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Java collections overview

by Mikhail Vorontsov

This article will give you an overview of all standard Java collections. We will categorize their distinguishable properties and main use cases. Besides that, we will list all correct ways of transforming your data between various collection types.


Array is the only collection type built in Java. It is useful when you know an upper bound on the number of processed elements in advance. java.util.Arrays contains a lot of useful methods for array processing:

  • Arrays.asList – conversion from array to List, which could be passed to other standard collection constructors.
  • Arrays.binarySearch – fast lookup in a sorted array or its subsection.
  • Arrays.copyOf – use this method if you need to expand your array while keeping its contents.
  • Arrays.copyOfRange – if you need to make a copy of the whole array or its subsection.
  • Arrays.deepEquals, Arrays.deepHashCode – versions of Arrays.equals/hashCode supporting nested sub-arrays.
  • Arrays.equals – if you need to compare two arrays for equality, use this method instead of array equals method ( array.equals is not overridden in any array, so it only compares references to arrays, rather than their contents ). This method may be combined with Java 5 boxing and varargs in order to write a simple implementation of your class equals method – just pass all your class fields to Arrays.equals after comparing object types.
  • Arrays.fill – populate the whole array or its subsection with a given value.
  • Arrays.hashCode – useful method for calculating a hashcode of array contents ( array own hashcode method can not be used for this purpose ). This method may be combined with Java 5 boxing and varargs in order to write a simple implementation of your class hashcode method – just pass all your class fields to Arrays.hashcode.
  • Arrays.sort – sort the full array or its subsection using natural ordering. There is also a pair of Arrays.sort methods for sorting an Object[] using a provided Comparator.
  • Arrays.toString – fine-print the array contents.

If you need to copy one part of array (or the whole array) into another already existing array, you need to use System.arraycopy, which copies a given number of elements from a given position in the source array to a given position in the destination array. Generally, this is the fastest way to copy array contents in Java (but in some cases you may need to check if ByteBuffer bulk copy works faster ).

Finally, we need to mention that any Collection could be copied into an array using T[] Collection.toArray( T[] a ) method. The usual pattern of this method call:

return coll.toArray( new T[ coll.size() ] );
return coll.toArray( new T[ coll.size() ] );

Such method call allocates a sufficient array for storing the whole collection, so that toArray doesn’t have to allocate sufficiently large array to return.

Single-threaded collections

This part of the article describes non-thread-safe collections. All these collections are stored in the java.util package. Some of these collections were present in Java since Java 1.0 (and are now deprecated), most of them were already present in Java 1.4. Enum collections were added in Java 1.5 with the support of generics in all collection classes. PriorityQueue was also added in Java 1.5. The latest addition to the non-thread-safe collections framework is ArrayDeque, which was added in Java 1.6.


  • ArrayList – the most useful List implementation. Backed by an array and an int – position of the first not used element in the array. Like all Lists, expands itself when necessary. Has constant element access time. Cheap updates at the tail (constant complexity), expensive at the head (linear complexity) due to ArrayList invariant – all elements start from index = 0 in the underlying array, which means that everything to the right from the update position must be moved to the right for insertions and to the left for removals. CPU-cache friendly collection due to being backed by an array (unfortunately, not too friendly, because contains Objects, which are just pointers to the actual objects).
  • LinkedListDeque implementation – each Node consists of a value, prev and next pointers. It means that element access/updates have linear complexity (due to an optimization, these methods do not traverse more than a half of the list, so the most expensive elements are located in the middle of the list). You need to use ListIterators if you want to try to write fast LinkedList code. If you want a Queue/Deque implementation (you need to access only first and last elements) – consider using ArrayDeque instead.
  • Vector – a prehistoric version of ArrayList with all synchronized methods. Use ArrayList instead.

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