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Friday Q&A 2013-02-22: Let's Build UITableView
by Matthew Elton  

Friday Q&A is driven by the readers, and that's especially true today. Reader Matthew Elton thought that "Let's Build UITableView" would make a good topic for Friday Q&A, but he decided he'd rather implement it himself and write it up rather than wait for me to do it (good move, Matthew). Without further ado, here is Matthew's article an building UITableView.

Let's Build UITableView
UITableView is a powerful and full featured class, but its internal workings can seem mysterious. Most of the time use of the class is straightforward: in return for following the prescribed practice in the documentation, the developer gets a responsive scrolling table that is frugal with memory even when the row count is high. But when pushing the class hard, for example with large tables where each row may have a different and varying height, it helps to have a deeper understanding of how the class works.

In this article, I am going to implement a basic version of a table view class. This will show how the class works its magic and also show just why UITableView asks what it does - and when - of its data source and delegate.

Implementation Strategy
UITableView is a subclass of UIScrollView and, with the power of that class in place, it takes only a little work to implement a basic version of a table view. Before diving into code, consider two key tasks needed to keep performance high and memory usage low.

  1. The table view is going to need a pool of reusable views for displaying the rows in the table. Why is this?

    • Consider a table with, say, a 1000 rows. To the user, it looks as if there are a 1000 views all neatly stacked one upon the other. Although building views is fast and modern devices do have a lot of memory, if the table view has to build and store a 1000 views, there is serious risk of a performance hit. It might mean, for example, that there's a nasty lag before the table first appears. Not good.

    • Fortunately, the table view does not need to take this approach. It only needs to behave as if it has a 1000 neatly stacked views. In fact, the table view only needs actual views for the rows in the table that are visible at any given time. Typically this is a fairly small number. And, in any case, it's reliably much smaller than a 1000. To make the illusion work, the table view just needs to move a few views around, so they appear in the part of the scroll view that is visible to the user. Then it has to make sure their contents are updated according to the row they are currently representing. Recycling views from a pool, rather than making new views each time they are needed, ensures things happen fast enough for smooth scrolling even on older iOS devices.

  2. The table view is also going to need to know the starting position and height of each row in the table. And, critically, it will need this information before it attempts any layout at all. Why is this?

    • First, it needs to know how tall the table is so it can tell the scroll view the size of its contents and, thus, ensure that the scroll bars are the right size, that when the user gets to the bottom of the table they experience the pleasing elastic band effect, and so on.

    • Second, whenever the scroll view moves, the table view needs to figure out how to reposition its reusable views and whether it needs to refresh their contents.

It turns out that the reusable pool is very simple to implement, so we'll do that first. The mechanism for coordinating rows, their offsets and their contents, is only a little trickier. We'll do that second and build it up by stages.

A Reusable Pool of Views
UITableView keeps a pool of reusable views, Apple calls it a queue, with each view representing a single row of the table. Often every row of the table is similar but sometimes tables have different types of rows. So UITableView asks its data source to specify a reuse identifier when working with the pool of reusable views. A reuse identifier is an NSString that is passed to the UITableView method dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier:.

The dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier: method asks the UITableView to return a view. With a fresh UITableView the pool will be empty and the method will return nil. But once a UITableView is up and running, it may well have views in its pool. If it does and if their reuse identifier matches that specified in the dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier: call, then this view is returned.

If you've used UITableView at all, you'll be familiar with the standard pattern for using dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier:. In your data source, you implement the tableView:cellForRowAtIndexPath: method to return a view to represent a given row of your table. At the start of the method, you either grab a view from the pool or make a new one. Either way you populate the view with data for the row. Typical codes looks like this:

    - (UITableViewCell*) tableView:(UITableView*) tableView cellForRowAtIndexPath:(NSIndexPath*) indexPath
    {
        UITableViewCell* cell = [tableView dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier: @"standardRow"];
        if (!cell)
        {
            cell = [[UITableViewCell alloc] initWithStyle: UITableViewCellStyleDefault reuseIdentifier: @"standardRow"];
            [cell autorelease];
        }

        [self populateCell: cell forIndexPath: indexPath];
        return cell;
    }

OK, so let's implement dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier:.

