Focus on Swing

Explore focus management with JFC's Swing components

Focus is the mechanism that determines which of the components in a window will receive keyboard input events. A focus manager looks for special keystrokes that change the focus (usually the Tab and Shift-Tab keys), and then decides which component will next get the focus. Often, you'll want to control how the focus moves between components, especially if you're designing a complex form or dialog for users to enter information.

Java has had a focus manager for AWT components since version 1.0 of the Java Development Kit (JDK), and developers have howled about its inadequacies ever since. Well, it's time to stop howling. The focus management services provided with the Java Foundation Classes (JFC) should satisfy all of your needs for controlling focus changes.

A bit of history

The only way to manage focus changes with JDK 1.0 is through a few methods in the Component class. JDK 1.0 allows components to set the focus to themselves with requestFocus and to change the focus to the next component with nextFocus. Other than getting notification of focus changes with gotFocus and lostFocus, that's pretty much all you can do.

JDK 1.1 deprecates nextFocus and replaces it with transferFocus, which provides exactly the same functionality as nextFocus. Likewise, 1.1 deprecates gotFocus and lostFocus and replaces them with the addFocusListener method to support focus change notification using the 1.1 event model.

Neither JDK 1.0 nor 1.1 provide any means for applications to override the behavior of the focus manager, or to change the algorithm used to determine focus traversal.

What's new with Swing's focus management

Swing provides some powerful new ways to manage focus changes at the component level. Here's what you can do with focus management at that level:

  • Set the focus to a given component
  • Transfer the focus to the next component in the focus-change order
  • Determine if a component has the focus
  • Disable a component from responding to focus requests
  • Allow the component that currently has the focus to manage the next focus change

And if this isn't enough to meet your focus control needs, Swing allows you to create and use your own custom focus manager.

Let's take a quick look at the relationship between the AWT and Swing focus managers. The following figure shows how JFC incorporates both the AWT and Swing focus managers.

AWT and Swing focus manager relationship

Note that the AWT focus manager will manage focus for Swing components because they are extended AWT components. However, the flip side is not true: The Swing focus manager will not manage focus for AWT components. The section "Mixing AWT and Swing components" explains how to handle focus management if you're mixing these two component types in an application.

Explicitly setting the focus

There are two JComponent methods that allow you to explicitly set the focus to a given component: requestFocus and grabFocus. If you've worked with AWT components, you're probably familiar with the requestFocus method. Swing overrides this Component method with an implementation that allows you to call the new setRequestFocusEnabled method. This method can enable or disable the component from getting the focus via requestFocus.

However, you can't use setRequestFocusEnabled to prevent a component from getting the focus via the focus manager. That's because the focus manager uses a new Swing method, grabFocus, to give components the focus. grabFocus works just like requestFocus, except that you can't disable it. The Swing docs say that only focus managers should use grabFocus.

Let's take a look at a bit of sample code written for components. This code will cause a component to get the focus whenever the component is under the mouse:

// add a listener for mouse enter
addMouseListener(new MouseAdapter() {
    public void mouseEntered(MouseEvent event) {
        // Request the focus (if don't already have it)
        if(!hasFocus()) { requestFocus(); }

This fragment adds a mouse listener, which is implemented in an anonymous inner class based on the MouseAdapter adapter class. The mouse adapter's mouseEntered method is called whenever the mouse passes over the component. The implementation for mouseEntered calls hasFocus to see if the component already has the focus, and if it doesn't, calls requestFocus to give the component the focus. A slightly more fail-safe way to set the focus would be:

if(!hasFocus()) {
    // ensure requestFocus is enabled
    if(!isRequestFocusEnabled()) { setRequestFocusEnabled(true); }

And if you're writing a focus manager, you can use


if(!hasFocus()) { grabFocus(); }

Transferring the focus

Like AWT 1.1, Swing provides the means for a component to transfer the focus to the next component with the transferFocus method.

public void transferFocus();

This method can be useful for implementing components that automatically advance the focus when the user has completed whatever task or purpose is served by the component (like choosing from a group of radio buttons or items in a list). transferFocus is not really useful for explicitly setting the focus -- you would have to know which component has the focus just before the component that you actually want to set the focus to.

