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Order in Chaos: .NET Collections

, 8 Oct 2010 Ms-PL
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Review of the current available collection types in .NET Framework 4.0

This is a review of the currently available collection types in .NET Framework 4.0.

Note that I don’t plan to explain all the history of the different collections. If a class is obsolete, that is enough information.

The intention is to use this post as a reference when you need to decide which type of collection you should use.

Also, I’m not going to give the complexity of each function. You can find such information in the relevant class documentation on MSDN.
Anyway, you can deduce it yourself, since this is quite common knowledge, for example, an array-based list has O(1) for adding to the end and O(n) for adding in the middle. Just think about it.

One final note before we begin, I'm skipping the special collections, mainly the synchronized and concurrent ones.

The review will have the following convention: Class Name, Namespace, Description and Bottom Line.

For example:

Class name: Array
Namespace: System
Description: The base class of all the arrays in the .NET Framework.
Bottom line: Very basic type, but sometimes this is all you need.

The Old Collections

Common Old Collections

Class name: ArrayList
Namespace: System.Collection
Description: List of objects, internally uses an array which resizes dynamically.
Bottom line: Use List<T> instead

Class name: Stack
Namespace: System.Collection
Description: Represents a last-in-first-out (LIFO) collection of objects. Implemented as a circular array, sized dynamically.
Bottom line: Use Stack<T> instead.

Class name: Queue
Namespace: System.Collection
Description: Represents a first-in-first-out (FIFO) collection of objects.
Implemented as a circular array, sized dynamically.
Bottom line: Use Queue<T> instead.

Class name: Hashtable
Namespace: System.Collection
Description: Represents a mapping between a key and a value using a hash table.
Bottom line: Use Dictionary<T> instead.

Less Common Old Collections

Class name: CollectionBase
Namespace: System.Collection
Description: A base class intended to be used in implementations of strongly typed collections.
Bottom line: Use Collection<T> instead.

Class name: ReadOnlyCollectionBase
Namespace: System.Collection
Description: A base class intended to be used in implementation of strongly typed read-only collections.
Bottom line: Use ReadOnlyCollection<T> instead.

Class name: SortedList
Namespace: System.Collection
Description: A list of key-value pairs, sorted by keys, can be accessed using key or index.
Bottom line: Use SortedList<TKey,TValue> instead.

Class name: ListDictionary
Namespace: System.Collections.Specialized
Description: Like Hashtable, but internally uses a singly linked list. Recommended only when the number of items in the collection is 10 or less.
Bottom line: IMHO, this optimization isn't worth my time. Use Dictionary<T> instead.

Class name: HybridDictionary
Namespace: System.Collections.Specialized
Description: Uses ListDictionary when the collection is small and switches to Hashtable when the collections gets large.
Bottom line: If this is so great, it should have been Hashtable default implementation. Use Dictionary<T> instead.

Class name: OrderedDictionary
Namespace: System.Collections.Specialized
Description: A list of key-value pairs, can be accessed using key or index.
Bottom line: Use SortedList<TKey, TValue> instead.

Class name: StringCollection
Namespace: System.Collections.Specialized
Description: A collection of strings.
Bottom line: Use List<string> instead.

Class name: StringDictionary
Namespace: System.Collections.Specialized
Description: A hash table with both keys and values as strings.
Bottom line: Use Dictionary<string,string> instead.

Still Useful

Class name: BitArray
Namespace: System.Collection
Description: An efficient array of bit values, uses only 1 bit for each flag.
Bottom line: Only if you have tons of flags.

Class name: BitVector32
Namespace: System.Collections.Specialized
Description: Like BitArray but more performant and limited to 32 bits
Bottom line: Only when a plain old Enum doesn’t answer your needs.

The New Collections

Common New Collections

Class name: List<T>
Namespace: System.Collections.Generic
Description: Generic list of T, internally uses an array which resizes dynamically.
Bottom line: Your first choice when in need of a simple dynamic collection.

Class name: LinkedList<T>
Namespace: System.Collections.Generic
Description: Generic list of T, internally uses doubly linked nodes to store the data.
Bottom line: Same as List<T> only with different performance in some of the operations.