    - (PGTableViewCell*) dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier: (NSString*) reuseIdentifier
    {
        PGTableViewCell* poolCell = nil;

        for (PGTableViewCell* tableViewCell in [self reusePool])
        {
            if ([[tableViewCell reuseIdentifier] isEqualToString: reuseIdentifier])
            {
                poolCell = tableViewCell;
                break;
            }
        }

        if (poolCell)
        {
            [poolCell retain];
            [[self reusePool] removeObject: poolCell];
            [poolCell autorelease];
        }

        return poolCell;
    }

In this implementation the reusePool property is an NSMutableArray. And a PGTableViewCell is simply a subclass of UIView that has one additional property, an NSString called reuseIdentifier. The real UITableViewCell has lots of extra functionality, but this property is all that's needed for our basic implementation.

The method assumes that any view in reusePool is available, i.e it is not currently being used to display a visible row. Of course, for the method to do its job, the table view will need to make sure that relevant views are added to it. That is, it'll need to work out when a row is moved off screen and, at that point, add it to the reuse pool.

Gathering Height and Vertical Offset Data
UITableView cheerfully copes with fixed and variable row heights and our basic implementation will be no different. If the delegate responds to the tableView:heightForRowAtIndexPath: method, then a UITableView will ask the delegate for the height of every row. It gets to know about the number of rows in the table by asking the data source using the tableView:numberOfRowsInSection: method (which is required) and the optional numberOfSectionsInTableView: method. (If this method isn't implemented, the table view assumes you have just one section.)

For our implementation, we will simplify a little. Our table will not have any sections, so we just need to learn about the number of rows. We'll require our data source to implement numberOfRowsInPgTableView. And, following Apple, we'll offer an optional pgTableView:heightForRow: method as part of the delegate protocol.

    - (void) generateHeightAndOffsetData
    {
        CGFloat currentOffsetY = 0.0;

        BOOL checkHeightForEachRow = [[self delegate] respondsToSelector: @selector(pgTableView:heightForRow:)];

        NSMutableArray* newRowRecords = [NSMutableArray array];

        NSInteger numberOfRows = [[self dataSource] numberOfRowsInPgTableView: self];

        for (NSInteger row = 0; row < numberOfRows; row++)
        {
            PGRowRecord* rowRecord = [[PGRowRecord alloc] init];

            CGFloat rowHeight = checkHeightForEachRow ? [[self delegate] pgTableView: self heightForRow: row] : [self rowHeight];

            [rowRecord setHeight: rowHeight + _pgRowMargin];
            [rowRecord setStartPositionY: currentOffsetY + _pgRowMargin];

            [newRowRecords insertObject: rowRecord atIndex: row];
            [rowRecord release];

            currentOffsetY = currentOffsetY + rowHeight + _pgRowMargin;
        }

        [self setRowRecords: newRowRecords];

        [self setContentSize: CGSizeMake([self bounds].size.width,  currentOffsetY)];
    }

The code builds an array of PGRowRecord instances that capture what we will need to perform our layout work. A PGRowRecord records the starting position of a row, its height and - as we'll see later - a pointer to the view that represents the row if the row is visible. The generateHeightAndOffsetData method has no idea what is visible or not, so it doesn't set the pointer to the view.

As the code shows, we need to check to see if the delegate is up for providing height information. If it is then we ask it once for each row in the table.

Arguably, there is room for greater efficiency here. The height of a given row could be derived by subtracting the current starting position from the next starting position (and having some record of the very last starting position, i.e. the start of the row after the last row). And, in addition, for the case of fixed height rows, we could pass on storing start positions and heights altogether, but simply calculate them when needed. But it looks as if we might need the array anyway, because we need to keep track of whether a given row is currently visible. So we'll leave this method as is for now.

Laying Out the Rows
Having gathered start positions and heights, the work of laying out the views is straightforward. The table view fetches its contentOffset, a property of the UIScrollView that indicates the start of the visible section of the view. It then figures out the first row that needs to be shown, stepping forward one row at a time until the visible section of the view is filled up.

