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Bettertabs for Rails

We know that splitting content into several tabs is easy, but doing it well, clean, DRY, accessible, usable, testable and fast is not so simple after all.

Bettertabs is a Rails 3.1+ Engine that includes a helper and a jquery plugin to render the needed markup and javascript for a section with tabs in a declarative way, forcing you to KISS, ensuring accessibility and usability, whether the content is loaded statically or via ajax.

Try demo app online


Bettertabs allows for a site with tabs that:

  • Works with tabs for static, links or ajax loaded content
  • Works without javascript
    • SEO-friendly, specially good for ajax loaded tabs, because search engines can access and index the content anyway
    • Progressive enhancement, obviously it works in devices without JavaScript
    • Click on a tab before the whole page was loaded and it still works
    • Allows to open the content in a new window if neccessary
    • Easy to test
  • It changes the URL (in HTML5 browsers, using history.replaceState()), so when you use the browser's back button, you'll land in the last selected tab, and selected tabs can be permalinked.
  • Declarative code, that helps you to have your view code more readable and DRY
  • It has some basic error handling (like for example if the ajax loaded content returns an error, it redirects to the error page)
  • If you need more control in the javascript behavior, you can use some predefined jQuery events (for example: $('#tabs').bind('bettertabs-before-ajax-loading', show_loading_clock);)
  • The gem does not include any stylesheet, because each project has a different way of showing the tabs styles. Anyway the generated HTML is easy to style (see the CSS Reference Guide)

Demo Test app

The bettertabs gem includes a dummy test app, that is used for development (to execute rspec tests) and that can be easily launched to play with.

  • Try online the demo app

  • Or to run it on your machine:

    $ git clone git://
    $ cd bettertabs
    /bettertabs$ bundle install
    /bettertabs$ bundle exec rackup


  • Ruby 1.9 or higher
  • Rails 3.1 or higher
  • jQuery 1.3 or higher (but bettertabs also works without javascript)


Add bettertabs gem to your Gemfile and run bundle install.

gem 'bettertabs'

To include the jquery.bettertabs plugin add these line to the top of your app/assets/javascripts/application.js (after the jQuery library):

//= require jquery.bettertabs

Or if you prefer the compressed version:

//= require jquery.bettertabs.min

This works the same way as jquery-rails; you don't need to copy-paste the javascript code in your app because it will be served using the Asset Pipeline.

Use the bettertabs helper to define your view (see usage and examples below).

And finally, apply the javascript behavior to the generated markup. For this, you can simply add a line of jQuery in your application.js file to apply the bettertabs jquery plugin to the bettertabs helper generated markup:

jQuery('.bettertabs').bettertabs(); // apply bettertabs to any element with the bettertabs css class

You can instead avoid this line of javascript by allowing the helper to add inline javascript along with the generated markup. For that you can create an initializer (e.g. app/config/initializers/bettertabs.rb) to change the default configuration:

Bettertabs.configure do |config|
  # Render a Javascript snippet to initialize the tabs automatically after rendering the tabs.
  # This requires that you include jQuery before the tabs are rendered.
  # Default: false
  # config.attach_jquery_bettertabs_inline = true

Usage and examples

Bettertabs supports three kinds of tabs:

  • Link Tabs: Loads only the active tab contents; when click on another tab, go to the specified URL. No JavaScript needed.
  • Static Tabs: Loads all content of all static tabs, but only show the active content; when click on another tab, activate its related content. When JavaScript disabled, it behaves like link tabs.
  • Ajax Tabs: Loads only the active tab contents; when click on another tab, loads its content via ajax and show. When JavaScript disabled, it behaves like link tabs.
  • Only Content: You can also add a block of content that is always visible (with no tab)

An usage example should be self explanatory (using HAML, but it also works with ERB and other template systems):

= bettertabs :profile_tabs, :selected_tab => :friends do |tab|
  = tab.static :general, 'My Profile' do
    %h2 General Info
    = show_user_general_info(@user)

  = tab.ajax :friends, :partial => 'shared/friends', :locals => { :user => @user }

  = :groups do
    = render :partial => 'groups/user_groups', :locals => { :user => @user }

This will show three tabs: 'My Profile' (static, that will be preloaded and show when click in the tab), 'Friends' (ajax, that will load and show the content when click in the tab) and 'Groups' (link, that will reload the whole page).

The option :selected_tab specifies the default selected tab, when the page is loaded. It only defines which tab is selected when no {bettertabs_id}_selected_tab param is present.

More examples and documentation:

Tabs Routes

By default, all tab links have the current url plus the {bettertabs_id}_selected_tab param with the tab_id value.

For example, if you are rendering the next bettertabs widget:

= bettertabs :profile_tabs do |tab|
  = tab.static :general
  = tab.static :friends

in a view accessible by a route like this:

match 'profile/:nickname', :to => 'profiles#lookup', :as => 'profile'

When you go to /profile/dude, your tabs links will have the following hrefs:

  • :general tab href: /profile/dude?profile_tabs_selected_tab=general
  • :friends tab href: /profile/dude?profile_tabs_selected_tab=friends

If you're in a modern HTML5 browser then when click on a tab, the URL will change for one of the urls listed before (jquery.bettertabs), otherwise, you can turn the JavaScript off and the static tabs will become link tabs, so the URL will change as well.

