AngularJS : Difference between the $observe and $watch methods

I know that both Watchers and Observers are computed as soon as something in $scope changes in AngularJS. But couldn't understand what exactly is the difference between the two.

My initial understanding is that Observers are computed for angular expressions which are conditions on the HTML side where as Watchers executed when $scope.$watch() function is executed. Am I thinking properly?



$observe() is a method on the Attributes object, and as such, it can only be used to observe/watch the value change of a DOM attribute. It is only used/called inside directives. Use $observe when you need to observe/watch a DOM attribute that contains interpolation (i.e., {{}}'s).
E.g., attr1="Name: {{name}}", then in a directive: attrs.$observe('attr1', ...).
(If you try scope.$watch(attrs.attr1, ...) it won't work because of the {{}}s -- you'll get undefined.) Use $watch for everything else.

$watch() is more complicated. It can observe/watch an "expression", where the expression can be either a function or a string. If the expression is a string, it is $parse'd (i.e., evaluated as an Angular expression) into a function. (It is this function that is called every digest cycle.) The string expression can not contain {{}}'s. $watch is a method on the Scope object, so it can be used/called wherever you have access to a scope object, hence in

  • a controller -- any controller -- one created via ng-view, ng-controller, or a directive controller
  • a linking function in a directive, since this has access to a scope as well

Because strings are evaluated as Angular expressions, $watch is often used when you want to observe/watch a model/scope property. E.g., attr1="myModel.some_prop", then in a controller or link function: scope.$watch('myModel.some_prop', ...) or scope.$watch(attrs.attr1, ...) (or scope.$watch(attrs['attr1'], ...)).
(If you try attrs.$observe('attr1') you'll get the string myModel.some_prop, which is probably not what you want.)

As discussed in comments on @PrimosK's answer, all $observes and $watches are checked every digest cycle.

Directives with isolate scopes are more complicated. If the '@' syntax is used, you can $observe or $watch a DOM attribute that contains interpolation (i.e., {{}}'s). (The reason it works with $watch is because the '@' syntax does the interpolation for us, hence $watch sees a string without {{}}'s.) To make it easier to remember which to use when, I suggest using $observe for this case also.

To help test all of this, I wrote a Plunker that defines two directives. One (d1) does not create a new scope, the other (d2) creates an isolate scope. Each directive has the same six attributes. Each attribute is both $observe'd and $watch'ed.

<div d1 attr1="{{prop1}}-test" attr2="prop2" attr3="33" attr4="'a_string'"
        attr5="a_string" attr6="{{1+aNumber}}"></div>

Look at the console log to see the differences between $observe and $watch in the linking function. Then click the link and see which $observes and $watches are triggered by the property changes made by the click handler.

Notice that when the link function runs, any attributes that contain {{}}'s are not evaluated yet (so if you try to examine the attributes, you'll get undefined). The only way to see the interpolated values is to use $observe (or $watch if using an isolate scope with '@'). Therefore, getting the values of these attributes is an asynchronous operation. (And this is why we need the $observe and $watch functions.)

Sometimes you don't need $observe or $watch. E.g., if your attribute contains a number or a boolean (not a string), just evaluate it once: attr1="22", then in, say, your linking function: var count = scope.$eval(attrs.attr1). If it is just a constant string – attr1="my string" – then just use attrs.attr1 in your directive (no need for $eval()).

See also Vojta's google group post about $watch expressions.


If I understand your question right you are asking what is difference if you register listener callback with $watch or if you do it with $observe.

Callback registerd with $watch is fired when $digest is executed.

Callback registered with $observe are called when value changes of attributes that contain interpolation (e.g. attr="{{notJetInterpolated}}").

Inside directive you can use both of them on very similar way:

    attrs.$observe('attrYouWatch', function() {
         // body


    scope.$watch(attrs['attrYouWatch'], function() {
         // body

I think this is pretty obvious :

  • $observe is used in linking function of directives.
  • $watch is used on scope to watch any changing in its values.

Keep in mind : both the function has two arguments,

$observe/$watch(value : string, callback : function);
  • value : is always a string reference to the watched element (the name of a scope's variable or the name of the directive's attribute to be watched)
  • callback : the function to be executed of the form function (oldValue, newValue)

I have made a plunker, so you can actually get a grasp on both their utilization. I have used the Chameleon analogy as to make it easier to picture.


Why is $observe different than $watch?

The watchExpression is evaluated and compared to the previous value each digest() cycle, if there's a change in the watchExpression value, the watch function is called.

$observe is specific to watching for interpolated values. If a directive's attribute value is interpolated, eg dir-attr="{{ scopeVar }}", the observe function will only be called when the interpolated value is set (and therefore when $digest has already determined updates need to be made). Basically there's already a watcher for the interpolation, and the $observe function piggybacks off that.

See $observe & $set in compile.js


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