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Thinking in Java
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Holding references

The java.lang.ref library contains a set of classes that allow greater flexibility in garbage collection. These classes are especially useful when you have large objects that may cause memory exhaustion. There are three classes inherited from the abstract class Reference: SoftReference, WeakReference, and PhantomReference. Each of these provides a different level of indirection for the garbage collector if the object in question is only reachable through one of these Reference objects.

If an object is reachable, it means that somewhere in your program the object can be found. This could mean that you have an ordinary reference on the stack that goes right to the object, but you might also have a reference to an object that has a reference to the object in question; there could be many intermediate links. If an object is reachable, the garbage collector cannot release it because it’s still in use by your program. If an object isn’t reachable, there’s no way for your program to use it, so it’s safe to garbage collect that object.

You use Reference objects when you want to continue to hold onto a reference to that object; you want to be able to reach that object, but you also want to allow the garbage collector to release that object. Thus, you have a way to go on using the object, but if memory exhaustion is imminent, you allow that object to be released.

You accomplish this by using a Reference object as an intermediary between you and the ordinary reference, and there must be no ordinary references to the object (ones that are not wrapped inside Reference objects). If the garbage collector discovers that an object is reachable through an ordinary reference, it will not release that object.

In the order of SoftReference, WeakReference, and PhantomReference, each one is “weaker” than the last and corresponds to a different level of reachability. Soft references are for implementing memory-sensitive caches. Weak references are for implementing “canonicalizing mappings”—where instances of objects can be simultaneously used in multiple places in a program, to save storage—that do not prevent their keys (or values) from being reclaimed. Phantom references are for scheduling premortem cleanup actions in a more flexible way than is possible with the Java finalization mechanism.

With SoftReferences and WeakReferences, you have a choice about whether to place them on a ReferenceQueue (the device used for premortem cleanup actions), but a PhantomReference can only be built on a ReferenceQueue. Here’s a simple demonstration:

// Demonstrates Reference objects
import java.lang.ref.*;

class VeryBig {
  private static final int SZ = 10000;
  private double[] d = new double[SZ];
  private String ident;
  public VeryBig(String id) { ident = id; }
  public String toString() { return ident; }
  public void finalize() {
    System.out.println("Finalizing " + ident);

public class References {
  private static ReferenceQueue rq = new ReferenceQueue();
  public static void checkQueue() {
    Object inq = rq.poll();
    if(inq != null)
      System.out.println("In queue: " +
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    int size = 10;
    // Or, choose size via the command line:
    if(args.length > 0)
      size = Integer.parseInt(args[0]);
    SoftReference[] sa = new SoftReference[size];
    for(int i = 0; i < sa.length; i++) {
      sa[i] = new SoftReference(
        new VeryBig("Soft " + i), rq);
      System.out.println("Just created: " +
    WeakReference[] wa = new WeakReference[size];
    for(int i = 0; i < wa.length; i++) {
      wa[i] = new WeakReference(
        new VeryBig("Weak " + i), rq);
      System.out.println("Just created: " +
    SoftReference s =
      new SoftReference(new VeryBig("Soft"));
    WeakReference w =
      new WeakReference(new VeryBig("Weak"));
    PhantomReference[] pa = new PhantomReference[size];
    for(int i = 0; i < pa.length; i++) {
      pa[i] = new PhantomReference(
        new VeryBig("Phantom " + i), rq);
      System.out.println("Just created: " +
} ///:~

When you run this program (you’ll want to pipe the output through a “more” utility so that you can view the output in pages), you’ll see that the objects are garbage collected, even though you still have access to them through the Reference object (to get the actual object reference, you use get( )). You’ll also see that the ReferenceQueue always produces a Reference containing a null object. To make use of this, you can inherit from the particular Reference class you’re interested in and add more useful methods to the new type of Reference.
Thinking in Java
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire