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What is a smart pointer and when should I use one?

Alex Reynolds
1#
Alex Reynolds Published in 2008-09-20 00:09:24Z

What is a smart pointer and when should I use one?

Marcin Orlowski
2#
Marcin Orlowski Reply to 2017-10-12 22:15:59Z

A smart pointer is a class that wraps a 'raw' (or 'bare') C++ pointer, to manage the lifetime of the object being pointed to. There is no single smart pointer type, but all of them try to abstract a raw pointer in a practical way.

Smart pointers should be preferred over raw pointers. If you feel you need to use pointers (first consider if you really do), you would normally want to use a smart pointer as this can alleviate many of the problems with raw pointers, mainly forgetting to delete the object and leaking memory.

With raw pointers, the programmer has to explicitly destroy the object when it is no longer useful.

// Need to create the object to achieve some goal
MyObject* ptr = new MyObject(); 
ptr->DoSomething(); // Use the object in some way
delete ptr; // Destroy the object. Done with it.
// Wait, what if DoSomething() raises an exception...?

A smart pointer by comparison defines a policy as to when the object is destroyed. You still have to create the object, but you no longer have to worry about destroying it.

SomeSmartPtr<MyObject> ptr(new MyObject());
ptr->DoSomething(); // Use the object in some way.

// Destruction of the object happens, depending 
// on the policy the smart pointer class uses.

// Destruction would happen even if DoSomething() 
// raises an exception

The simplest policy in use involves the scope of the smart pointer wrapper object, such as implemented by boost::scoped_ptr or std::unique_ptr.

void f()
{
    {
       boost::scoped_ptr<MyObject> ptr(new MyObject());
       ptr->DoSomethingUseful();
    } // boost::scopted_ptr goes out of scope -- 
      // the MyObject is automatically destroyed.

    // ptr->Oops(); // Compile error: "ptr" not defined
                    // since it is no longer in scope.
}

Note that scoped_ptr instances cannot be copied. This prevents the pointer from being deleted multiple times (incorrectly). You can, however, pass references to it around to other functions you call.

Scoped pointers are useful when you want to tie the lifetime of the object to a particular block of code, or if you embedded it as member data inside another object, the lifetime of that other object. The object exists until the containing block of code is exited, or until the containing object is itself destroyed.

A more complex smart pointer policy involves reference counting the pointer. This does allow the pointer to be copied. When the last "reference" to the object is destroyed, the object is deleted. This policy is implemented by boost::shared_ptr and std::shared_ptr.

void f()
{
    typedef std::shared_ptr<MyObject> MyObjectPtr; // nice short alias
    MyObjectPtr p1; // Empty

    {
        MyObjectPtr p2(new MyObject());
        // There is now one "reference" to the created object
        p1 = p2; // Copy the pointer.
        // There are now two references to the object.
    } // p2 is destroyed, leaving one reference to the object.
} // p1 is destroyed, leaving a reference count of zero. 
  // The object is deleted.

Reference counted pointers are very useful when the lifetime of your object is much more complicated, and is not tied directly to a particular section of code or to another object.

There is one drawback to reference counted pointers — the possibility of creating a dangling reference:

// Create the smart pointer on the heap
MyObjectPtr* pp = new MyObjectPtr(new MyObject())
// Hmm, we forgot to destroy the smart pointer,
// because of that, the object is never destroyed!

Another possibility is creating circular references:

struct Owner {
   boost::shared_ptr<Owner> other;
};

boost::shared_ptr<Owner> p1 (new Owner());
boost::shared_ptr<Owner> p2 (new Owner());
p1->other = p2; // p1 references p2
p2->other = p1; // p2 references p1

// Oops, the reference count of of p1 and p2 never goes to zero!
// The objects are never destroyed!

To work around this problem, both Boost and C++11 have defined a weak_ptr to define a weak (uncounted) reference to a shared_ptr.


UPDATE

This answer is rather old, and so describes what was 'good' at the time, which was smart pointers provided by the Boost library. Since C++11, the standard library has provided sufficient smart pointers types, and so you should favour the use of std::unique_ptr, std::shared_ptr and std::weak_ptr.

