Get started with the Java Collections Framework

Find out how Sun's new offering can help you to make your collections more useful and accessible

JDK 1.2 introduces a new framework for collections of objects, called the Java Collections Framework. "Oh no," you groan, "not another API, not another framework to learn!" But wait, before you turn away, hear me out: the Collections framework is worth your effort and will benefit your programming in many ways. Three big benefits come immediately to mind:

  • It dramatically increases the readability of your collections by providing a standard set of interfaces to be used by many programmers in many applications.
  • It makes your code more flexible by allowing you to pass and return interfaces instead of concrete classes, generalizing your code rather than locking it down.
  • It offers many specific implementations of the interfaces, allowing you to choose the collection that is most fitting and offers the highest performance for your needs.

And that's just for starters.

Our tour of the framework will begin with an overview of the advantages it provides for storing sets of objects. As you'll soon discover, because your old workhorse friends Hashtable and Vector support the new API, your programs will be uniform and concise -- something you and the developers accessing your code will certainly cheer about.

After our preliminary discussion, we'll dig deeper into the details.

The Java Collections advantage: An overview

Before Collections made its most welcome debut, the standard methods for grouping Java objects were via the array, the Vector, and the Hashtable. All three of these collections have different methods and syntax for accessing members: arrays use the square bracket ([]) symbols, Vector uses the elementAt method, and Hashtable uses get and put methods. These differences have long led programmers down the path to inconsistency in implementing their own collections -- some emulate the Vector access methods and some emulate the Enumeration interface.

To further complicate matters, most of the Vector methods are marked as final; that is, you cannot extend the Vector class to implement a similar sort of collection. We could create a collection class that looked like a Vector and acted like a Vector, but it couldn't be passed to a method that takes a Vector as a parameter.

Finally, none of the collections (array, Vector or Hashtable) implements a standard member access interface. As programmers developed algorithms (like sorts) to manipulate collections, a heated discourse erupted on what object to pass to the algorithm. Should you pass an array or a Vector? Should you implement both interfaces? Talk about duplication and confusion.

Thankfully, the Java Collections Framework remedies these problems and offers a number of advantages over using no framework or using the Vector and Hashtable:

  • A usable set of collection interfaces

    By implementing one of the basic interfaces -- Collection, Set, List, or Map -- you ensure your class conforms to a common API and becomes more regular and easily understood. So, whether you are implementing an SQL database, a color swatch matcher, or a remote chat application, if you implement the Collection interface, the operations on your collection of objects are well-known to your users. The standard interfaces also simplify the passing and returning of collections to and from class methods and allow the methods to work on a wider variety of collections.

  • A basic set of collection implementations

    In addition to the trusty Hashtable and Vector, which have been updated to implement the Collection interfaces, new collection implementations have been added, including HashSet and TreeSet, ArrayList and LinkedList, and HashMap and Map. Using an existing, common implementation makes your code shorter and quicker to download. Also, using existing Core Java code core ensures that any improvements to the base code will also improve the performance of your code.

  • Other useful enhancements

    Each collection now returns an Iterator, an improved type of Enumeration that allows element operations such as insertion and deletion. The Iterator is "fail-fast," which means you get an exception if the list you're iterating is changed by another user. Also, list-based collections such as Vector return a ListIterator that allow bi-directional iteration and updating.

    Several collections (TreeSet and TreeMap) implicitly support ordering. Use these classes to maintain a sorted list with no effort. You can find the smallest and largest elements or perform a binary search to improve the performance of large lists. You can sort other collections by providing a collection-compare method (a Comparator object) or an object-compare method (the Comparable interface).

    Finally, a static class Collections provides unmodifiable (read-only) and synchronized versions of existing collections. The unmodifiable classes are helpful to prevent unwanted changes to a collection. The synchronized version of a collection is a necessity for multithreaded programs.

The Java Collections Framework is part of Core Java and is contained in the java.util.collections package of JDK 1.2. The framework is also available as a package for JDK 1.1 (see Resources).

Note: The JDK 1.1 version of collections is named com.sun.java.util.collections. Keep in mind that code developed with the 1.1 version must be updated and recompiled for the 1.2 verson, and any objects serialized in 1.1 cannot be deserialized into 1.2.

Let us now look more closely at these advantages by exercising the Java Collections Framework with some code of our own.

A good API

The first advantage of the Java Collections Framework is a consistent and regular API. The API is codified in a basic set of interfaces, Collection, Set, List, or Map. The Collection interface contains basic collection operations such as adding, removing, and tests for membership (containment). Any implementation of a collection, whether it is one provided by the Java Collections Framework or one of your own creations, will support one of these interfaces. Because the Collections framework is regular and consistent, you will learn a large portion of the frameworks simply by learning these interfaces.

Both Set and List implement the Collection interface. The Set interface is identical to the Collection interface except for an additional method, toArray, which converts a Set to an Object array. The List interface also implements the Collection interface, but provides many accessors that use an integer index into the list. For instance, get, remove, and set all take an integer that affects the indexed element in the list. The Map interface is not derived from collection, but provides an interface similar to the methods in java.util.Hashtable. Keys are used to put and get values. Each of these interfaces are described in following code examples.