The only complexity here is keeping careful track of which rows are displayed so the table view can then check to see if any that were previously visible have now gone. In that case, it will want to put them back in the pool for reuse. The returnNonVisibleRowsToThePool: method will do this work if required.

    - (void) layoutTableRows
    {
        CGFloat currentStartY = [self contentOffset].y;
        CGFloat currentEndY = currentStartY + [self frame].size.height;

        NSInteger rowToDisplay = [self findRowForOffsetY: currentStartY inRange: NSMakeRange(0, [[self rowRecords] count])];

        NSMutableIndexSet* newVisibleRows = [[NSMutableIndexSet alloc] init];

        CGFloat yOrigin;
        CGFloat rowHeight;
        do
        {
            [newVisibleRows addIndex: rowToDisplay];

            yOrigin = [self startPositionYForRow: rowToDisplay];
            rowHeight = [self heightForRow: rowToDisplay];

            PGTableViewCell* cell = [self cachedCellForRow: rowToDisplay];

            if (!cell)
            {
                cell = [[self dataSource] pgTableView: self cellForRow: rowToDisplay];
                [self setCachedCell: cell forRow: rowToDisplay];

                [cell setFrame: CGRectMake(0.0, yOrigin, [self bounds].size.width, rowHeight - _pgRowMargin)];
                [self addSubview: cell];
            }

            rowToDisplay++;
        }
        while (yOrigin + rowHeight < currentEndY && rowToDisplay < [[self rowRecords] count]);

        [self returnNonVisibleRowsToThePool: newVisibleRows];

        [newVisibleRows release];
    }

This method is going to get called a lot. Every time you scroll the table or, indeed, every time the system does, this method will need to be called. Ensuring that it is is achieved by overriding the superclass setContentOffset: method as follows.

    - (void) setContentOffset:(CGPoint)contentOffset
    {
        [super setContentOffset: contentOffset];
        [self layoutTableRows];
    }

If you are playing with this code, you can put an NSLog in here to get a feel for the frequency of calls, not least because this drives home the importance of ensuring the layoutTableRows is fast.

One thing that could really slow down layoutTableRows would be inefficiency in the findRowForOffsetY:inRange method. So it seemed worth putting a little effort into this. Because the array of rowRecords is already sorted, we can take advantage of the NSArray method indexOfObject:inSortedRange:options:usingComparator:. This performs a binary search to home in on the first row that is needed for the current vertical offset of the UIScrollView. For a table of 6000 rows or so, this method can be 100 times faster than just cranking through the list of rows from the start. That said, after doing some measuring it became clear that even unoptimised iteration is fast enough most of the time. By 'fast enough' here I mean that doing it inefficiently has no discernible impact on the user experience, at least for tables up to 10,000 rows.

    - (NSInteger) findRowForOffsetY: (CGFloat) yPosition inRange: (NSRange) range
    {
        if ([[self rowRecords] count] == 0) return 0;

        PGRowRecord* rowRecord = [[PGRowRecord alloc] init];
        [rowRecord setStartPositionY: yPosition];

        NSInteger returnValue = [[self rowRecords] indexOfObject: rowRecord
                                                   inSortedRange: NSMakeRange(0, [[self rowRecords] count])
                                                         options: NSBinarySearchingInsertionIndex
                                                 usingComparator: ^NSComparisonResult(PGRowRecord* rowRecord1, PGRowRecord* rowRecord2){
                if ([rowRecord1 startPositionY] < [rowRecord2 startPositionY])
                    return NSOrderedAscending;
                return NSOrderedDescending;
        }];
        [rowRecord release];
        if (returnValue == 0) return 0;
        return returnValue - 1;
    }

The final method used by layoutTableRows is returnNonVisibleRowsToThePool: This makes use of some handy methods provided by the NSMutableIndexSet class to figure out which, if any rows, are now no longer visible. For all that are, it clears the pointer to the view in the row's PGRowRecord instance, removes the view from its superview and then adds it into the pool.

