Vincent Gable’s Blog

July 8, 2010

NSDictionary Copies It’s Keys

Filed under: Bug Bite,Cocoa,iPhone,MacOSX,Objective-C,Programming | , , ,
― Vincent Gable on July 8, 2010

An NSDictionary will retain it’s objects, and copy it’s keys.

Here are some effects this has had on code I’ve worked on.

  • Sometimes you get the same object you put in, sometimes not.
    Immutable objects are optimized to return themselves as a copy. (But with some exceptions!). So the following code:

    	NSDictionary *d = [NSDictionary dictionaryWithObject:@"object" forKey:originalKey];
    	for(id aKey in d)
    		if(aKey == originalKey)
    			NSLog(@"Found the original key!");

    Might print “Found the original key!”, and might not, depending on how [originalKey copy] is implemented. For this reason, never use pointer-equality when comparing keys.

  • Mutable objects make bad keys. If x is a mutable NSObject, [x copy] is an immutable copy of x, at that point in time. Any changes to x are not reflected in the copy. For example,
    	[dict setObject:x forKey:key];
    	//...code that changes key, but not dict
    	assert([[dict objectForKey:key] isEqual:x]); //fails!

    Because the copy is an immutable object, it will blow up if you try to mutate it.

    	NSMutableString *key = //something...
    	[dict setObject:x forKey:key];
    	for(NSMutableString *aKey in dict)
    		[aKey appendString:@"2"]; //Error, aKey isn't mutable, even though key is!
  • View objects make bad keys. Views have state related to the screen: their frame, position in the view hierarchy, animation layers, etc. When you copy a view object, the copy won’t (always) be isEqual: to the original, because it’s not on the screen in exactly the same way.
  • Your classes must support NSCopying to be used as a key in an NSDictionary, you can’t just implement -hash and -isEqual: in your custom classes.

Of course, this isn’t a complete list of every way key-copying can trip you up. But if you understand what copy means in Cocoa, and remember how NSDictionary works, you’ll be able to avoid or quickly solve any issues.

How to Document Such Behavior Better Than Apple Did

Given what we know about NSDictionary, what’s wrong with the following snippit from NSDictionary.h?

@interface NSMutableDictionary : NSDictionary
- (void)setObject:(id)anObject forKey:(id)aKey;

Answer: aKey needs to implement NSCopying, so it should be of type (id<NSCopying>) instead of type (id). That way, the header is self-documenting, and, if like most smart programmers, you’re using autocomplete to type out Cocoa’s long method names, the auto-completed template will be self-documenting too.

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