setTimeout vs. setInterval


setTimeout and setInterval are to two Javscript core functions which can call any custom function periodically in a asynchronous manner. But what is the difference between them? This article presents a comparsion of the functions by studying the output of a test program. The test program uses the function workload from listing 1 to produce workload by calling n-times a product of four random numbers, line 3.

Listing1: Producing workload by the random number generator
function workload(n) {
  while(n > 0) {

Line 1 of listing 2 initalizes the variable start by the absolute start time of the test program. The runtime of workload, listinig 1, is measured and loged by the wrapper function logWorkload, line 3-8. Within logWorkalod all times are taken relative to the start time.

Listing2: Messuare and log the workload in ms
var start = timestamp();

function logWorkload(label, run, n) {
  var t1 = timestamp() - start;
  var t2 = timestamp() - start;
  console.log(label+' ('+run+') start: '+t1+' end:'+t2);

function timestamp() {
  return new Date().getTime();

Listing 3 discovers the behaviour of setInterval. Line 1 initialize the global counter k by 0. Line 2 saves the timerid of the setInteval call in line 2-8 by tda. setInterval invokes the anonymous function from its first parameter in line 2-8 periodically every 100 ms. Line 3 increases the global conuter k by every call. After three invokations stops the call of clearInterval in line 5 the process. Unless cancelation line 8 produces and logs workload.

Listing3: Periodically invokation by setInterval
var k = 0;
var tda = setInterval(function() {
  if (k==3) {
  logWorkload('setInterval', k, 500000);
}, 100);

The output of Listing 3 shows lisiting 4.

setInterval (1) start: 100 end:123
setInterval (2) start: 200 end:227
setInterval (3) start: 300 end:326

Listing 5 discover the behaviour of setTimeout. The first line of the listing initializes the global counter kk by 0. Line 2-7 defines the function set. Again every invokation increases the global counter kk in line 3 and the call of logWorkload produces and logs the workload. Unless 6 invokations are done line 6 calls itself recursivley by setTimeout after 100 ms.

Listing5: Periodically invokation by setTimeout
var kk = 0;
function set() {
  logWorkload('setTimeout', kk, 1000000);
  if (kk<6) {
    setTimeout(set, 100);

The output of listing 5 shows listing 6. The first call of set is done synchronous by line 9 of listing 5. The second call starts after a delay of 100 ms after finishing the first call at 158 ms. So in contrast to setInterval setTimeout is not exactly periodically, but can be stoped logically without explicit cancelation by its timerid.

setTimeout (1) start: 0 end:58
setTimeout (2) start: 158 end:215
setTimeout (3) start: 325 end:393
setTimeout (4) start: 494 end:554
setTimeout (5) start: 874 end:1022
setTimeout (6) start: 1122 end:1179

Lisiting 7 shows the combination of both sub programs. The first three calls are regular. But the second invocation of setInterval, line 4, can not take place after 200ms, because the second call of setTimeout is still occupying the single Javascript Thread. So setInterval starts soon as possible at 222 ms.

setTimeout (1) start: 0 end:59 
setInterval (1) start: 100 end:125
setTimeout (2) start: 159 end:222
setInterval (2) start: 222 end:290
setTimeout (3) start: 322 end:382
setInterval (3) start: 382 end:406
setTimeout (4) start: 482 end:546
setTimeout (5) start: 647 end:704
setTimeout (6) start: 804 end:865


setTimeout and setInterval calls custom functions asynchronous by a given delay. setInterval works periodically, setTimeout relative to its own call. But in both cases may the delay enlarged by function calls occupying the single Javascript thread before.