To show a pretty url, you can just modify your named route to:

match 'profile/:nickname(/:profile_tabs_selected_tab)', :to => 'profiles#lookup', :as => 'profile'

So now the tabs links will point to the following URLs:

  • :general tab href: /profile/dude/general
  • :friends tab href: /profile/dude/friends

JavaScript with the jquery.bettertabs plugin

The bettertabs helper will generate the needed markup that has an inline script at the bottom:

jQuery(function($){ $('#bettertabs_id').bettertabs(); });

Which expects jQuery and jquery.bettertabs plugin to be present.

You can see the jquery.bettertabs source code in the github repo:

The plugin defines one single jQuery method jQuery(selector).bettertabs(); that is applied to the generated markup.

This script will take the tab type from each tab link data-tab-type attribute (that can be "link", "static" or "ajax"), and will match each tab with its content using the tab link data-show-content-id attribute, that is the id of the related content.

Tabs of type "link" will be ignored, while "static" and "ajax" tabs will change the active content (using the .active css class), and also will try to change the current URL (browser history state)

Browser history and url manipulation

When a tab is clicked, the plugin attempts to change the browser url to the tab link url to reflect the page state.

To change the url, the plugin defines the method jQuery.Bettertabs.change_browser_url(new_url), that is internally called each time a tab is activated. This method is implemented using history.replaceState(), which only works on modern HTM5 browsers (older browsers can not change the URL, and I prefer not trying to use History.js or any other approach to give them support for them).

The jQuery.Bettertabs.change_url(url) method is public, so it can be reused for other scripts (for example if you want to implement your own ajax pagination links inside the tab, and you want to reflect it in the browser bar). This also means that you can rewrite this method with your own implementation (to use another plugin like History.js, jQuery BBQ, or HTML5 pushState on your own if you want to change the browser url).

Play with the bettertabs widget from other scripts

All parts of the bettertabs generated markup are identified using ids, so it is very easy to identify and modify any part of the inner content (just open your firebug and browse the generated markup).

You can interact with the bettertabs widget in the following ways:

  • Activate a tab: use the function jQuery.Bettertabs.select_tab(bettertabsid, tabid);, for the previous example could be jQuery.Bettertabs.select_tab('profile_tabs', 'friends');. You can also just simulate a click on the tab link with jQuery('#tabid_bettertabsid_tab a').click();
  • Hook some behavior when a tab is clicked: attach a 'click' handler to the tab link or use any of the provided custom events.
  • Show a loading clock while ajax is loading: or any other kind of feedback to the user, use any of the provided custom events. You can also handle it styling the CSS class .ajax-loading that is added to the ajax tab link while ajax content is loading (see the Styles Reference Guide)
  • Change the browser URL: in the same way the plugin does when a tab is clicked, use jQuery.Bettertabs.change_browser_url(new_url);

Custom events that are attached to each tab content:

  • 'bettertabs-before-deactivate': fired on content that is active and will be deactivated
  • 'bettertabs-before-activate': fired on content that will be activated
  • 'bettertabs-before-ajax-loading': fired on content container that will be activated just before be loaded using ajax
  • 'bettertabs-after-deactivate': fired on content that was deactivated
  • 'bettertabs-after-activate': fired on content that was activated
  • 'bettertabs-after-ajax-loading': fired on content after it was loaded via ajax. Remember that the content is loaded via ajax only once.

Usage example of custom events:

// Show an alert when the :friends tab content of the :profile_tabs is activated and visible
$("#profile_tabs_friends_content").bind('bettertabs-after-activate', function(){
  alert('friends content is visible');

// Display the $('#loading-clock') element while ajax tabs are loading
$("#profile_tabs").bind('bettertabs-before-ajax-loading', function(){
}).bind('bettertabs-after-ajax-loading', function(){

CSS Styles

Bettertabs provides a rails helper to generate HTML and a jQuery plugin as JavaScript, but not any CSS styles because those are very different for each project and can not be abstracted into a common purpose CSS stylesheet.

Perhaps the most important CSS rule here is to define display: none; for div.content.hidden, because contents are never hidden using the jquery.hide() method or similar. The jquery.bettertabs plugin just adds the .active class to the active tab and active content, and the .hidden class to the non active content. You will need to use a CSS rule like this:

  div.bettertabs div.content.hidden { display: none; }

Use the Bettertabs CSS Guidelines to get a stylesheet that you can use as a starting point.


See the CHANGELOG file.

Contributing to bettertabs

  • Check out the latest master to make sure the feature hasn't been implemented or the bug hasn't been fixed yet
  • Check out the issue tracker to make sure someone already hasn't requested it and/or contributed it
  • Fork the project
  • Start a feature/bugfix branch
  • Commit and push until you are happy with your contribution
  • Make sure to add tests for it. This is important so I don't break it in a future version unintentionally.
  • Please try not to mess with the Rakefile, version, or history. If you want to have your own version, or is otherwise necessary, that is fine, but please isolate to its own commit so I can cherry-pick around it.