There is also std::auto_ptr. It is very much like a scoped pointer, except that it also has the "special" dangerous ability to be copied — which also unexpectedly transfers ownership! It is deprecated in the newest standards, so you shouldn't use it. Use the std::unique_ptr instead.

std::auto_ptr<MyObject> p1 (new MyObject());
std::auto_ptr<MyObject> p2 = p1; // Copy and transfer ownership. 
                                 // p1 gets set to empty!
p2->DoSomething(); // Works.
p1->DoSomething(); // Oh oh. Hopefully raises some NULL pointer exception.
Jorge Ferreira
3#
Jorge Ferreira Reply to 2008-09-20 00:12:10Z

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart_pointer

In computer science, a smart pointer is an abstract data type that simulates a pointer while providing additional features, such as automatic garbage collection or bounds checking. These additional features are intended to reduce bugs caused by the misuse of pointers while retaining efficiency. Smart pointers typically keep track of the objects that point to them for the purpose of memory management. The misuse of pointers is a major source of bugs: the constant allocation, deallocation and referencing that must be performed by a program written using pointers makes it very likely that some memory leaks will occur. Smart pointers try to prevent memory leaks by making the resource deallocation automatic: when the pointer to an object (or the last in a series of pointers) is destroyed, for example because it goes out of scope, the pointed object is destroyed too.

Community
4#
Community Reply to 2017-05-23 12:02:48Z

A smart pointer is like a regular (typed) pointer, like "char*", except when the pointer itself goes out of scope then what it points to is deleted as well. You can use it like you would a regular pointer, by using "->", but not if you need an actual pointer to the data. For that, you can use "&*ptr".

It is useful for:

  • Objects that must be allocated with new, but that you'd like to have the same lifetime as something on that stack. If the object is assigned to a smart pointer, then they will be deleted when the program exits that function/block.

  • Data members of classes, so that when the object is deleted all the owned data is deleted as well, without any special code in the destructor (you will need to be sure the destructor is virtual, which is almost always a good thing to do).

You may not want to use a smart pointer when:

  • ... the pointer shouldn't actually own the data... i.e., when you are just using the data, but you want it to survive the function where you are referencing it.
  • ... the smart pointer isn't itself going to be destroyed at some point. You don't want it to sit in memory that never gets destroyed (such as in an object that is dynamically allocated but won't be explicitly deleted).
  • ... two smart pointers might point to the same data. (There are, however, even smarter pointers that will handle that... that is called reference counting.)

See also:

  • garbage collection.
  • This stack overflow question regarding data ownership
Chris Jester-Young
5#
Chris Jester-Young Reply to 2008-09-20 00:14:52Z

Most kinds of smart pointers handle disposing of the pointer-to object for you. It's very handy because you don't have to think about disposing of objects manually anymore.

The most commonly-used smart pointers are std::tr1::shared_ptr (or boost::shared_ptr), and, less commonly, std::auto_ptr. I recommend regular use of shared_ptr.

shared_ptr is very versatile and deals with a large variety of disposal scenarios, including cases where objects need to be "passed across DLL boundaries" (the common nightmare case if different libcs are used between your code and the DLLs).

Varaquilex
6#
Varaquilex Reply to 2016-08-17 18:12:03Z

Smart pointer is a pointer-like type with some additional functionality, e.g. automatic memory deallocation, reference counting etc.

Small intro is available on page Smart Pointers - What, Why, Which?.

One of the simple smart-pointer type is std::auto_ptr (chapter 20.4.5 of C++ standard), which allows to deallocate memory automatically when it out of scope and which is more robust than simple pointer usage when exceptions are thrown, although less flexible.

Another convenient type is boost::shared_ptr which implements reference counting and automatically deallocates memory when no references to object remains. This helps avoiding memory leaks and is easy to use to implement RAII.

Subject is covered in depth in book "C++ Templates: The Complete Guide" by David Vandevoorde, Nicolai M. Josuttis, chapter Chapter 20. Smart Pointers. Some topics covered:

  • Protecting Against Exceptions
  • Holders, (note, std::auto_ptr is implementation of such type of smart pointer)
  • Resource Acquisition Is Initialization (This is frequently used for exception-safe resource management in C++)
  • Holder Limitations
  • Reference Counting
  • Concurrent Counter Access
  • Destruction and Deallocation
NathanOliver
7#
NathanOliver Reply to 2017-04-07 14:45:31Z

Definitions provided by Chris, Sergdev and Llyod are correct. I prefer a simpler definition though, just to keep my life simple: A smart pointer is simply a class that overloads the -> and * operators. Which means that your object semantically looks like a pointer but you can make it do way cooler things, including reference counting, automatic destruction etc. shared_ptr and auto_ptr are sufficient in most cases, but come along with their own set of small idiosyncrasies.

Saqlain
8#
Saqlain Reply to 2013-03-12 10:03:48Z

A smart pointer is an object that acts like a pointer, but additionally provides control on construction, destruction, copying, moving and dereferencing.

