🥊 gatsby vs nextjs: markdown blog

Lately Next.js has been gaining a lot of steam, and I've been looking for an opportunity to give it a real shot. This website has been a Gatsby website since its inception, so I created a branch and began the conversion process. The conversion is now finished, and it's time to reflect, evaluate, and make up my mind.

🟣 gatsby code

At first I was loving hacking away so much Gatsby specific code. I removed every gatsby-* package, got rid of all the graphql, and deleted the gatsby-config.js file with a smile. All that proprietary code was replaced with plain old node functions.

diff

By the end of it all I was definitely net negative, but I also had to add my fair share of code. My diff was nowhere near as impressive as Lee Robinson's when he converted the gatsby-starter-blog to Next.js.

👨🏼‍💻 development environment

Once I had things up and running, I started to notice that the Next.js development server seemed slow. I realized that Next.js operates in a very different way than Gatsby.

Platform Operation Time
Gatsby start 24 seconds
Gatsby build 27 seconds
Next.js start 7 seconds
Next.js build 19 seconds

While these numbers suggest that Next.js is faster by all accounts, the development server didn't feel that way. I believe this is because Gatsby does all the work up front, whereas Next.js builds its pages on the fly.

I much preferred Gatsby's slow start for a fast runtime, as I usually only start the server once, but navigate pages constantly while working on the site. Luckily, both sites were blazing fast once built and deployed.

🔻 markdown support

Markdown parsing and transformation is key when creating a blog. I usually rely on Gatsby's plugin ecosystem to handle all that for me, but with Next.js I was on my own. I had to become an expert at remark and its plugins in order to get the transformations I wanted. I even had to fix a bug in one of the libraries!

  • GitHub Flavored Markdown
  • Linked headings
  • Media embeds
  • Code highlighting
  • External links open in new tab

In order to accomplish this I dug deep into the list of remark plugins, and leveraged a few of them to create my own parseMarkdown function. Even though it's only twenty lines of code, this simple function took a lot of investment to create, and it's still not perfect.

const parseMarkdown = async file => {
    const {data, content} = matter(file)

    const html = await remark()
        .use(remarkGFM)
        .use(remarkSlug)
        .use(remarkAutolinkHeadings)
        .use(remarkExternalLinks)
        .use(remarkEmbedder, {
            transformers: [codesandbox, twitch, twitter, youtube],
        })
        .use(remarkPrism, {transformInlineCode: true})
        .use(remarkHTML)
        .process(content)

    const markdown = {
        frontmatter: data,
        html: html.toString(),
    }

    return markdown
}

I still can't figure out how to highlight specific lines in code blocks. The icon next to linked headers is not showing up. I had to write custom transformers for every media embed. I lost the ability to use vscode themes for syntax highlighting.

These are necessary features in a developer blog, and these are the types of things that the gatsby-remark-* plugins provide for you

🖼️ image component

What really sparked me to try Next.js was the announcement of their image component.

Just like their development server, Next.js optimizes images on the fly to prevent long build times. Although the Next.js <Image/> component does prevent layout shift, it still feels like the image just pops in. That's why I prefer the blur up effect of Gatsby images.

But the worst thing about Next.js images is that they can't be used inside of Markdown files without writing a custom remark transformer. With Gatsby, getting optimized images from Markdown files is as simple as installing gatsby-remark-images.

This is yet another example of how the Gatsby plugin ecosystem has an answer for everything, especially when it comes to Markdown.

📚 content location

I really enjoy keeping my blog posts and their associated images in the same directory. With Next.js, all images referenced in Markdown must be stored in the /public directory. This provides more friction when authoring a blog post, and would make things more difficult if I ever wanted to move my content elsewhere in the future.

👨🏼‍⚖️ the verdict

Remember, I'm evaluating these two frameworks in the context of a Markdown blog. My criteria would change if I were evaluating them for a web application.

I didn't talk about things like hosting, TypeScript support, MDX support, testing, redirects, or serverless functions. But I found that Gatsby and Next.js compare similarly on those fronts.

Ultimately I chose the tool that felt like it was made specifically for Markdown blogging, the tool that offers plugins to do exactly what I want, and the tool that popularized static sites on the Jamstack.

I stuck with Gatsby.