- Yesterday Tim Bray, Google's newest Android Developer Advocate, shared his Content Provider Iterator. Before he shared it with you, he showed it to me to check "is this sick and twisted?". Here (with some additional colour) is what I told him.
There's often a good reason the original framework works the way it does. In Android that reason is performance. When developing for servers and PCs simplicity and familiarity is often a good trade-off for a marginal performance hit. In mobile it isn’t.
That said, these sorts of helper classes can improve code readability and cement best practices so I owe it to Tim to justify my unease.
First off, let’s look at what we’re trying to solve -- iterating over a Cursor.
Tim’s code lets us do this:
for (Call call : calls)
String number = call.getnumber();
The alternative in “normal” Android is this:
Cursor cursor =
String number =
Certainly Tim’s solution is more familiar to those of us who prefer working with Objects to Cursors, and we save a line of code, but what’s the cost?
The two golden rules when designing for performance in Android are:
- Don't do work that you don't need to do
- Don't allocate memory if you can avoid it
1) Avoid creating objects
Allocating memory (and performing garbage collection in a resource constrained environment is expensive. Every time you extract information from a Cursor Using this class, you're creating a new object for each row, and allocating memory to store every column value too.
2) Avoid Reflection
Wow, that’s a lot of reflection. Reflection is expensive.
For every iteration you’re using reflection to create a new instance of your row object. During the construction of every object you use reflection to find a Setter for each column, then again to invoke the Setter for each column.
That’s a lot of reflection and it won’t take long to feel that hit on your performance.
3) Avoid Method Calls
Method calls are (comparatively) expensive - enough so that it's generally considered good practice in Android to avoid using Getters and Setters within a class. After creating objects you need virtual method calls to allocate each of the row values used, and again to extract them.
4) Minimize frequency of object creation
What's neat about this solution is it's dynamicsm, it creates your new objects each time you to iterate over the list without needing to maintain a separate collection.
But there is a risk here. Because it's dynamic, the generic solution doesn't offer a solution for monitoring changes to objects or the addition or removal of rows. To handle this you'd re-iterate over the list whenever the underlying dataset changes - reinforcing the performance issues described above.
5) Static state and thread safety
As written, this code isn’t thread safe, and maintains the current position of the cursor as a state variable. Using the same Reader to iterate over a cursor in two threads will come to grief very quickly indeed!
The Call Log has a half dozen columns and maybe a hundred rows, so you might get away with this. But what happens when you do it over contacts? Or email? Or Ocado’s entire grocery catalogue? It’s a dangerous pattern because its performance cost is dependent entirely on the shape of your dataset.
Imagine the case for a retailer with a database of several thousand products, each with a dozen String-based columns. Say 2,000 products with 12 string rows. That’s using reflection over 50,000 times and creating nearing 30,000 objects. That’s an awful lot of reflection and object creation to save a line of code.
Different platforms require different thinking. In my experience, becoming comfortable with how these systems are designed to be used is vital to understanding the best ways of implementing solutions. To quote an Android engineer on the subject, “I understand that coming from Ruby, one would want objects generated for you, but there is such a huge performance cost on mobile devices that it simply doesn't work.”