    - (void) returnNonVisibleRowsToThePool: (NSMutableIndexSet*) currentVisibleRows
    {
        [[self visibleRows] removeIndexes: currentVisibleRows];
        [[self visibleRows] enumerateIndexesUsingBlock:^(NSUInteger row, BOOL *stop)
         {
             PGTableViewCell* tableViewCell = [self cachedCellForRow: row];
             if (tableViewCell)
             {
                 [[self reusePool] addObject: tableViewCell];
                 [tableViewCell removeFromSuperview];
                 [self setCachedCell: nil forRow: row];
             }
         }];
        [self setVisibleRows: currentVisibleRows];
    }

Nearly Done
That's all the hard work. The reloadData method just uses code we've already written. Because the generateHeightAndOffsetData method is going to discard the current record of visible cells, the reloadData method takes care to remove all the currently visible views first.

    - (void) reloadData
    {
        [self returnNonVisibleRowsToThePool: nil];
        [self generateHeightAndOffsetData];
        [self layoutTableRows];
    }

The rest is just housekeeping, such as setting up data source and delegate protocols and providing some convenience methods for accessing our array of PGRowRecords. The details are in the full source, along with a bonus row:changedHeight: method which allows for a row to change height without forcing the delegate to provide new height information for every other row.

The source includes a small test app so you can see PGTableView working, showing the text of this article with three different row types: code, headings, and text. The test app lets you turn off the reuse pool so you can see the difference in performance and also lets you run measurements for two variants of findRowForOffset:inRange.

See https://github.com/Obliquely/Let-s-Build-UITableView for the source, including the test app. The code here is for learning purposes and is not production tested. If you want to make use of any of the code, please feel free.

Conclusion
One of the things this exercise reveals is just why UITableView has to ask for the height of every row when you call the reloadData method. When tables have many rows and when the cost of calculating the height of a row is high, this requirement can be a burden. In such cases, it can make sense to cache row heights so that they don't all have to be recalculated when you or the table view calls reloadData, e.g. to add an extra row or because the height of one row has changed. And, in addition, if your table needs to cope with a change orientation that then calls for row height adjustments, you can do work in the background calculating the heights in the orientation you're not in, so that if or when the change comes, the work is already done.

Given that we know the UITableView must be keeping its own cache of row heights, it is perhaps mildly annoying that this caching work may need to be done twice. After all, given what we have seen here it seems likely that any implementation would have scope to implement insert, delete, and move methods in such a way that they didn't need to trigger a call tableView:heightForRowAtIndexPath: on every row. And it seems likely that it would be easy easy for Apple to implement a rowAtIndexPath:changedHeight: method top cope with growing or shrinking rows. Still, the fully featued UITableView is a mighty class. So perhaps it's not seemly to carp about such a minor detail.

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Comments:

Jeff Kelley at 2013-02-22 16:29:14:
This looks great! A companion piece on UICollectionView would be spectacular.

Sean Heber at 2013-02-22 17:30:06:
If you're interested in another variation of a UITableView implementation, check out my implementation in Chameleon: https://github.com/BigZaphod/Chameleon

Marcin at 2013-03-06 21:25:38:
Would it make sense for the reusePool to be a dictionary of arrays instead, keyed by the reuseIdentifier? That way you don't need to potentially walk through the whole pool looking for a matching reuseIdentifier. Although given the reuse pool isn't likely to be very big, unless you have a huge variety of different cell types, it's probably much of a muchness.

jamie at 2013-03-07 23:19:41:
@Marcin I believe the actual implementation is as you've described. UITableView.h shows an iVar _reusableTableCells which is a mutable dictionary, presumably mapping the reuse identifiers to mutable arrays of cells.

Clay Bridges at 2013-03-18 18:41:40:
If want a let's-build-it for UICollectionView, you might be interested in https://github.com/steipete/PSTCollectionView, which implements a production-quality UICollectionView replacement for iOS 5.0. It also has a method of switching to native UICollectionView for 6.0+.

Martin at 2013-12-25 05:41:04:
Thumbs up ! The self written UITableView class is very efficient for high performance.

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It's interesting solution. Thanks for giving the code free for use.

Cheers,
M.

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