Assign, retain, copy: pitfalls in Obj-C property accessors

Please note: this article is part of the older "Objective-C era" on Cocoa with Love. I don't keep these articles up-to-date; please be wary of broken code or potentially out-of-date information. Read "A new era for Cocoa with Love" for more.

In this post, I'll look at some very subtle problems that can occur if a getter or setter method chooses the wrong memory management pattern and in the process, explain why NSDictionary copies its keys rather than simply retains them.

Scope of this article: in this post I'll be discussing basic memory and mutability considerations in Objective-C accessor methods. If you're interested in atomicity and thread safety issues in accessor methods, please read my earlier post on Memory and thread-safe custom property methods. This post will only look at non-atomic accessors.

Why implement your own accessors?

If you know about Objective-C's properties, you may already be asking, "Why implement your own accessors at all?". For simple accessors, you can (and probably should) use the synthesized @property accessors and not worry about the implementation. The reason for this post is that you will often need to implement accessor methods yourself to attach additional behaviors to the get or set action, so you always need to know how the accessor should work.

The one you already know: the assign pattern

Since you're reading this blog, it's probably safe to assume that you already know how a basic assign accessor looks:

- (SomeVariable)someValue
    return someValue;

and a setter method looks like this:

- (void)setSomeValue:(SomeVariable)aSomeVariableValue
    someValue = aSomeVariableValue;

For most non-object data, that's all you need. This is the implementation you'd get with a non-atomic assign synthesized @property.

Retain: first opportunities for failure

If you're working with retain/released objects in Objective-C, your object will become invalid if your setter does not retain it, so the setter must handle this.

The most completely thorough, all purpose way of handling retain and release issues in a setter looks like this:

- (void)setSomeInstance:(SomeClass *)aSomeInstanceValue
    if (someInstance == aSomeInstanceValue)
    SomeClass *oldValue = someInstance;
    someInstance = [aSomeInstanceValue retain];
    [oldValue release];

This is obviously much more complicated than a simple assignment.

The biggest point that stands out i the weird retain/release dance occupying the last three lines of this code block. We do this to avoid problems where the object pointed to by aSomeInstanceValue and someInstance is the same. Imagine the following:

- (void)setSomeInstance:(SomeClass *)aSomeInstanceValue
    [someInstance release]; // <-- original value is released
    someInstance = [aSomeInstanceValue retain];

If aSomeInstanceValue and someInstance are the same object, then the first line could release the underlying object before the second line retains it — meaning that the object is destroyed and invalid by the time it is retained again.

You'll notice that we use the C equality operator to compare the two objects instead of the isEqual: method. Normally, this is a bad idea (Objective-C objects may be "equal" even if they do not point to the same location in memory) but in this case, we are specifically interested in cases where the memory location (and hence the retain counts) are identical. The comparison is not strictly necessary to prevent premature release (since the retain precedes the release) but it's an optimization and safety measure.

In reality though, all this is a bit painful to write: the comparison, the annoying temporary value and the careful ordering of everything. In practice, we normally use a shorter version of the setter method that is basically just as good and is certainly far easier to write:

- (void)setSomeInstance:(SomeClass *)aSomeInstanceValue
    [someInstance autorelease];
    someInstance = [aSomeInstanceValue retain];

In this case, we don't care about the comparison optimisation and we use the autorelease pool to temporarily hold the original value instead of our own stack value.

This method has the same safety as the retain/release dance but requires an autorelease pool and is marginally slower if someInstance and aSomeInstanceValue are actually the same. In reality, there's almost always an autorelease pool in a Cocoa application and the performance difference is more theoretical than real (you'd have difficulty constructing a test program to ever show a difference) until you start creating copy setters (see below).

Not all Objective-C setters should retain: There are some situations where a setter method that takes an Objective-C object should not retain its parameter. Specifically: objects in a hierarchy should not normally retain their parents. Look at Rules to avoid retain cycles for more on this topic.

The other half of the retain access pattern

In reality, even if you forget to perform the if (newInstance == oldInstance) return; check in your accessor method, you are highly unlikely to see a problem even if you actually do pass the current value to a setter method.

The reason why you are normally safe, even if you make a mistake, is because the parameter you pass into a method normally has another retain count held elsewhere.

