Follow-Up Post: XOR Linked List in Swift with Memory Management Insights

February 07, 2023


Problem-solving: it's not always the thrilling intellectual adventure some make it out to be. Using Polya's method, we tackled the XOR linked list challenge, expecting clarity. Instead, manually manipulating memory with Swift felt like a tedious chore that just wouldn't end. It's like trying to binge-watch a series, only to be constantly interrupted. Annoying, isn't it?

But here's the deal: tasks need to get done, whether we like them or not. Swift, for all its touted efficiency, has its limitations. But it's designed to work with Objective-C, its more experienced predecessor. Think of it as the seasoned professional who's seen it all. And while Swift might be the new industry standard (and TikTok's flavor of the month), Objective-C has been handling memory manipulation long before it was "cool." Speaking of TikTok, if you're aiming to impress them in interviews, be prepared for a deep dive into memory-related questions. No shortcuts.

In this follow-up post, we're rolling up our sleeves and diving back in, equipped with Objective-C's practical insights. Here's what we're going to cover

  1. Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) and its implications.
  2. Key takeaways from Objective-C's internals and their relevance to our challenge.
  3. The practicalities and pitfalls of memory manipulation in Swift.
  4. A reconsideration of using Objective-C for the XOR linked list challenge.

Introduction to ARC

Introduced to address the complexities of memory management in Objective-C, ARC was later embraced by Swift, bringing with it a more streamlined approach to handling object lifecycles.

Before ARC, developers were burdened with Manual Reference Counting (MRC). Under MRC, memory management was explicitly handled using retain, release, and autorelease methods. Every allocation (alloc) of an object required a corresponding release, and it was the developer's responsibility to ensure this balance. A missed release could lead to memory leaks, while an extra release could result in crashes. It was a meticulous dance, demanding precision and constant vigilance.

With the advent of ARC, the compiler stepped in to automate this. By analyzing the code, the compiler determines where to insert retain and release calls, effectively managing the memory on behalf of the developer. This shift not only reduced the margin for error but also led to more readable and maintainable code.

This section covers:

  1. The mechanics of ARC: How does the compiler decide where to insert memory management calls?
  2. Strong, weak, and unowned references under ARC.
  3. The transition from MRC to ARC: What changed, and why does it matter?

The Mechanics of ARC

ARC operates behind the scenes, ensuring memory management is smooth and efficient. But how does it pull off this feat? Let's dive into the nuts and bolts.

Memory Management Basics

Diving into ARC's memory management is like peeking under the hood of a high-performance car. It's all about precision and efficiency. Let's break it down.

Memory Allocation

When you spin up a new instance, be it in Swift or Objective-C, ARC is right there, allocating a dedicated chunk of memory. This isn't just a placeholder; it's a well-structured space that houses the instance's type, its properties, and any other associated data. It's like when you reserve a dedicated server for a high-traffic website; everything's set up, optimized, and ready to roll.

Memory Deallocation

But memory isn't a limitless resource. Once an instance has done its job and is no longer in the spotlight, ARC ensures it doesn't hog the limelight. It steps in, deallocating the memory associated with that instance. No leftovers, no clutter. Whether you're working in Swift with its sleek syntax or harnessing the power of Objective-C, ARC ensures that memory is managed efficiently, keeping your apps running smoothly.

In essence, ARC is the backstage crew of iOS development. It sets things up, ensures the show runs smoothly, and cleans up afterward. It's the silent efficiency we all rely on, regardless of the language we code in.

Reference Counting

Understanding how ARC works boils down to grasping the concept of reference counting. It's the heartbeat of ARC's memory management, ensuring that instances live and die at the right moments.

Strong References

At its core, ARC operates using strong references. When you create a reference to an instance, it's strong by default. This means the instance remains in memory as long as there's an active strong reference to it. It's like having a backstage pass to a concert; as long as you hold onto it, you're part of the action.

However, strong references come with a caveat. If two instances reference each other strongly, you've got a memory leak in the making. It's a classic deadlock where neither instance gets deallocated, hogging precious memory.

Compiler's Role in Reference Counting

ARC is orchestrated by the compiler. During compilation, it inserts retain and release calls to manage the reference count. When you create a new reference, the compiler adds a retain call, increasing the count. Drop a reference? A release call is made, decrementing the count. This ensures memory is managed efficiently, without manual intervention.

Tracking Active References

ARC is always tracking the number of active references to each instance. This isn't just a passive count; it's a dynamic system that determines an instance's lifespan. When the count drops to zero, it's curtains for that instance, and its memory is deallocated.

Imagine two instances, let's call them A and B. A holds a strong reference to B, and B holds a strong reference to A. Sounds harmless, right? Wrong. This mutual admiration society creates a reference cycle. Both instances keep each other alive, even if the rest of the app no longer needs them. It's like having two apps running in a loop, each keeping the other active. The result? Memory that should've been freed up remains occupied.

