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The Performance of Java's Lists


The SDK has several implementations of the ordered collection interface java.util.List. The three best known are Vector, ArrayList, and LinkedList.

One question that frequently reaches the Java Performance Tuning site asks about the performance differences between these List classes. In this article I'll take a look at the performance differences between the LinkedList implementation and the Vector/ArrayList implementations.

To consider fully the performance ramifications of these classes, we need to know how they are implemented. So I'll start with brief descriptions of the most important implementation aspects from the point of view of performance.

The Vector and ArrayList implementations

Vector and ArrayList are both implemented with an underlying Object[] array that stores the elements. Accessing elements by index is a simple matter of accessing elements in the internal array by index:

public Object get(int index) {
  //check the index is valid first .. code not shown here
  return elementData[index];

The internal array can be bigger than the number of elements held by the Vector/ArrayList object: the difference is kept as extra capacity for efficiently adding elements. Adding elements is then very simply achieved by assigning the element to the first empty location in the internal array, and incrementing the index (size) for the new empty location:

public boolean add(Object o) {
  ensureCapacity(size + 1); //explained soon
  elementData[size++] = o;
  return true;  //List.add(Object) signature support

Inserting elements into the collection at any location other than the end is slightly more tricky: the array elements above the insertion point must all be moved up by one, then the assignment can occur:

public void add(int index, Object element) {
  //check the index is valid first .. code not shown here
  ensureCapacity(size+1); //explained soon
  System.arraycopy(elementData, index, elementData, index + 1, 
        size - index);
  elementData[index] = element;

When the spare capacity is used up, the Vector/ArrayList object must replace its internal Object[] array with a new larger array when more elements need to be added, copying all the elements to the new array. The new array is 50% to 100% bigger than the old one depending on the SDK version (the code shown here makes it 100% bigger):

public void ensureCapacity(int minCapacity) {
  int oldCapacity = elementData.length;
  if (minCapacity > oldCapacity) {
    Object oldData[] = elementData;
    int newCapacity = Math.max(oldCapacity * 2, minCapacity);
    elementData = new Object[newCapacity];
    System.arraycopy(oldData, 0, elementData, 0, size);

Also in Java Design and Performance Optimization:

Micro-Tuning Step-by-Step

Tuning JDBC: Measuring JDBC performance

Faster List Iteration with RandomAccess Interface

Multiprocess JVMs

Catching OutOfMemoryErrors to Preserve Monitoring and Server Processes

The main difference between the Vector class and the ArrayList class is the use of synchronization. Apart from two methods used only during serialization, none of the ArrayList methods are synchronized; in contrast most of the Vector methods are synchronized directly or indirectly. Consequently Vector is thread-safe, and ArrayList isn't. This makes ArrayList faster than Vector. For some of the latest JVMs the difference in speed between the two classes is negligible: strictly speaking, for these JVMs the difference in speed between the two classes is less than the variation in times obtained from tests comparing the performance of these classes.

The Vector and ArrayList implementations have excellent performance for indexed access and update of elements, since there is no overhead beyond range checking. Adding elements to, or deleting elements from, the end of the list also gives excellent performance except when the capacity is exhausted and the internal array has to be expanded. Inserting and deleting elements always require an array copy (two copies when the internal array must be grown first). The number of elements to be copied is proportional to [size-index], i.e. to the distance between the insertion/deletion index and the last index in the collection. For insertions, inserting to the front of the collection (index 0) gives the worst performance, and inserting at the end of the collection (after the last element) gives the best. The array copying overhead grows significantly as the size of the collection increases because the number of elements that need to be copied with each insertion increases.

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