What is autoboxing and unboxing in Java? – J045
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The “What is autoboxing and unboxing in Java?” video is part of a larger free online class called “Free Java Course Online”. You can find more information about this class on “Free Java Course Online” syllabus.
Transcript – What is autoboxing and unboxing in Java?
Hi there! For the next section of videos, we’re going to focus on the String and Number classes. Let’s start with the number classes, and then we’ll talk about how Java uses autoboxing and unboxing to convert these classes to and from Java primitives.
What are the number classes?
In earlier videos we looked at the primitive data types for numbers. They were the bytes, shorts, ints, longs, floats, and doubles.
The java.lang package also includes a wrapper class for each of these primitive data types. All of the number types are subclasses of the Number class.
For example, the byte primitive has a matching Java class called Byte. The difference when declaring a Java variable using a class is the class version is uppercase. That’s because all classes in Java are declared starting with a capital letter by convention.
The other difference is the matching class for ints are Integers. I think the reason is int matches closely with C primitives, the language Java mimics. There’s no defined class in C for integers, so in Java they were free to use the full word for the class.
These wrapper classes are immutable. Immutable means once we create an object instance with a value, the value cannot be changed.
A wrapper class is a class that “wraps” the functionality of another class or component. We’d do this to add functionality to an existing class without using inheritance, or converting a primitive data type into a class. In this case, the wrapper classes are “wrapping” a number primitive.
The number classes also include BigInteger, BigDecimal, AtomicInteger, and AtomicLong. BigInteger and BigDecimal are used for high precision applications where you need to accurately represent the number. Other than a cool sounding name, AtomicInteger and AtomicLong are used for multi-threaded applications. We’ll cover these classes in later lessons.
Why do they duplicate the number primitives?
You’re probably wondering, why? Why do we have classes for numbers, when we already have the number primitives. There’s several reasons.
First there are other classes with methods which expect objects as the parameter. The main ones are Java collection classes. We’ll have many lessons discussing the Java collection classes, but these classes represent things like linked lists and they only hold classes.
The other reason is these classes have defined constants and methods associated with the number type. For example, the number classes have constants like the maximum and minimum values. So we never need to memorize this long number! It’s much easier to read MAX_INT than a long string of digits, and we’ll never type it wrong.
The number classes also have many methods for manipulating the data type, like converting integers to a hexadecimal or binary representation. We’re going to cover many of these methods in the next few lessons. For right now, let’s look at how Java converts between the class and primitive numbers.
AutoBoxing and Unboxing numbers
Java converts between numbers and primitives automatically using something called autoboxing and unboxing.
Autoboxing is when Java automatically converts a number primitive to an instance of the corresponding number class. The simplest example of this is when you declare a number class instance.
We know we can create a class instance using the new keyword. We’ve done this many times, and for the number classes we can pass the number we want as an argument to the constructor. So here we are creating an Integer instance with the value of 8.
This is a special rule in the Java language, but you can also define the number like you would create a primitive. That looks like this.
What happens is the compiler converts the number 8 to an integer class by replacing the declaration to look like this. The valueOf method takes a primitive, and returns an instance of the class. This happens automatically. We never see it happen in our code. This is autoboxing.
Autoboxing also happens when you pass a primitive to a method expecting a object. For example, if we had a method like this, we can pass an primitive. Java will convert it to a class instance for us. Again, this is automatic.
Unboxing happens in the other direction. This is when we have the number class, but Java is expecting the primitive. In this case, Java “unboxes” the primitive from the wrapper class.
For example, let’s use the Integer class in an if-then test. We create the integer, perform an operation on it, and then the test. Remember i in this example is an instance, not a primitive. Still Java knows to unbox the instance into a primitive. Behind the scenes, the compiler is replacing our code with the intValue method. Java is doing this automatically for us. This is called unboxing.
Prefer primitives to boxed numbers
The next question we’re likely asking is, why use primitives at all.
Primitives have their value and nothing more. Boxed values have identities associated with the object. This means that two boxed values can have different identities. Usually. There’s a weird quirk to this, and if you want to know more about it, check out the weird Java number tricks video.
Boxed values also have the possibility to be null, meaning the instance can have a primitive value or no value. We could get into a case where we think we’re comparing numbers, but the instance gets us into trouble. Imagine we create an Integer instance, but we never create a value. Now compare the number. This gives us a NullPointerException. The reason is we’re unboxing the number by calling the intValue method, but the method is not a static method. It’s an instance method, but our instance is null. So boom.
The key to remember is when we autobox or unbox, behind the scenes a method is getting called. This can lead to performance penalties if we’re doing this for millions of numbers. We should always prefer primitives if we can get away with it.
That’s it for Java autoboxing and unboxing. If you have any questions, add them to the comments below. Next we’ll look at the methods and constants inside the Number classes. Liking the video helps me know what I’m doing right, so if you liked the video… you know what to do.
And with that, I’ll see you in the next tutorial!
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Your personal instructor
My name is DJ Spiess and I’m a developer with a Masters degree in Computer Science working in Colorado, USA. I primarily work with Java server applications. I started programming as a kid in the 1980s, and I’ve programmed professionally since 1996. My main focus are REST APIs, large-scale data, and mobile development. The last six years I’ve worked on large National Science Foundation projects. You can read more about my development experience on my LinkedIn account.