Bruce Eckel's Thinking in Java Contents | Prev | Next

There are two issues that distinguish arrays from other types of collections: efficiency and type. The array is the most efficient way that Java provides to store and access a sequence of objects (actually, object handles). The array is a simple linear sequence, which makes element access fast, but you pay for this speed: when you create an array object, its size is fixed and cannot be changed for the lifetime of that array object. You might suggest creating an array of a particular size and then, if you run out of space, creating a new one and moving all the handles from the old one to the new one. This is the behavior of the Vector class, which will be studied later in the chapter. However, because of the overhead of this size flexibility, a Vector is measurably less efficient than an array.

The vector class in C++ does know the type of objects it holds, but it has a different drawback when compared with arrays in Java: the C++ vector’s operator[] doesn’t do bounds checking, so you can run past the end. (It’s possible, however, to ask how big the vector is, and the at( ) method does perform bounds checking.) In Java, you get bounds checking regardless of whether you’re using an array or a collection – you’ll get a RuntimeException if you exceed the bounds. As you’ll learn in Chapter 9, this type of exception indicates a programmer error and thus you don’t need to check for it in your code. As an aside, the reason the C++ vector doesn’t check bounds with every access is speed – in Java you have the constant performance overhead of bounds checking all the time for both arrays and collections.

The other generic collection classes that will be studied in this chapter, Vector, Stack, and Hashtable, all deal with objects as if they had no specific type. That is, they treat them as type Object, the root class of all classes in Java. This works fine from one standpoint: you need to build only one collection, and any Java object will go into that collection. (Except for primitives – these can be placed in collections as constants using the Java primitive wrapper classes, or as changeable values by wrapping in your own class.) This is the second place where an array is superior to the generic collections: when you create an array, you create it to hold a specific type. This means that you get compile-time type checking to prevent you from putting the wrong type in, or mistaking the type that you’re extracting. Of course, Java will prevent you from sending an inappropriate message to an object, either at compile-time or at run-time. So it’s not as if it’s riskier one way or the other, it’s just nicer if the compiler points it out to you, faster at run-time, and there’s less likelihood that the end user will get surprised by an exception.

Arrays are first-class objects

// Initialization & re-assignment of arrays
package c08;
class Weeble {} // A small mythical creature
public class ArraySize {
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    // Arrays of objects:
    Weeble[] a; // Null handle
    Weeble[] b = new Weeble[5]; // Null handles
    Weeble[] c = new Weeble[4];
    for(int i = 0; i < c.length; i++)
      c[i] = new Weeble();
    Weeble[] d = {
      new Weeble(), new Weeble(), new Weeble()
    // Compile error: variable a not initialized:
    //!System.out.println("a.length=" + a.length);
    System.out.println("b.length = " + b.length);
    // The handles inside the array are 
    // automatically initialized to null:
    for(int i = 0; i < b.length; i++)
      System.out.println("b[" + i + "]=" + b[i]);
    System.out.println("c.length = " + c.length);
    System.out.println("d.length = " + d.length);
    a = d;
    System.out.println("a.length = " + a.length);
    // Java 1.1 initialization syntax:
    a = new Weeble[] {
      new Weeble(), new Weeble()
    System.out.println("a.length = " + a.length);
    // Arrays of primitives:
    int[] e; // Null handle
    int[] f = new int[5];
    int[] g = new int[4];
    for(int i = 0; i < g.length; i++)
      g[i] = i*i;
    int[] h = { 11, 47, 93 };
    // Compile error: variable e not initialized:
    //!System.out.println("e.length=" + e.length);
    System.out.println("f.length = " + f.length);
    // The primitives inside the array are
    // automatically initialized to zero:
    for(int i = 0; i < f.length; i++)
      System.out.println("f[" + i + "]=" + f[i]);
    System.out.println("g.length = " + g.length);
    System.out.println("h.length = " + h.length);
    e = h;
    System.out.println("e.length = " + e.length);
    // Java 1.1 initialization syntax:
    e = new int[] { 1, 2 };
    System.out.println("e.length = " + e.length);
} ///:~ 