Specifically: most objects you access on the stack have an autoreleased retain count held by an autorelease pool on the stack or a longer lived object somewhere in the heap.

Theoretically, you could help this idea along by implementing your getter methods like this for retained objects:

- (SomeClass *)someInstance
    return [[someInstance retain] autorelease];

This will ensure that if your object is used like this:

SomeClass *stackInstance = [anObject someInstance];
[anObject release]; // anObject releases its someInstance ivar in its dealloc method
[stackInstance doSomething];

Then the stackInstance variable will still be valid when doSomething is invoked on it.

Generally though, I don't bother doing this in non-atomic getter methods.

Why not? Speed, redundancy and common sense.

While retaining and autoreleasing something is not a gigantic overhead, it is normally just not needed for a get accessor method. The programmer using the get accessor should understand that the lifetime is bound to the source object.

However, you may want to use this pattern in a situation where it is not immediately clear that the value returned is a getter method. For example:

@implementation ThisClassIsReallyJustAString

- (NSString *)description
    return [[internalValue retain] autorelease];


The description method (which returns an NSString representation of an object) does not normally return an instance variable directly so it would not ordinarily be considered an accessor method. In this situation, it is implemented as an accessor but due to the expectation that the description is a generated value, we need to retain and autorelease the returned value.

Any instance variable returned from a method where the method is not obviously an accessor method should always go through a retain/autorelease since it is not immediately obvious that its lifetime would be bound to the lifetime of the source object.

Copy accessors

The reason why retain accessors exist is obvious — you don't want the value to be deallocated while it is set on the object.

The reason for the final accessor pattern in Objective-C — copy accessors — is less broadly understood but nonetheless relevant.

You should use a copy accessor when the setter parameter may be mutable but you can't have the internal state of a property changing without warning. Consider the following example:

NSMutableString *mutableString = [NSMutableString stringWithString:@"initial value"];
[someObject setStringValue:mutableString];
[mutableString setString:@"different value"];

In this situation, if the setStringValue: method followed the retain pattern, then the setString: method invoked on the next line would change the internal value of this property without warning someObject.

Sometimes, you don't care if the internal state of a property change without warning. However, if you do care about the internal state of a property changing, then you'll want to use a copy setter.

The implementation of a non-atomic copy setter is as simple as you'd imagine:

- (void)setStringValue:(NSString *)aString
    if (stringValue == aString)
    NSString *oldValue = stringValue;
    stringValue = [aString copy];
    [oldValue release];
Correction: I had previously stated that you don't need the equality comparison for a copy (since I wrongly claimed the copy would ensure you always have a different block of memory). I was wrong, of course. As was immediately pointed out in the comments: copy does not always return a copy; for immutable objects, copy can return the same object. I forgot about this, even though I've certainly written copy setters that work this way (see the SynthesizeSingleton code). The result is that we still need the comparison to ensure that setting the property to the same value doesn't cause the same potential release problems that the previous retain pattern had. Did I mention it is possible to screw up property accessors?

This finally explains why NSDictionary copies its keys.

NSDictionary stores all its value objects in locations according to the result of each corresponding key object's hash method.

If a key object were to change in such a way that the hash method result changed, then the NSDictionary would not be able to find the corresponding value object any more.

Key objects are not set by a property accessor on an NSDictionary but the effect is the same: the copy pattern is used to ensure that outside objects cannot change the internal state of the dictionary without warning.

Of course, the downside to properties that follow the copy pattern is speed. It's not normally an issue for objects up to a few kilobytes but beyond that point, you'll need to consider whether copy is the right pattern for the resources involved.


Getter and setter methods are frequently given as the simplest kind of method to implement. But you can see that even within this very simple kind of method, there are subtle ways that they can go wrong.

Overall, this post is a much simpler level than my typical posts but that doesn't mean its only for novice Objective-C developers. Experienced programmers are far from immune to mistakes in this area. Some of the potential quirks with getter and setter methods are so rare you may never see a problem (even if your code is doing things in an unsafe manner) so learning from experience can take time in this area.

Of course, if you don't need any customization in your accessor methods, you should simply use a synthesized @property implementation. This will avoid any possibility of introducing mistakes.