One can implement one's own smart pointer, but many libraries also provide smart pointer implementations each with different advantages and drawbacks.

For example, Boost provides the following smart pointer implementations:

  • shared_ptr<T> is a pointer to T using a reference count to determine when the object is no longer needed.
  • scoped_ptr<T> is a pointer automatically deleted when it goes out of scope. No assignment is possible.
  • intrusive_ptr<T> is another reference counting pointer. It provides better performance than shared_ptr, but requires the type T to provide its own reference counting mechanism.
  • weak_ptr<T> is a weak pointer, working in conjunction with shared_ptr to avoid circular references.
  • shared_array<T> is like shared_ptr, but for arrays of T.
  • scoped_array<T> is like scoped_ptr, but for arrays of T.

These are just one linear descriptions of each and can be used as per need, for further detail and examples one can look at the documentation of Boost.

Additionally, the C++ standard library provides three smart pointers; std::unique_ptr for unique ownership, std::shared_ptr for shared ownership and std::weak_ptr. std::auto_ptr existed in C++03 but is now deprecated.

Santosh
9#
Santosh Reply to 2014-03-07 09:03:03Z

Here is the Link for similar answers : http://sickprogrammersarea.blogspot.in/2014/03/technical-interview-questions-on-c_6.html

A smart pointer is an object that acts, looks and feels like a normal pointer but offers more functionality. In C++, smart pointers are implemented as template classes that encapsulate a pointer and override standard pointer operators. They have a number of advantages over regular pointers. They are guaranteed to be initialized as either null pointers or pointers to a heap object. Indirection through a null pointer is checked. No delete is ever necessary. Objects are automatically freed when the last pointer to them has gone away. One significant problem with these smart pointers is that unlike regular pointers, they don't respect inheritance. Smart pointers are unattractive for polymorphic code. Given below is an example for the implementation of smart pointers.

Example:

template <class X>
class smart_pointer
{
          public:
               smart_pointer();                          // makes a null pointer
               smart_pointer(const X& x)            // makes pointer to copy of x

               X& operator *( );
               const X& operator*( ) const;
               X* operator->() const;

               smart_pointer(const smart_pointer <X> &);
               const smart_pointer <X> & operator =(const smart_pointer<X>&);
               ~smart_pointer();
          private:
               //...
};

This class implement a smart pointer to an object of type X. The object itself is located on the heap. Here is how to use it:

smart_pointer <employee> p= employee("Harris",1333);

Like other overloaded operators, p will behave like a regular pointer,

cout<<*p;
p->raise_salary(0.5);
einpoklum
10#
einpoklum Reply to 2017-09-01 16:23:49Z

Here's a simple answer for these days of modern C++:

  • What is a smart pointer?
    It's a type which can be used like a pointer, but provides the additional feature of automatic memory management: When the pointer is no longer in use, the memory it points to is deallocated (see also the more detailed definition on Wikipedia).
  • When should I use one?
    In code which involves tracking the ownership of a piece of memory, allocating or de-allocating; the smart pointer often saves you the need to do these things explicitly.
  • But which smart pointer should I use in which of those cases?
    • Use std::unique_ptr when you don't intend to hold multiple references to the same object. For example, use it for a pointer to memory which gets allocated on entering some scope and de-allocated on exiting the scope.
    • Use std::shared_ptr when you do want to refer to your object from multiple places - and do not want it to be de-allocated until all these references are themselves gone.
    • Use std::weak_ptr when you do want to refer to your object from multiple places - for those references for which it's ok to ignore and deallocate (so they'll just note the object is gone when you try to dereference).
    • Don't use the boost:: smart pointers or std::auto_ptr except in special cases which you can read up on if you must.
  • Hey, I didn't ask which one to use!
    Ah, but you really wanted to, admit it.
  • So when should I use regular pointers then?
    In code that is oblivious to memory ownership. This would typically be in functions which get a pointer from someplace else and do not allocate, de-allocate or store a copy of the pointer which outlasts their execution.
Community
11#
Community Reply to 2017-05-23 11:47:28Z

Let T be a class in this tutorial Pointers in C++ can be divided into 3 types :

1) Raw pointers :

T a;  
T * _ptr = &a; 

They hold a memory address to a location in memory. Use with caution , as programs become complex hard to keep track.

