Capture and Report JavaScript Errors With window.onerror

onerror is a special browser event that fires whenever an uncaught JavaScript error has been thrown. It’s one of the easiest ways to log client-side errors and report them to your servers. It’s also one of the major mechanisms by which Sentry’s client JavaScript integration (raven-js) works.

You listen to the onerror event by assigning a function to window.onerror :

window.onerror = function (msg, url, lineNo, columnNo, error) {
  // ... handle error ...

  return false;
}

When an error is thrown, the following arguments are passed to the function:

  • msg – The message associated with the error, e.g. “Uncaught ReferenceError: foo is not defined”
  • url – The URL of the script or document associated with the error, e.g. “/dist/app.js”
  • lineNo – The line number (if available).
  • columnNo – The column number (if available).
  • error – The Error object associated with this error (if available).

The first four arguments tell you in which script, line, and column the error occurred. The final argument, the Error  object, is perhaps the most valuable. Let’s learn why.

The Error Object and error.stack

At first glance, the Error object isn’t very special. It contains three standardized properties: message , fileName , and lineNumber . Redundant values that already provided to you via  window.onerror .

The valuable part is a non-standard property:   Error.prototype.stack . This stack property tells you at what source location each frame of the program was when the error occurred. The error stack trace can be a critical part of debugging. And despite being non-standard, this property is available in every modern browser.

Here’s an example of the Error object’s stack property in Chrome 46:

"Error: foobar\n    at new bar (<anonymous>:241:11)\n    at foo (<anonymous>:245:5)\n    at <anonymous>:250:5\n    at <anonymous>:251:3\n    at <anonymous>:267:4\n    at callFunction (<anonymous>:229:33)\n    at <anonymous>:239:23\n    at <anonymous>:240:3\n    at Object.InjectedScript._evaluateOn (<anonymous>:875:140)\n    at Object.InjectedScript._evaluateAndWrap (<anonymous>:808:34)"

Hard to read, right? The stack property is actually just an unformatted string.

Here’s what it looks like formatted:

Error: foobar
    at new bar (<anonymous>:241:11)
    at foo (<anonymous>:245:5)
    at callFunction (<anonymous>:229:33)
    at Object.InjectedScript._evaluateOn (<anonymous>:875:140)
    at Object.InjectedScript._evaluateAndWrap (<anonymous>:808:34)

Once it’s been formatted, it’s easy to see how the stack property can be critical in helping to debug an error.

There’s just one snag: the stack property is non-standard, and its implementation differs among browsers. For example, here’s the same stack trace from Internet Explorer 11:

Error: foobar
   at bar (Unknown script code:2:5)
   at foo (Unknown script code:6:5)
   at Anonymous function (Unknown script code:11:5)
   at Anonymous function (Unknown script code:10:2)
   at Anonymous function (Unknown script code:1:73)

Not only is the format of each frame different, the frames also have less detail. For example, Chrome identifies that the new keyword has been used, and has greater insight into  eval invocations. And this is just IE 11 vs. Chrome — other browsers have varying formats and detail.

Luckily, there are tools out there that normalize stack properties so that it is consistent across browsers. For example, raven-js uses TraceKit to normalize error strings. There’s also stacktrace.js and a few other projects.

Browser Compatibility

window.onerror has been available in browsers for some time — you’ll find it in browsers as old as IE6 and Firefox 2.

The problem is that every browser implements window.onerror differently, particularly in how many arguments are sent to the onerror listener and the structure of those arguments.

Here’s a table of which arguments are passed to onerror in most browsers:

Browser

Message

URL

lineNo

colNo

errorObj

Firefox

Chrome

Edge

IE 11

IE 10

IE 9, 8

Safari 10 and up

Safari 9

Android Browser 4.4

It’s probably not a surprise that Internet Explorer 8, 9, and 10 have limited support for  onerror . But you might be surprised that Safari only added support for the Error object in Safari 10 (released in 2016). Additionally, older mobile handsets that still use the stock Android browser (now replaced with Chrome Mobile), are still out there and do not pass the Error object.