Detecting focus changes

Swing doesn't bring any changes to the operation of AWT 1.1's focus listener implementation. I'll give a brief description of focus listeners for those readers that aren't familiar with them; if you know this stuff you may want to skip on to the next section.

Focus listeners provide a means of notifying applications when components gain or lose the focus. The adapter class for focus events, FocusAdapter, has two methods: focusGained and focusLost. The addFocusListener and removeFocusListener methods add and remove focus listeners for components. Standard event-listener stuff -- nothing fancy here. Let's glance at a piece of code. The following code fragment adds a focus listener that changes the background color when a component gets the focus.

// private instance variables
private boolean bFocusIndicated = false;
private Color originalColor;
// add a listener for focus events
addFocusListener(new FocusAdapter() {
    public void focusGained(FocusEvent e) {
        if(!bFocusIndicated) {
            // set background to a darker color to indicate focus
            originalColor = getBackground();
            bFocusIndicated = true;
    public void focusLost(FocusEvent e) {
        // restore original background color
        bFocusIndicated = false;

You can't always count on getting focusGained and focusLost events in matched pairs, hence the need for the bFocusIndicated variable to keep up with whether we've indicated focus on a component.

Managing focus at the component level

Up until this point, most of what I've covered is probably familiar to you if you have much experience with AWT 1.1 components. Now we'll start getting into Swing's new and improved features.

Swing provides a mechanism for component-managed focus traversal. This can be a powerful alternative to writing your own focus manager and is a better solution for developing components that have their own particular behavior when it comes to gaining and losing the focus. For example, say you want to develop a text field component that won't surrender the focus until the user enters valid data. If you've tried to implement such a component in AWT 1.1 by using the focusLost notification to validate the data and then set the focus back to the text field, you've probably experienced some frustration. One obvious solution to this problem -- calling requestFocus while processing the focusLost event -- doesn't always have a predictable outcome.

With Swing components, you can override the isManagingFocus method to return true and get Tab and Shift-Tab keystrokes sent to the component's key listener. This allows the component to manage focus traversal when the component has the focus. The following code implements a text field that doesn't allow the focus to traverse to the next component until valid data is entered:

class MyTextField extends JTextField {
    boolean validDataEntered = false;
    // Constructors
    public MyTextField () {
    public MyTextField (String text) {
    // Private initialization routine to be run at construct time
    private void init() {
        // add a key event listener that will consume tab keys until valid data entered in field
        addKeyListener(new KeyAdapter() {
            public void keyPressed(KeyEvent event) {
                // look for tab keys
                if(event.getKeyCode() == KeyEvent.VK_TAB
                || event.getKeyChar() == '\t') {
                    // if no valid data entered in field, consume event
                    // so that it won't be passed on to focus manager
                    if(!validDataEntered) {
                else {
                    // assume any key other than tab is valid data
                    validDataEntered = true;
    // Override to inform focus manager that component is managing focus changes
    public boolean isManagingFocus() { return true; }

In this example, any keystrokes other than Tab keystrokes are considered to be valid data. If no valid data has been entered, the text field's key listener consumes Tab keystrokes, preventing them from reaching the focus manager. Of course, if you were implementing this technique in a real application, you would want to present a message to the user and inform them as to why they are being prevented from tabbing away from the text field.

One limitation to managing focus traversal at the component level is that you can't control focus changes initiated by mouse actions. In fact, you can't even do this by writing your own custom focus manager. To control focus changes initiated by mouse actions, you'll have to modify the low-level mouse handling for all of your components.

Mixing AWT and Swing components

The Swing focus manager effectively sits on top of the AWT focus manager. It can only manage focus for Swing components, so if you're mixing AWT and Swing components, you should disable the Swing focus manager with the following line of code.


The AWT focus manager will then manage focus for all of your components. Unfortunately, you can't disable the focus manager on a per-window or per-container basis -- when you disable it, it's disabled for your entire application.

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