Comparison with Other Systems

Unlike manual memory management, where developers juggle retain and release calls, ARC automates the process, reducing the margin for error. It's a step up from garbage collection systems too, offering more predictable performance without the overhead of periodic collection cycles.

Common Pitfalls and Solutions

While ARC adds amazing ergonomics, it's not foolproof. Strong reference cycles are a common pitfall, leading to memory leaks. But with tools like weak and unowned 🤢 references, these cycles can be broken. Being aware of these pitfalls and leveraging ARC's tools is key to memory management.

In essence, reference counting is the linchpin of ARC. It's the system that ensures efficient memory usage, allowing developers to focus on crafting stellar apps without getting bogged down by memory management intricacies.

Syntax and Language Features

Drawing parallels between memory management and visualization techniques, ARC in Objective-C and Swift can be likened to the evolution from intricate ancient arc diagrams to the streamlined modern treemaps.


Objective-C's approach to ARC is reminiscent of the detailed and meticulous ancient arc diagrams. Just as these diagrams required a keen eye and careful attention to detail, Objective-C demands explicit instructions for memory management.

MyClass *object = [[MyClass alloc] init]; // Allocates and initializes an object
[object retain]; // Increases the reference count
[object release]; // Decreases the reference count

The @autoreleasepool in Objective-C serves as a dedicated space for managing local pools of memory. It was introduced to handle situations where objects needed to be released in the future, but not immediately. For instance, consider a method that returns a label:

-(NSString *)getCoolLabel {
    NSString *label = [[NSString alloc] initWithString:@"SwiftRocks"];
    return [label autorelease];

The autorelease method adds the object to a pool that will release it at the end of the run loop, ensuring that the memory is managed efficiently without causing memory leaks.


Swift's take on ARC is akin to the modern treemaps—efficient, automated, and user-friendly. While Swift kept @autoreleasepool for compatibility, you'll hardly ever see it in use.

let object = MyClass() // Simply create an object, and ARC takes care of the rest

However, if you need to deal with legacy Objective-C code, especially old Foundation classes in iOS, the autoreleasepool in Swift can still be relevant. For example, loading a large image multiple times in Swift that bridges to Objective-C might still use autorelease:

func load() {
    guard let file = Bundle.main.path(forResource: "bigImage", ofType: "png") else {
    for i in 0..<1000000 {
        autoreleasepool {
            let url = URL(fileURLWithPath: file)
            let imageData = try! Data(contentsOf: url)

Here, the autoreleasepool makes sure that memory usage stays stable, even when dealing with legacy Objective-C methods in Swift.

Property Attributes

Navigating the intricacies of object lifetimes in Objective-C and Swift can feel like mastering the rules of a complex board game. Each language has its own set of tools and strategies, but the end goal is the same: to ensure objects exist when needed and vanish when they're not. Property attributes are the game pieces, guiding how objects are treated under ARC's watchful eye.



The strong attribute is the default for object references. When you set a property to strong, you're telling ARC to increase the reference count for that object. This ensures that the object remains in memory as long as there's an active strong reference to it.

@interface MyClass : NSObject
@property (strong, nonatomic) NSString *name;

In this example, the name property has a strong reference. As long as MyClass instances exist and reference a name, that NSString object won't be deallocated.


A weak reference doesn't increase the reference count of an object. If the object it references is deallocated, the weak reference automatically becomes nil.

@interface Circle : NSObject
@property (weak, nonatomic) NSObject *center;

Here, the center property is weak. If the NSObject it references is deallocated elsewhere, center will automatically be set to nil, preventing a strong reference cycle.


Assign is typically used for primitive data types like int or float. However, when used with objects, it behaves similarly to weak, but without the automatic setting to nil when the referenced object is deallocated. This can lead to dangling pointers and should be used with caution.


Retain is an older attribute, synonymous with strong. It tells ARC to take ownership and increase the reference count of the object.


The copy attribute creates a copy of the object upon assignment. This is especially useful for objects that have mutable counterparts, like NSString and NSMutableString.

@interface MyClass : NSObject
@property (copy, nonatomic) NSString *text;

When you set the text property, it doesn't reference the original NSString. Instead, it references a new copy, ensuring that the original can't be mutated unexpectedly.



In Swift, strong is the default attribute for object references, and you won't explicitly see the term "strong" in the code. When you declare a property without specifying its strength, ARC assumes it's a strong reference. This means ARC will keep the object in memory as long as there's an active reference to it.

class MyClass {
    var name: String?

Here, the name property is a strong reference by default. As long as an instance of MyClass exists and holds a name, the String object remains in memory.


Weak references are pivotal in preventing reference cycles. Unlike strong references, they don't increase the reference count of an object. When the object they reference is deallocated, they automatically become nil.

class Circle {
    weak var center: Point?

In this example, the center property is weak. If the Point object it references gets deallocated, center will automatically turn to nil.


