What is a weak reference and what are they used for?

Rob Wilson

Normally the Java garbage collector plays safe. It will only free up the memory used by an object when that object can no longer be accessed by the program. Once an object become impossible to reach it is eligible for collection, and eventually its memory will be reclaimed.

This eliminates one of the most common programming errors in some other languages (like C++), where code accidentally tries to access an object that has been freed. Unfortunately it can lead to another problem, where you leave open a potential access route to an object that you don't need any more. Memory fills up, and the program slows down or reports an "Out of Memory" error.

To avoid this, you can be very careful to close off access paths to an object once you have finished using it. Java 2 introduces another alternative, the weak reference. Weak references provide access to an object without preventing it from being freed. When you use a weak reference you have to accept that the object referred to may have disappeared, which results in the reference being automatically set to null. On the other hand, the weak reference will not hold the object in memory once it is inaccessible via normal references (or via "soft" references - see below). Weak references are not appropriate in all circumstances, but sometimes they can make code easier to write and understand.

The most common use of weak references is indirect - they are used internally by the WeakHashMap class. Like HashMap, WeakHashMap associates key objects with values. However, once the key object becomes inaccessible via stronger references it becomes eligible for garbage collection. When it is freed, the map entry magically disappears. The assumption here is that if you are not using the key anywhere other than in the map you will have no need to look it up, so it should be freed.

Other specialist references are soft references (which inhibit collection until memory runs short), and phantom references (used for cleanup when objects are freed).

For more detailed (and precise) information, see the java.lang.ref API docs, and also the article Reference Objects and Garbage Collection at the Sun website.

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