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Thinking in Java
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Cleanup: finalization and
garbage collection

Programmers know about the importance of initialization, but often forget the importance of cleanup. After all, who needs to clean up an int? But with libraries, simply “letting go” of an object once you’re done with it is not always safe. Of course, Java has the garbage collector to reclaim the memory of objects that are no longer used. Now consider an unusual case: suppose your object allocates “special” memory without using new. The garbage collector only knows how to release memory allocated with new, so it won’t know how to release the object’s “special” memory. To handle this case, Java provides a method called finalize( ) that you can define for your class. Here’s how it’s supposed to work. When the garbage collector is ready to release the storage used for your object, it will first call finalize( ), and only on the next garbage-collection pass will it reclaim the object’s memory. So if you choose to use finalize( ), it gives you the ability to perform some important cleanup at the time of garbage collection.

This is a potential programming pitfall because some programmers, especially C++ programmers, might initially mistake finalize( ) for the destructor in C++, which is a function that is always called when an object is destroyed. But it is important to distinguish between C++ and Java here, because in C++, objects always get destroyed (in a bug-free program), whereas in Java, objects do not always get garbage collected. Or, put another way:

1. Your objects might not get garbage collected.

2. Garbage collection is not destruction.

If you remember this, you will stay out of trouble. What it means is that if there is some activity that must be performed before you no longer need an object, you must perform that activity yourself. Java has no destructor or similar concept, so you must create an ordinary method to perform this cleanup. For example, suppose that in the process of creating your object, it draws itself on the screen. If you don’t explicitly erase its image from the screen, it might never get cleaned up. If you put some kind of erasing functionality inside finalize( ), then if an object is garbage collected and finalize( ) is called (there’s no guarantee this will happen), then the image will first be removed from the screen, but if it isn’t, the image will remain.

You might find that the storage for an object never gets released because your program never nears the point of running out of storage. If your program completes and the garbage collector never gets around to releasing the storage for any of your objects, that storage will be returned to the operating system en masse as the program exits. This is a good thing, because garbage collection has some overhead, and if you never do, it you never incur that expense.
Thinking in Java
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire