check it out here.) We used an array of queries to tell Babel exactly which environments our code should be able to run in. Not so with tsc.

If you are interested, read this intriguing issue in the TypeScript GitHub repository. Maybe some day in the future we will have such a feature in tsc but for now, we have to use “JavaScript versions” as targets.

As you may know, since 2015 every year the TC39 committee ratifies a new version of ECMAScript consisting of all the new features that have reached the “Finished” stage before that ratification. (See The TC39 process.)

Now tsc allows us (only) to specify which version of ECMAScript we are targeting. To reach a more or less similar result as with Babel and my opinionated browserslist config, I decided to go with es2017. I have used the ECMAScript compatibility table and checked until which version it would be “safe” to assume that the last 2 versions of Edge/Chrome/Firefox/Safari/iOS can handle it. Your mileage may vary here! You have basically at least three options:

  • Go with my suggestion and use es2017.
  • Make your own decision based on the compatibility table.
  • Go for the safest option and use es5. This will produce code that can also run in Internet Explorer 11 but also will it be much bigger in size — for all browsers.

Just like with my browserslist config, I will discuss in a future article how to provide more than one bundle: one for modern environments and one for older ones.

Another thing to note here: The target does not directly set which module syntax should be used in the output! You may think it does, because if you don’t explicitly set module (see next section), tsc will choose it dependent of your target setting. If your target is es3 or es5, module will be set implicitly to CommonJS. Otherwise it will be set to es6. To make sure you don’t get surprised by what tsc chooses for you, you should always set module explicitly as described in the following section.

module and moduleResolution

Setting module to "esnext" is roughly the same as the modules: false option of the env preset in our babel.config.js: We make sure that the module syntax of our code stays as ESModules to enable treeshaking.

If we set module: "esnext", we have to also set moduleResolution to "node". The TypeScript compiler has two modes for finding non-relative modules (i.e. import {x} from 'moduleA' as opposed to import {y} from './moduleB'): These modes are called node and classic. The former works similar to the resolution mode of NodeJS (hence the name). The latter does not know about node_modules which is strange and almost never what you want. But tsc enables the classic mode when module is set to "esnext" so you have to explicitly tell it to behave.

In the target section above I mentioned that tsc will set module implicitly to es6 if target is something other than es3 or es5. There is a subtle difference between es6 and esnext. According to the answers in this GitHub issue esnext is meant for all the features that are “on the standard track but not in an official ES spec” (yet). That includes features like dynamic import syntax (import()) which is definitely something you should be able to use because it enables code splitting with Webpack. (Maybe a bit more important for applications than for libraries, but just that you know.)

importHelpers

You can compare importHelpers to Babel’s transform-runtime plugin: Instead of inlining the same helper functions over and over again and making your library bigger and bigger, tsc now injects imports to tslib which contains all these helpers just like @babel/runtime. But this time we will install the production dependency and not leave it to our users:

npm i tslib

The reason for that is that tsc will not compile without it. importHelpers creates imports in our code and if tsc does not find the module that gets imported it aborts with an error.

Should you use tsc or Babel for transpiling?

This is a bit opinion-based. But I think that you are better off with Babel then with tsc.

TypeScript is great and can have many benefits (even if I personally think JavaScript as a language is more powerful without it and the hassle you get with TypeScript outweighs its benefits). And if you want, you should use it! But let Babel produce the final JavaScript files that you are going to deliver. Babel allows for a better configuration and is highly optimized for exactly this purpose. TypeScript’s aim is to provide type-safety so you should use it (separately) for that. And there is another issue: Polyfills.

With a good Babel setup you get everything you need for running your code in the target environments. Not with tsc! It’s now your task to provide all the polyfills that your code needs. And first, to figure out which these are. Even if you don’t agree with my opinion about the different use-cases of Babel and TypeScript, the polyfill issue alone should be enough to follow me on this.

There is a wonderful blog post about using Babel instead of tsc for transpiling: TypeScript With Babel: A Beautiful Marriage. And it lists also the caveats of using Babel for TS: There are four small things that are possible in TypeScript but are not understood correctly by Babel: Namespaces (Don’t use them. They are outdated.), type casting with angle brackets (Use as syntax instead.), const enum (Use normal enums by omitting const.) and legacy style import/export syntax (It’s legacy — let it go). I think the only important constraint here is the const enum because it leads to a little bit more code in the output if you use standard enums. But unless you introduce enums with hundreds and hundreds of members, that problem should be negligible.

Also, it’s way faster to just discard all type annotations than checking the types first. This enables for example a faster compile cycle in development-/watch-mode. The example project that I use for this series is maybe not doing enough to be seen as a good compile time example. But also in another library project of mine which consists of ~25 source files and several third-party dependencies, Babel is five times faster than tsc. That is annoying enough when you are coding and have to wait after every save to see the results.

Conclusion and final notes for the tsc setup

(If you really want to use tsc for this task (see the last paragraphs above): )

Install tslib:

npm i tslib

Make sure your tsconfig.json contains at least the following options:

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{
"compilerOptions": {
"outDir": "./dist", // where should tsc put the transpiled files
"target": "es2017", // set of features that we assume our targets can handle themselves
"module": "esnext", // emit ESModules to allow treeshaking
"moduleResolution": "node", // necessary with 'module: esnext'
"importHelpers": true // use tslib for helper deduplication
},
"include": ["./src/**/*"] // which files to compile
}

If you are sure you want or need to support older browsers like Android/Samsung 4.4 or Internet Explorer 11 with only one configuration, replace the es2017 target with es5. In a future article I will discuss how to create and publish more than one package: One as small as possible for more modern targets and one to support older engines with more helper code and therefore bigger size.

And remember: In this article I talked only about using tsc as transpiler. We will of course use it for type-checking, but this is another chapter.

Next up: Type-Checking and providing type declarations