QtQuick: Why bother with QML?

December 21, 2011

This post is an introduction to the next several posts. If you’re bored with QtQuick introductions (since there are many)… then there’s probably nothing to see here.

Composite (and its ancestor Hydrogen) has always had a Qt UI. And when it comes to GUI, Qt is the toolkit that I prefer to use. Why Because I really don’t like UI development. I like to work on models, business logic, complex calculations, etc. I really get bored with sizing widgets and trying to figure out how to convince the font system to give you the real, actual, true bounding rectangle (and not the one that’s better for typesetting).

And then there’s the code. The options have always been something like:

  • Use a C API like GTK+ and write gobs of code and manually
    type all the gtk_widget_* namespaces for every class method.
  • Use a C++ API wripper like gtkmm (which never really gets
    rid of the smell of the C API).
  • Write gobs of Qt code to express your UI. Which means that
    small changes (like moving a widget from here to there) often
    require a lot of code changes.
  • Use a UI designer to create XML files that get processed into
    code. (I.e. Qt Designer or Glade.) While it’s easy, these
    files often have compatibility issues even across minor
    releases. They also are not very diff friendly (which is
    important to a backend-loving code monkey like me).
  • Write your UI in a scripting language like Tcl/Tk or Python
    (e.g. the PySide bindings). Here you trade-off flexibility
    for simplicity a lot of the time. (Think: custom widgets.)

These options all have one thing in common: they suck.

Along comes QtQuick, with the idea of expressing your UI in a scripting language called QML. QML is:

  • Like javascript and CSS: so it looks like code, and diff’s like code.
  • Declarative/Interpretive: so small changes just require that I refresh the QML file in question… not recompile (or even restart) my whole application.
  • Designer-friendly: if your project has an artist, they probably aren’t very good at C++. QML isn’t too difficult to parse… which makes them more productive.
  • Developer-friendly: as a C++ lover I’m not crazy about the syntax of QML… but I love that I can throw up a UI pretty quick. While the UI’s that I design look like butt… I don’t feel like I have invested a lot of code into something that needs to change (and change a lot) later in the project.
  • Architecture-friendly: It more or less enforces that you use a model/view architecture in your application. When the UI was code, it’s very tempting to pragmatically break the rules.
  • Prototype-friendly: You can add some logic into the QML via JavaScript, which means you can prototype the UI’s behavior without having to invest any C++ code.
  • Promising: The Qt framework is reorganizing itself around QML. It’s pretty fast now, but it promises to be blazing fast in Qt 5. (Even faster than using native widgets or QGraphicsView… and that’s an impressive accomplishment.)

However, it does come with a few drawbacks:

  • It’s oriented to embedded devices that have a fixed-size, full-screen “app” paradigm. Therefore, you’ll find that lots of sizes and relationships are set in fixed-size pixels. It’s not quite as nice as QLayout in C++. This means it’s still a little… primative in a desktop context.
  • The scripting language is kind of… strange. It is very weakly typed (e.g. inspecting the code you can’t be sure if a symbol is a property or a method or a signal or an element or a reference to a C++ class). This is really, really confusing.
  • The language uses a sort of “inner class” idiom like in Java.
  • It’s interpreted, so typos likemy_symbol/mySymbol will not be detected until run-time. (In fact, this is a drawback of Qt signals/slots as a whole.)
  • Concepts like QAction and QMenu are missing, and will probably never be added. They’ve been branded as obsolete, old thinking with respect to UI design. While I don’t necessarily disagree… the loss of them takes some getting used to.
  • It’s new, and the documentation is still developing. For example, none of the examples that I could find show any sort of in-depth C++/QML interaction. Most of the examples use JavaScript to implement the application logic.

All in all, I think that the good out-weighs the bad.

Since I don’t know how to use QML effectively, the following few blogs will share my journey and what I’ve learned. I’ll do so by writing a very simple calculator application.

That’s also the caveat: I’m writing this as I go… so I probably just said something dumb. 🙂

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4 Responses to “QtQuick: Why bother with QML?”

  1. “In fact, this is a drawback of Qt signals/slots as a whole.”

    Why is that?

    • gbeddingfield said

      RajaRaviVarma: connect(this, SIGNAL(foo(QString)), that, SLOT(bar(Qstring))); You will not find the typo until run-time… and only if that line of code gets executed. This increases the likelihood that you will ship a bug with your software. In reality the SIGNAL() and SLOT() macros convert the contents into a string… like an interpreted language.

      In contrast, a C++ type error like this will generate a compiler error and the build will fail. You must fix it before your project will build.

      I prefer C++ type checking, and so I view the signal/slot string signatures as a drawback.

  2. I think qml and everything other declarative language is really only benificial to the developer teams that consist of designers and developers, etc. As a solo developer it is more of an annoyance to have to learn yet another language when what I already know works just fine for me. I find it annoying when these new languages try to depreciate standards that are still working just fine in favor of standards that fit the current needs of others… i mean more power is fine but don’t throw the horse off the cart just because the new horse can carry the weight… (the kids love the horse, why put a shotgun to a perfectly healthy horse’s head??).

    – Gabriel

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