Without the Error object, there is no stack trace property. This means that these browsers cannot retrieve valuable stack information from errors caught by onerror .

Polyfilling window.onerror With try/catch

But there is a workaround — you can wrap code in your application inside a try/catch and catch the error yourself. This error object will contain our coveted stack property in every modern browser.

Consider the following helper method, invoke , which calls a function on an object with an array of arguments:

function invoke(obj, method, args) {
    return obj[method].apply(this, args);
}

invoke(Math, 'max', [1, 2]); // returns 2

Here’s invoke again, this time wrapped in try/catch, in order to capture any thrown error:

function invoke(obj, method, args) {
  try {
    return obj[method].apply(this, args);
  } catch (e) {
    captureError(e); // report the error
    throw e; // re-throw the error
  }
}

invoke(Math, 'highest', [1, 2]); // throws error, no method Math.highest

Of course, doing this manually everywhere is pretty cumbersome. You can make it easier by creating a generic wrapper utility function:

function wrapErrors(fn) {
  // don't wrap function more than once
  if (!fn.__wrapped__) {
    fn.__wrapped__ = function () {
      try {
        return fn.apply(this, arguments);
      } catch (e) {
        captureError(e); // report the error
        throw e; // re-throw the error
      }
    };
  }

  return fn.__wrapped__;
}

var invoke = wrapErrors(function(obj, method, args) {
  return obj[method].apply(this, args);
});

invoke(Math, 'highest', [1, 2]); // no method Math.highest

Because JavaScript is single threaded, you don’t need to use wrap everywhere — just at the beginning of every new stack.

That means you’ll need to wrap function declarations:

  • At the start of your application (e.g., in  $(document).ready  if you use jQuery).
  • In event handlers (e.g.,  addEventListener or $.fn.click ).
  • Timer-based callbacks (e.g.,  setTimeout or  requestAnimationFrame )

For example:

$(wrapErrors(function () { // application start
  doSynchronousStuff1(); // doesn't need to be wrapped

  setTimeout(wrapErrors(function () {
    doSynchronousStuff2(); // doesn't need to be wrapped
  });

  $('.foo').click(wrapErrors(function () {
    doSynchronousStuff3(); // doesn't need to be wrapped
  });
}));

If that seems like a heck of a lot of work, don’t worry! Most error reporting libraries have mechanisms for augmenting built-in functions like addEventListener and  setTimeout so that you don’t have to call a wrapping utility every time yourself. And, yes, raven-js does this too.

Transmitting the Error to Your Servers

Okay, so you’ve done your job — you’ve plugged into window.onerror, and you’re additionally wrapping functions in try/catch in order to catch as much error information as possible.

There’s just one last step: transmitting the error information to your servers. In order for this to work, you’ll need to set up some kind of reporting web service that will accept your error data over HTTP, log it to a file and/or store it in a database.

If this web service is on the same domain as your web application, just use XMLHttpRequest . In the example below, we use jQuery’s AJAX function to transmit the data to our servers:

function captureError(ex) {
  var errorData = {
    name: ex.name, // e.g. ReferenceError
    message: ex.line, // e.g. x is undefined
    url: document.location.href,
    stack: ex.stack // stacktrace string; remember, different per-browser!
  };

  $.post('/logger/js/', {
    data: errorData
  });
}

Note that if you have to transmit your error across different origins, your reporting endpoint will need to support Cross Origin Resource Sharing (CORS).

Summary

If you’ve made it this far, you now have all the tools you need to roll your own basic error reporting library and integrate it with your application:

  • How window.onerror works, and what browsers it supports.
  • How to use try/catch to capture stack traces where window.onerror is lacking.
  • Transmitting error data to your servers.

Of course, if you don’t want to bother with all of this, there are plenty of commercial and open-source tools that do all the heavy-lifting of client-side reporting for you. (Psst: you might want to try Sentry to debug JavaScript ).

That’s it! Happy error monitoring .