Class name: Stack<T>
Namespace: System.Collections.Generic
Description: Generic last-in-first-out (LIFO) collection.
Bottom line: Your first choice when in need of a stack.

Class name: Queue<T>
Namespace: System.Collections.Generic
Description: Generic first-in-first-out (FIFO) collection.
Bottom line: Your first choice when in need of a queue.

Class name: Dictionary<TKey, TValue>
Namespace: System.Collections.Generic
Description: Represents a mapping between a key and a value using a generic hash table.
Bottom line: If I had to select only one collection, this would be it. The most useful among the different collections.

Less Common New Collections

Class name: SortedDictionary<TKey, TValue>
Namespace: System.Collections.Generic
Description: Represents a collection of key/value pairs that are sorted by the key. Similar to SortedList<TKey, TValue> only has some different performance in some of the operations.
Bottom line: Like a dictionary, only sorted. Only when you need exactly that.

Class name: SortedList<TKey, TValue>
Namespace: System.Collections.Generic
Description: Same as SortedDictionary<TKey, TValue> only with different performance for some of the operations.
Bottom line: The twin browser of SortedDictionary<TKey, TValue>

Class name: HashSet<T>
Namespace: System.Collections.Generic
Description: Generic set of values, i.e. a collection with no duplicates and in no particular order.
Bottom line: This class still searches its place in the world. Use it when it is exactly what you need.

Class name: SortedSet<T>
Namespace: System.Collections.Generic
Description: Generic set of values, that maintains the values order.
Bottom line: I guess I can find a scenario for this one...

Class name: Collection<T>
Namespace: System.Collections.ObjectModel
Description: A base class to be used with custom strongly typed collections.
Bottom line: If you want a collection that is extendable, e.g. lets you customize add / remove operations, you should inherit from Collection<T>. If all you need is a strongly typed collection, use List<T> which provides some additional methods but lacks the extensibility points.

Class name: ReadOnlyCollection<T>
Namespace: System.Collections.ObjectModel
Description: A base class to be used with custom strongly typed read-only collections.
Bottom line: The read-only counterpart of Collection<T>

Class name: ObservableCollection<T>
Namespace: System.Collections.ObjectModel
Description: Represents a collection that provides notifications when items get added or removed.
Bottom line: Very useful in WPF.

Class name: ReadOnlyObservableCollection<T>
Namespace: System.Collections.ObjectModel
Description: Represents a read-only ObservableCollection<T>
Bottom line: Useful when you want to protect your collection without losing the observable property.

That’s it for now,
Arik Poznanski.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Microsoft Public License (Ms-PL)

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About the Author

Arik Poznanski
Software Developer (Senior) Verint
Israel Israel
Arik Poznanski is a senior software developer at Verint. He completed two B.Sc. degrees in Mathematics & Computer Science, summa cum laude, from the Technion in Israel.
 
Arik has extensive knowledge and experience in many Microsoft technologies, including .NET with C#, WPF, Silverlight, WinForms, Interop, COM/ATL programming, C++ Win32 programming and reverse engineering (assembly, IL).
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Comments and Discussions

 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberAamer Alduais8-May-12 20:17 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberLeonardo Paneque30-Apr-12 10:31 
GeneralConvenient reference Pinmemberla0125-Oct-10 13:18 
Nice Smile | :)
GeneralMy vote of 1 Pinmemberzkc7812-Oct-10 23:11 
GeneralMy vote of 1 PinmemberJalalAldeen12-Oct-10 6:19 
GeneralMy vote of 4 PinmemberEmile van Gerwen11-Oct-10 22:53 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberRichard Waddell11-Oct-10 16:25 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberDonald Beals11-Oct-10 14:09 
QuestionKeyedCollection PinmemberDonald Beals11-Oct-10 14:08 
AnswerRe: KeyedCollection PinmemberArik Poznanski13-Oct-10 1:34 
GeneralNice PinmemberKing Balkoth8-Oct-10 7:24 

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