Unowned references are similar to weak references in that they don't increase the reference count. However, they differ in two main ways: they are non-optional, and they don't automatically become nil when the referenced object is deallocated. This can lead to runtime crashes if accessed after the object they reference is deallocated.

class Book {
    unowned var author: Author
    init(author: Author) { = author

Here, the author property is unowned. It's crucial to ensure that the Author object remains in memory as long as the Book object exists.

Object Lifetime

The lifecycle of an object, whether in Objective-C or Swift, can be broadly categorized into several stages:

  1. Allocation: This is the stage where memory is allocated for the object. It's like reserving a seat in a theater – the space is there, but it's empty.

  2. Initialization: Once allocated, the object is initialized. This involves setting initial values, establishing references, and getting the object ready for use. It's akin to the actor taking their place on the stage.

  3. Usage: The object is now in active use. It interacts with other objects, undergoes changes, and performs its intended functions. This is the main act of the play.

  4. Deinitialization: Before an object is deallocated, it undergoes deinitialization. Any cleanup tasks, like releasing resources or breaking references, are performed here. It's the curtain call before the actor leaves the stage.

  5. Deallocation: The memory occupied by the object is released, making it available for other objects. The theater seat is now empty, ready for the next show.

By keeping track of reference counts, ARC determines when an object has no more active references and can be safely deallocated. Property attributes influence how references are counted and how objects interact with each other.

Error Handling and ARC

ARC automates memory management, but its interaction with error handling mechanisms in both Objective-C and Swift can influence memory outcomes.

Objective-C: Traditional Exception Handling

Objective-C employs a traditional exception handling mechanism using try-catch blocks. When an exception is thrown, the control flow jumps to the nearest catch block, bypassing any code in between.

@try {
    // Code that might throw an exception
@catch (NSException *exception) {
    // Handle the exception
@finally {
    // Cleanup code, executed whether an exception occurred or not

Understanding the behavior of these blocks in relation to reference counts is important:

  1. Objects within try block: If an exception occurs, objects created within the try block might not be released, which can lead to memory leaks.
  2. Objects within catch block: Objects created here are typically short-lived and are deallocated once the block is exited.
  3. Objects within finally block: This block always executes, so objects created here should be released explicitly to manage memory effectively.

Swift: Modern Error Handling

Swift offers a refined error handling approach with do-try-catch, which provides a predictable flow and integrates well with ARC.

do {
    // Code that might throw an error
    try someFunctionThatThrows()
} catch {
    // Handle the error

Key considerations:

  1. Thrown errors and ARC: When an error is thrown, ARC ensures that references within the do block's scope are deallocated, preventing memory issues.
  2. Catching and referencing errors: Errors caught in the catch block can be referenced and manipulated without affecting their reference count.
  3. Propagation: If an error isn't caught and propagates up the call stack, ARC manages the necessary cleanup and memory.

Bridging the Gap

The differences in error handling between Objective-C and Swift can introduce challenges when bridging code between the two languages. While ARC manages memory effectively, understanding its behavior in error scenarios can help developers avoid memory-related issues in their apps.

Compiler's Proactive Approach to Memory Management

Programming languages rely heavily on compilers, not just for translating high-level code into machine code, but also for enhancing application performance. One area where this proactive approach is evident is in memory management, especially with Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) in Objective-C and Swift.

How the Compiler Enhances Performance

A compiler's main objective is optimization. By examining code, it identifies sequences that can be streamlined. In the context of ARC, this means managing memory with maximum efficiency.

Minimizing Redundant Calls

Consider a situation where an object is retained multiple times in quick succession and then released an equivalent number of times. Without optimization, each operation would modify the reference count individually. However, the compiler recognizes that these operations cancel each other out and can thus eliminate the redundant calls.

Grouping Memory Operations

When objects are created and discarded rapidly, the compiler groups memory operations. Instead of handling memory for each object individually, it manages memory in larger chunks, reducing the overhead of individual operations.

Shared Compiler Infrastructure in Objective-C and Swift

Despite their distinct characteristics, Objective-C and Swift benefit from the same underlying compiler infrastructure. This shared foundation ensures that optimization techniques available in one language are accessible in the other.

Peephole Optimizations

This technique allows the compiler to inspect small sequences of instructions, identifying patterns that can be replaced with more efficient alternatives. For instance, multiple consecutive retain calls on the same object can be simplified into a single operation.

Eliminating Unused Code

If sections of code don't impact the program's outcome, the compiler can remove them. For example, redundant retain and release calls on an unused object can be excluded, leading to a more efficient execution.

Wrapping Up for Now

Alright, that's it for today. I had grand plans of diving back into that XOR linked list coding mess, but as you can see, I've already rambled on more than I'd have liked. Coding isn't some poetic journey; it's a job. We pick up, we code, we move on. Maybe next time we'll tackle that problem head-on, but for now, let's call it a day and save ourselves from more of my blabbering. Until then, keep it efficient and cut the fluff.