Java Notes

Comparing objects

Comparing objects is not at all as simple as with primitive values. The equality operators (== and !=) probably don't work as you expect (the compare the references to objects, not the values), and therefore are much less frequently used, and none of the other comparison operators are even legal with objects.

Use .equals() and .compareTo() methods instead of operators

Equality comparison: Four ways for objects

Comparison Objects
a == b, a != b Compares references, not values. The use of == with object references is generally limited to the following:
  • Comparing to see if a reference is null.
  • Comparing two enum values. This works because there is only one object for each enum constant.
  • You want to know if two references are to the same object
a.equals(b) Compares values for equality. Because this method is defined in the Object class, from which all other classes are derived, it's automatically defined for every class. However, it doesn't perform an intelligent comparison for most classes unless the class overrides it. It has been defined in a meaningful way for most Java core classes. If it's not defined for a (user) class, it behaves the same as ==.

It turns out that defining equals() isn't trivial; in fact it's moderately hard to get it right, especially in the case of subclasses. The best treatment of the issues is in Horstmann's Core Java Vol 1. [TODO: Add explanation and example]

a.compareTo(b) Comparable interface. Compares values and returns an int which tells if the values compare less than, equal, or greater than. If your class objects have a natural order, implement the Comparable<T> interface and define this method. All Java classes that have a natural ordering implement this (String, Double, BigInteger, ...).
compare(a, b) Comparator interface. Compares values of two objects. This is implemented as part of the Comparator<T> interface, and the typical use is to define one or more small utility classes that implement this, to pass to methods such as sort() or for use by sorting data structures such as TreeMap and TreeSet. You might want to create a Comparator object for the following.
  • Multiple comparisons. To provide several different ways to sort something. For example, you might want to sort a Person class by name, ID, age, height, ... You would define a Comparator for each of these to pass to the sort() method.
  • System class. To provide comparison methods for classes that you have no control over. For example, you could define a Comparator for Strings that compared them by length.
  • Strategy pattern. To implement a strategy pattern, which is a situation where you want to represent an algorithm as an object that you can pass as a parameter, save in a data structure, etc.

If your class objects have one natural sorting order, you may not need this.

Comparing Object values with the equals() Method

Use the equals() method to compare object values. The equals() method returns a boolean value. The previous example can be fixed by writing:

if (name.equals("Mickey Mouse"))  // Compares values, not references.

Because the equals() method makes a == test first, it can be fairly fast when the objects are identical. It only compares the values if the two references are not identical.

Comparing Object references with the == and != Operators

The two operators that can be used with object references are comparing for equality (==) and inequality (!=). These operators compare two values to see if they refer to the same object. Although this comparison is very fast, it is often not what you want.

Usually you want to know if the objects have the same value, and not whether two objects are a reference to the same object. For example,

if (name == "Mickey Mouse")   // Legal, but ALMOST SURELY WRONG

This is true only if name is a reference to the same object that "Mickey Mouse" refers to. This will usually be false if the String in name was read from input or computed (eg, by putting strings together or extracting a substring), even though name really does have exactly those characters in it.

Many classes (eg, String) define the equals() method to compare the values of objects.

If you define a class whose objects will be compared, you need to write the .equals() method for it. In addition, if you use it with hash tables you need to define .hashcode() in addition because hashcode is used as a quite test for probably equality.

.compareTo() method of the Comparable<T> interface

The equals method and == and != operators test for equality/inequality, but do not provide a way to test for relative values. Some classes (eg, String and other classes with a natural ordering) implement the Comparable<T> interface, which defines a compareTo method. You will want to implement Comparable<T> in your class if you want to use it with Collections.sort() or Arrays.sort() methods.

Defining a Comparator object

As described in the table above on compare(), you can create Comparators to sort any arbitrary way for any class. For example, the String class defines the CASE_INSENSITIVE_ORDER comparator.

Shouldn't .equals and .compareTo produce same result?

The general advice is that if a.equals(b) is true, then a.compareTo(b) == 0 should also be true. Curiously, BigDecimal violates this. Look at the Java API documentation for an explanation of the difference. This seems wrong, although their implementation has some plausibility.

Null complicates object comparison

When comparing objects with .equals(), if the first object reference is null, a NPE (Null Pointer Exception) will be generated. If there's any chance the first object reference is null something like the following code should be used for equality comparison.
if ((a != null) && a.equals(b))) . . .

Because .equals() may not be fast, and if there's much chance that objects will actually be equal, it is faster to test for to see if the references are to the same object using == like this:
if ((a == b) || ((a != null) && a.equals(b))) . . .

Additional comparison methods in some classes

String has the specialized equalsIgnoreCase() and compareToIgnoreCase(). String also supplies the constant String.CASE_INSENSITIVE_ORDER Comparator.