Monday, January 23, 2012

The Java Collections Framework - Lists

The Collections Framework is a group of classes that allow you to group objects together in various ways and perform operations against those groupings. It is contained within the core Java API, so you don't have to install anything extra to use it. Its features are so basic and powerful that pretty much every piece of software written in Java makes use of this framework in one way or another. The framework has been around since Java 1.2 (1998) and has been improved upon with every subsequent Java release. There are four major collection "types": Lists, Sets, Queues, and Maps.

The four basic collection types (List, Set, and Queue all inherit from the Collection interface).

In this blog post, I'll discuss the List type. Lists are defined as being an ordered collection of elements where duplicate elements are allowed. Probably the most used list implementation (and probably the most used class in the entire Collections Framework) is the ArrayList class. This class is meant to behave just like an array, with the added ability of being able to add, insert, and remove elements (which cannot be done with normal arrays).

List<String> names = new ArrayList<String>();
names.add(0, "Zach");

On line 1, I create a new instance of an ArrayList. Using generics, I specify that the list will only contain String objects (generics support was added to the Collections Framework in Java 1.5). If I try to add anything other than a String to my ArrayList, a compilation error will be thrown.

Also notice how I'm assigning my ArrayList object to a variable of type List instead of type ArrayList. List is an interface that ArrayList implements. The reason for doing this is that there are multiple implementations of the List interface. By assigning my ArrayList to a variable of type List, I'm making my code more flexible so that it's not tied to a specific List implementation. The only thing the code cares about is that the List variable satisfies the definition of what a "list" is supposed to be within the Collections Framework (an ordered collection where duplicates are allowed). It is good practice to apply this technique throughout the Collections Framework to maximize code flexibility.

On lines 2-4, I populate my list by adding some elements to it. The add() method appends the element to the end of the list.

On line 5, I remove an element by specifying the element index (Lists are 0-based just like normal arrays, so "0" corresponds to the first element, "1" to the second, etc). This will remove the "Steve" element. Then, on line 6, I remove an element by passing in a String object. When an element is removed in this way, it iterates over each element in the list, using the object's equals() method to determine which element to remove. If it doesn't find any such element, nothing is removed.

On line 6 of the code sample, I insert an element into the List at a specific index. The index I specify is "0", which means it will be inserted at the beginning of the list.

Then, on line 7, I sort the list so that the names are ordered alphabetically. This method requires that the class of the elements in the list implement the Comparable interface, which defines how two objects of that class are compared against each other when they are sorted. The String class already implements this interface, defining that Strings be sorted alphabetically. If you want to sort the list differently, you can pass your own implementation of the Comparator interface as a second argument of the sort() method. For example, to sort the strings by length, you could write:

Collections.sort(names, new Comparator<String>(){
  public int compareTo(String element1, String element2){
    //sort Strings by length
    if (element1.length() < element2.length(){
      return -1; //"element1" should come before "element2"
    } else if (element1.length() > element2.length()){
      return 1; //"element1" should come after "element2"
    } else {
      return 0; //"element1" and "element2" are equal

Finally, on line 8, I print the list out so I can see what it looks like. Passing an object into the System.out.println() method will print the return value of that object's toString() method. The list's toString() method generates a string representation of the list by calling the toString() method of every list element. It surrounds the entire list in brackets and separates each element with a comma.

[Mark, Zach]

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