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Simon Cooper Peering into the depths of .NET

Although the collections classes introduced in .NET 2, 3.5 and 4 cover most scenarios, there are still some .NET 1 collections that don't have generic counterparts. In this post, I'll be examining what they do, why you might use them, and some things you'll need to bear in mind when doing so.


System.Collections.BitArray is conceptually the same as a List<bool>, but whereas List<bool> stores each boolean in a single byte (as that's what the backing bool[] does), BitArray uses a single bit to store each value, and uses various bitmasks to access each bit individually. This means that BitArray is eight times smaller than a List<bool>. Furthermore, BitArray has some useful functions for bitmasks, like And, Xor and Not, and it's not limited to 32 or 64 bits; a BitArray can hold as many bits as you need.

However, it's not all roses and kittens. There are some fundamental limitations you have to bear in mind when using BitArray:

  1. It's a non-generic collection. The enumerator returns object (a boxed boolean), rather than an unboxed bool. This means that if you do this:

    foreach (bool b in bitArray) { ... }

    Every single boolean value will be boxed, then unboxed. And if you do this:

    foreach (var b in bitArray) { ... }

    you'll have to manually unbox b on every iteration, as it'll come out of the enumerator an object. Instead, you should manually iterate over the collection using a for loop:

    for (int i=0; i<bitArray.Length; i++) {
        bool b = bitArray[i];
  2. Following on from that, if you want to use BitArray in the context of an IEnumerable<bool>, ICollection<bool> or IList<bool>, you'll need to write a wrapper class, or use the Enumerable.Cast<bool> extension method (although Cast would box and unbox every value you get out of it).
  3. There is no Add or Remove method. You specify the number of bits you need in the constructor, and that's what you get. You can change the length yourself using the Length property setter though.
  4. It doesn't implement IList. Although not really important if you're writing a generic wrapper around it, it is something to bear in mind if you're using it with pre-generic code.

However, if you use BitArray carefully, it can provide significant gains over a List<bool> for functionality and efficiency of space.


System.Collections.Specialized.OrderedDictionary does exactly what you would expect - it's an IDictionary that maintains items in the order they are added. It does this by storing key/value pairs in a Hashtable (to get O(1) key lookup) and an ArrayList (to maintain the order). You can access values by key or index, and insert or remove items at a particular index. The enumerator returns items in index order.

However, the Keys and Values properties return ICollection, not IList, as you might expect; CopyTo doesn't maintain the same ordering, as it copies from the backing Hashtable, not ArrayList; and any operations that insert or remove items from the middle of the collection are O(n), just like a normal list.

In short; don't use this class. If you need some sort of ordered dictionary, it would be better to write your own generic dictionary combining a Dictionary<TKey, TValue> and List<KeyValuePair<TKey, TValue>> or List<TKey> for your specific situation.

ListDictionary and HybridDictionary

To look at why you might want to use ListDictionary or HybridDictionary, we need to examine the performance of these dictionaries compared to Hashtable and Dictionary<object, object>. For this test, I added n items to each collection, then randomly accessed n/2 items:

So, what's going on here? Well, ListDictionary is implemented as a linked list of key/value pairs; all operations on the dictionary require an O(n) search through the list. However, for small n, the constant factor that big-o notation doesn't measure is much lower than the hashing overhead of Hashtable or Dictionary.

HybridDictionary combines a Hashtable and ListDictionary; for small n, it uses a backing ListDictionary, but switches to a Hashtable when it gets to 9 items (you can see the point it switches from a ListDictionary to Hashtable in the graph). Apart from that, it's got very similar performance to Hashtable.

So why would you want to use either of these? In short, you wouldn't. Any gain in performance by using ListDictionary over Dictionary<TKey, TValue> would be offset by the generic dictionary not having to cast or box the items you store, something the graphs above don't measure.

Only if the performance of the dictionary is vital, the dictionary will hold less than 30 items, and you don't need type safety, would you use ListDictionary over the generic Dictionary. And even then, there's probably more useful performance gains you can make elsewhere.

Cross posted from Simple Talk.

Posted on Friday, October 21, 2011 11:03 AM | Back to top

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