The following code segment demonstrates how to perform many Collection operations on HashSet, a basic collection that implements the Set interface. A HashSet is simply a set that doesn't allow duplicate elements and doesn't order or position its elements. The code shows how you create a basic collection and add, remove, and test for elements. Because Vector now supports the Collection interface, you can also execute this code on a vector, which you can test by changing the HashSet declaration and constructor to a Vector.

import java.util.collections.*;
public class CollectionTest {
   // Statics
   public static void main( String [] args ) {
      System.out.println( "Collection Test" );
      // Create a collection
      HashSet collection = new HashSet();
      // Adding
      String dog1 = "Max", dog2 = "Bailey", dog3 = "Harriet";
      collection.add( dog1 );
      collection.add( dog2 );
      collection.add( dog3 );
      // Sizing
      System.out.println( "Collection created" + 
        ", size=" + collection.size() + 
        ", isEmpty=" + collection.isEmpty() );
      // Containment
      System.out.println( "Collection contains " + dog3 + 
         ": " + collection.contains( dog3 ) );
      // Iteration. Iterator supports hasNext, next, remove
      System.out.println( "Collection iteration (unsorted):" );
      Iterator iterator = collection.iterator();
      while ( iterator.hasNext() ) 
         System.out.println( "   " + iterator.next() );
      // Removing
      collection.remove( dog1 );
      collection.clear();
   }
}

Let's now build on our basic knowledge of collections and look at other interfaces and implementations in the Java Collections Framework.

Good concrete implementations

We have exercised the Collection interface on a concrete collection, the HashSet. Let's now look at the complete set of concrete collection implementations provided in the Java Collections framework. (See the Resources section for a link to Sun's annotated outline of the Java Collections framework.)

Implementations
Hash TableResizable ArrayBalanced Tree (Sorted)Linked ListLegacy
Interfaces SetHashSet* TreeSet* *
List* ArrayList* LinkedListVector
MapHashMap* TreeMap* Hashtable

Implementations marked with an asterix (*) make no sense or provide no compelling reason to implement. For instance, providing a List interface to a Hash Table makes no sense because there is no notion of order in a Hash Table. Similarly, there is no Map interface for a Linked List because a list has no notion of table lookup.

Let's now exercise the List interface by operating on concrete implementations that implement the List interface, the ArrayList, and the LinkedList. The code below is similar to the previous example, but it performs many List operations.

import java.util.collections.*;
public class ListTest {
   // Statics
   public static void main( String [] args ) {
      System.out.println( "List Test" );
      // Create a collection
      ArrayList list = new ArrayList();
      // Adding
      String [] toys = { "Shoe", "Ball", "Frisbee" };
      list.addAll( Arrays.toList( toys ) );
      // Sizing
      System.out.println( "List created" + 
        ", size=" + list.size() + 
        ", isEmpty=" + list.isEmpty() );
      // Iteration using indexes.
      System.out.println( "List iteration (unsorted):" );
      for ( int i = 0; i < list.size(); i++ ) 
         System.out.println( "   " + list.get( i ) );
      // Reverse Iteration using ListIterator
      System.out.println( "List iteration (reverse):" );
      ListIterator iterator = list.listIterator( list.size() );
      while ( iterator.hasPrevious() ) 
         System.out.println( "   " + iterator.previous() );
      // Removing
      list.remove( 0 );
      list.clear();
   }
}

As with the first example, it's simple to swap out one implementation for another. You can use a LinkedList instead of an ArrayList simply by changing the line with the ArrayList constructor. Similarly, you can use a Vector, which now supports the List interface.

When deciding between these two implementations, you should consider whether the list is volatile (grows and shrinks often) and whether access is random or ordered. My own tests have shown that the ArrayList generally outperforms the LinkedList and the new Vector.

Notice how we add elements to the list: we use the addAll method and the static method Arrays.toList. This static method is one of the most useful utility methods in the Collections framework because it allows any array to be viewed as a List. Now an array may be used anywhere a Collection is needed.

Notice that I iterate through the list via an indexed accessor, get, and the ListIterator class. In addition to reverse iteration, the ListIterator class allows you to add, remove, and set any element in the list at the point addressed by the ListIterator. This approach is quite useful for filtering or updating a list on an element-by-element basis.

The last basic interface in the Java Collections Framework is the Map. This interface is implemented with two new concrete implementations, the TreeMap and the HashMap. The TreeMap is a balanced tree implementation that sorts elements by the key.

Let's illustrate the use of the Map interface with a simple example that shows how to add, query, and clear a collection. This example, which uses the HashMap class, is not much different from how we used the Hashtable prior to the debut of the Collections framework. Now, with the update of Hashtable to support the Map interface, you can swap out the line that instantiates the HashMap and replace it with an instantiation of the Hashtable.

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