Pointers with const data or address { Read backwards }

T a ; 
const T * ptr1 = &a ; 
T const * ptr1 = &a ;

Pointer to a data type T which is a const. Meaning you cannot change the data type using the pointer. ie *ptr1 = 19 ; will not work. But you can move the pointer. ie ptr1++ , ptr1-- ; etc will work. Read backwards : pointer to type T which is const

  T * const ptr2 ;

A const pointer to a data type T . Meaning you cannot move the pointer but you can change the value pointed to by the pointer. ie *ptr2 = 19 will work but ptr2++ ; ptr2-- etc will not work. Read backwards : const pointer to a type T

const T * const ptr3 ; 

A const pointer to a const data type T . Meaning you cannot either move the pointer nor can you change the data type pointer to be the pointer. ie . ptr3-- ; ptr3++ ; *ptr3 = 19; will not work

3) Smart Pointers : { #include <memory> }

Shared Pointer:

  T a ; 
     //shared_ptr<T> shptr(new T) ; not recommended but works 
     shared_ptr<T> shptr = make_shared<T>(); // faster + exception safe

     std::cout << shptr.use_count() ; // 1 //  gives the number of " 
things " pointing to it. 
     T * temp = shptr.get(); // gives a pointer to object

     // shared_pointer used like a regular pointer to call member functions
      shptr->memFn();
     (*shptr).memFn(); 

    //
     shptr.reset() ; // frees the object pointed to be the ptr 
     shptr = nullptr ; // frees the object 
     shptr = make_shared<T>() ; // frees the original object and points to new object

Implemented using reference counting to keep track of how many " things " point to the object pointed to by the pointer. When this count goes to 0 , the object is automatically deleted , ie objected is deleted when all the share_ptr pointing to the object goes out of scope. This gets rid of the headache of having to delete objects which you have allocated using new.

Weak Pointer : Helps deal with cyclic reference which arises when using Shared Pointer If you have two objects pointed to by two shared pointers and there is an internal shared pointer pointing to each others shared pointer then there will be a cyclic reference and the object will not be deleted when shared pointers go out of scope. To solve this , change the internal member from a shared_ptr to weak_ptr. Note : To access the element pointed to by a weak pointer use lock() , this returns a weak_ptr.

T a ; 
shared_ptr<T> shr = make_shared<T>() ; 
weak_ptr<T> wk = shr ; // initialize a weak_ptr from a shared_ptr 
wk.lock()->memFn() ; // use lock to get a shared_ptr 
//   ^^^ Can lead to exception if the shared ptr has gone out of scope
if(!wk.expired()) wk.lock()->memFn() ;
// Check if shared ptr has gone out of scope before access

See : When is std::weak_ptr useful?

Unique Pointer : Light weight smart pointer with exclusive ownership. Use when pointer points to unique objects without sharing the objects between the pointers.

unique_ptr<T> uptr(new T);
uptr->memFn(); 

//T * ptr = uptr.release(); // uptr becomes null and object is pointed to by ptr
uptr.reset() ; // deletes the object pointed to by uptr 

To change the object pointed to by the unique ptr , use move semantics

unique_ptr<T> uptr1(new T);
unique_ptr<T> uptr2(new T);
uptr2 = std::move(uptr1); 
// object pointed by uptr2 is deleted and 
// object pointed by uptr1 is pointed to by uptr2
// uptr1 becomes null 

References : They can essentially be though of as const pointers, ie a pointer which is const and cannot be moved with better syntax.

See : What are the differences between a pointer variable and a reference variable in C++?

r-value reference : reference to a temporary object   
l-value reference : reference to an object whose address can be obtained
const reference : reference to a data type which is const and cannot be modified 

Reference : https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEOGtxYTB6vo6MQ-WQ9W_nQ Thanks to Andre for pointing out this question.

Daksh Gupta
12#
Daksh Gupta Reply to 2016-11-07 04:07:54Z

Smart Pointers are those where you don't have to worry about Memory De-Allocation, Resource Sharing and Transfer.

You can very well use these pointer in the similar way as any allocation works in Java. In java Garbage Collector does the trick, while in Smart Pointers, the trick is done by Destructors.

Bhargav Rao
13#
Bhargav Rao Reply to 2017-08-07 07:54:02Z

A smart pointer is a class, a wrapper of a normal pointer. Unlike normal pointers, smart point’s life circle is based on a reference count (how many time the smart pointer object is assigned). So whenever a smart pointer is assigned to another one, the internal reference count plus plus. And whenever the object goes out of scope, the reference count minus minus.

Automatic pointer, though looks similar, is totally different from smart pointer. It is a convenient class that deallocates the resource whenever an automatic pointer object goes out of variable scope. To some extent, it makes a pointer (to dynamically allocated memory) works similar to a stack variable (statically allocated in compiling time).

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