setTimeout with a shorter delay

making web/javascript 2010.03.29 12:22
reference URL:, 2010-03-09, 13:45-0800)

On Sunday, somebody with the nickname {g} was on asking about the behavior of setTimeout. In particular, he wanted to divide up work into a bunch of pieces in a way that allowed the user to interact with the page while the work was happening, and was doing this by doing a piece of the work, and then making a setTimeout call to continue the work. (In some cases, this could also be done using workers.) Unfortunately for him, setTimeout in most browsers doesn't allow a delay less than about 10 milliseconds (it forces any smaller delays to be longer), so the work wasn't finishing as fast as it could. (Chrome has changed this to 2 milliseconds, though, and apparently had some problems with it.)

A while ago, Jeff Walden suggested to me that Web pages could get the equivalent of setTimeout, with a real zero delay, using postMessage. This turns out to be relatively straightforward:

// Only add setZeroTimeout to the window object, and hide everything
// else in a closure.
(function() {
var timeouts = [];
var messageName = "zero-timeout-message";

// Like setTimeout, but only takes a function argument. There's
// no time argument (always zero) and no arguments (you have to
// use a closure).
function setZeroTimeout(fn) {
window.postMessage(messageName, "*");

function handleMessage(event) {
if (event.source == window && == messageName) {
if (timeouts.length > 0) {
var fn = timeouts.shift();

window.addEventListener("message", handleMessage, true);

// Add the one thing we want added to the window object.
window.setZeroTimeout = setZeroTimeout;

I wrote a demo page that demonstrates that this is significantly faster than setTimeout(0). On a Firefox nightly 100 iterations of setZeroTimeout take about 10-20 milliseconds most of the time, but occasionally longer; on a WebKit build I have it takes about 4-6 milliseconds, but occasionally a bit longer. (We should probably investigate the performance difference here.) In comparison, in Firefox and on non-Chromium-based WebKit, the setTimeout version takes about a second (though perhaps even longer on Windows).

Update (2010-03-12): My numbers were on Linux. Boris tells me that on Mac, it's the opposite: Gecko is faster than Safari or Chrome.

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