What is the best approach for creating elements on the fly and being able to move them around? For example, let's say I want to create a rectangle, circle and polygon and then select those objects and move them around.
I understand that HTML5 provides three elements that can make this possible: svg, canvas and div. For what I want to do, which one of those elements will provide the best performance?
To compare these approaches, I was thinking of creating three visually identical web pages that each have a header, footer, widget and text content in them. The widget in the first page would be created entirely with the
canvas element, the second entirely with the
svg element, and the third with the plain
div element, HTML and CSS.
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SVG would be easier for you, since selection and moving it around is already built in. SVG objects are DOM objects, so they have "click" handlers, etc.
DIVs are okay but clunky and have awful performance loading at large numbers.
Canvas has the best performance hands-down, but you have to implement all concepts of managed state (object selection, etc) yourself, or use a library.
HTML5 Canvas is simply a drawing surface for a bit-map. You set up to draw (Say with a color and line thickness), draw that thing, and then the Canvas has no knowledge of that thing: It doesn't know where it is or what it is that you've just drawn, it's just pixels. If you want to draw rectangles and have them move around or be selectable then you have to code all of that from scratch, including the code to remember that you drew them.
SVG on the other hand must maintain references to each object that it renders. Every SVG/VML element you create is a real element in the DOM. By default this allows you to keep much better track of the elements you create and makes dealing with things like mouse events easier by default, but it slows down significantly when there are a large number of objects
Those SVG DOM references mean that some of the footwork of dealing with the things you draw is done for you. And SVG is faster when rendering really large objects, but slower when rendering many objects.
A game would probably be faster in Canvas. A huge map program would probably be faster in SVG. If you do want to use Canvas, I have some tutorials on getting movable objects up and running here.
Canvas would be better for faster things and heavy bitmap manipulation (like animation), but will take more code if you want lots of interactivity.
I've run a bunch of numbers on HTML DIV-made drawing versus Canvas-made drawing. I could make a huge post about the benefits of each, but I will give some of the relevant results of my tests to consider for your specific application:
I added 100,000 nodes to each of my two tests. They performed quite differently:
The HTML test tab took forever to load (timed at slightly under 5 minutes, chrome asked to kill the page the first time). Chrome's task manager says that tab is taking up 168MB. It takes up 12-13% CPU time when I am looking at it, 0% when I am not looking.
The Canvas tab loaded in one second and takes up 30MB. It also takes up 13% of CPU time all of the time, regardless of whether or not one is looking at it. (2013 edit: They've mostly fixed that)
Dragging on the HTML page is smoother, which is expected by the design, since the current setup is to redraw EVERYTHING every 30 milliseconds in the Canvas test. There are plenty of optimizations to be had for Canvas for this. (canvas invalidation being the easiest, also clipping regions, selective redrawing, etc.. just depends on how much you feel like implementing)
There is no doubt you could get Canvas to be faster at object manipulation as the divs in that simple test, and of course far faster in the load time. Drawing/loading is faster in Canvas and has far more room for optimizations, too (ie, excluding things that are off-screen is very easy).