Here’s the output from the program:

b.length = 5
c.length = 4
d.length = 3
a.length = 3
a.length = 2
f.length = 5
g.length = 4
h.length = 3
e.length = 3
e.length = 2

The array a is initially just a null handle, and the compiler prevents you from doing anything with this handle until you’ve properly initialized it. The array b is initialized to point to an array of Weeble handles, but no actual Weeble objects are ever placed in that array. However, you can still ask what the size of the array is, since b is pointing to a legitimate object. This brings up a slight drawback: you can’t find out how many elements are actually in the array, since length tells you only how many elements can be placed in the array; that is, the size of the array object, not the number of elements it actually holds. However, when an array object is created its handles are automatically initialized to null so you can see whether a particular array slot has an object in it by checking to see whether it’s null. Similarly, an array of primitives is automatically initialized to zero for numeric types, null for char, and false for boolean.

Collections of primitives

Returning an array

Suppose you’re writing a method and you don’t just want to return one thing, but a whole bunch of things. Languages like C and C++ make this difficult because you can’t just return an array, only a pointer to an array. This introduces problems because it becomes messy to control the lifetime of the array, which easily leads to memory leaks.

Java takes a similar approach, but you just “return an array.” Actually, of course, you’re returning a handle to an array, but with Java you never worry about responsibility for that array – it will be around as long as you need it, and the garbage collector will clean it up when you’re done.

As an example, consider returning an array of String:

// Returning arrays from methods
public class IceCream {
  static String[] flav = {
    "Chocolate", "Strawberry",
    "Vanilla Fudge Swirl", "Mint Chip",
    "Mocha Almond Fudge", "Rum Raisin",
    "Praline Cream", "Mud Pie" 
  static String[] flavorSet(int n) {
    // Force it to be positive & within bounds:
    n = Math.abs(n) % (flav.length + 1);
    String[] results = new String[n];
    int[] picks = new int[n];
    for(int i = 0; i < picks.length; i++)
      picks[i] = -1;
    for(int i = 0; i < picks.length; i++) {
      while(true) {
        int t =
          (int)(Math.random() * flav.length);
        for(int j = 0; j < i; j++)
          if(picks[j] == t) continue retry;
        picks[i] = t;
        results[i] = flav[t];
    return results;
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    for(int i = 0; i < 20; i++) {
        "flavorSet(" + i + ") = ");
      String[] fl = flavorSet(flav.length);
      for(int j = 0; j < fl.length; j++)
        System.out.println("\t" + fl[j]);
} ///:~ 

The method flavorSet( ) creates an array of String called results. The size of this array is n, determined by the argument you pass into the method. Then it proceeds to choose flavors randomly from the array flav and place them into results, which it finally returns. Returning an array is just like returning any other object – it’s a handle. It’s not important that the array was created within flavorSet( ), or that the array was created anyplace else, for that matter. The garbage collector takes care of cleaning up the array when you’re done with it, and the array will persist for as long as you need it.

As an aside, notice that when flavorSet( ) chooses flavors randomly, it ensures that a random choice hasn’t been picked before. This is performed in a seemingly infinite while loop that keeps making random choices until it finds one that’s not already in the picks array. (Of course, a String comparison could also have been performed to see if the random choice was already in the results array, but String comparisons are inefficient.) If it’s successful it adds the entry and breaks out to go find the next one ( i gets incremented). But if t is a number that’s already in picks, then a labeled continue is used to jump back two levels, which forces a new t to be selected. It’s particularly convincing to watch this happen with a debugger.

main( ) prints out 20 full sets of flavors, so you can see that flavorSet( ) chooses the flavors in a random order each time. It’s easiest to see this if you redirect the output into a file. And while you’re looking at the file, remember, you’re not really hungry. (You just want the ice cream, you don’t need it.)

[32] This is one of the places where C++ is distinctly superior to Java, since C++ supports parameterized types with the template keyword.


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