Why $scope.apply() is Necessary in Custom Directives

2 minute read

TIL why you need to call $scope.apply() when you change the value of $scope properties inside of custom angular directives.

$scope.apply() is a way to inform angular that a data model has changed in the current context. Calling $scope.apply() implicitly calls $rootScope.$digest(), so every watcher that is registered to $rootScope on down to the currently existing child scopes will be dirty-checked to detect models changes.

$scope.apply() is called automatically by all of angular’s built in directives and services that have the ability to update data models (e.g ng-bind, ng-click, $http, $timeout). We need to call $scope.apply() manually if a data model has the potential to change outside of an angular context: i.e. when we are changing $scope properties inside of custom directives.


We use the jquery-ui library at work to create some custom slider elements. We implement the interface for the slider inside of a custom directive. The directive is passed a range of values (the upper and lower bounds for the slider) which are bound to a $scope property in the parent $scope called $scope.slider_values. There is a watcher registered on $scope.slider_values that executes $http requests to fetch new data from the backend when slider_values change.

Our custom slider directive implements a callback bound to the slider onChange event that fires when the upper or lower bounds for the slider change (event fires on mouseUp). Since our directive binds its isolated_scope.slider_values property to the $scope.slider_values property in the parent scope (via the ‘=’ assigner), I initially thought that just setting the new upper and lower bounds to isolated_scope.slider_values inside of the onChange callback would be detected on the parent scope.

This was not the case: I needed to wrap the assignment of my new slider range values to isolated_scope.slider_values in an isolated_scope.apply() to inform angular that a value had been changed on the parent scope. My custom directive does not automatically call apply() like angular’s built in directives do, so calling it manually is necessary in this case. Remember that calling apply() triggers an implicit call to $rootScope.$digest(), so even though I called apply() on my isolated_scope, it still triggered the appropriate watchers bound to the parent $scope.

Bonus TIL:

One last thing to note about apply()

apply() takes an optional function argument that can be used to wrap code that makes the model changes to be applied. It is possible to call $scope.apply() without the optional function, but if your code throws an error it will be thrown outside of angular’s exception handling mechanisms. Wrapping model-changing code inside of the $scope.apply() function argument puts it within an angular context, exposing it to these exception handling mechanisms, so it is always best practice to do so.


//it is possible to apply the updates of model-altering code using $scope.apply() without the optional function wrapper.
isolated_scope.name = 'Brian';
isolated_scope.apply(); // this will apply the updated name to scope.name

// It is considered best practice, though, to wrap code that needs to be applied inside of the optional function,
// to take advantage of angular’s exception handling mechanisms.
	isolated_scope.name = 'Brian';

I’m starting to get a better handle on the angular $digest() cycle, and implementing this directive really helped solidify my understanding about what is going on in the background of angular events.