It’s hard to imagine any apps that don’t use table view or collection view, via classes like
UICollectionView in iOS, tvOS or
NSCollectionView in macOS. Most of the time, we fetch data from the backend, cache and filter to show that data as list or grid. And later, when data has changed, we update your interface to reflect that some items have been inserted or deleted.
That’s where your favorite function comes in,
reloadData. This way the whole list is refreshed with completely new content. It’s fine for scenarios when you want a quick way to refresh content. But it makes the
UITableView reinvalidate cell sizes again, which can reduce performance. Further if those changes should be noticeable, and you want to give users better understanding of what’s going on, then manually insert and delete of rows is preferred.
If you’re doing Android, you probably know that instead of calling
notifyDataSetChanged, you can use the provided
DiffUtil to calculate the changes for us, so that updating
RecyclerView becomes easy. Unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury in iOS, but we can learn how to do it.
This guide uses
UICollectionView as examples, but
UITableView behaves the same. And to any of you searching for
NSCollectionView on Google, it is just a bit harder:
Drag and Drop
UICollectionView in action. Imagine an app where users are allowed to customise their experience by moving items from one collection to another.
You must ensure that your data is changed before calling update methods on
UICollectionView. And then we call
insertItems to reflect data changes.
UICollectionView performs a nice animation for you
This is a trivial example, you just remove or add 1 item from a collection. But in real projects, the data is much more complex, the changes are not that trivial. If you have a large number of items with many insertions and deletions from backend response, you need to calculate the correct
IndexPath to call, which are not an easy thing. Most the time you will get the following crashes:
Terminating app due to uncaught exception ‘NSInternalInconsistencyException’,
reason: ‘Invalid update: invalid number of items in section 0.
The number of items contained in an existing section after the update (213)
must be equal to the number of items contained in that section before
the update (154), plus or minus the number of items inserted or
deleted from that section (40 inserted, 0 deleted) and plus
or minus the number of items moved into or out of
that section (0 moved in, 0 moved out).’
In my experience it happened randomly because user has different data. Although the message is very descriptive, it may take a while to figure it out.
Game of IndexPath
Let’s refine our knowledge of
IndexPath by going through some examples. With a collection of 6 items, we perform some update operations and figure out what IndexPath should be.
items = [“a”, “b”, “c”, “d”, “e”, “f”]
For a better understanding, take a look at more examples here: CollectionUpdateExample.
index vs offset
Before we go any further, I just want to mention that, by
index I actually mean
offset from the start. If you take a look at the enumerated function, it suggests the name as offset instead of index
This zero based numbering could shed some light on this matter
Particularly in C, where arrays are closely tied to pointer arithmetic, this makes for a simpler implementation: the subscript refers to an offset from the starting position of an array, so the first element has an offset of zero.
Below are some examples showing a simple change to the collection, and the set of
IndexPath we need to figure out. Remember that we need to update items array (which is our data source in this case), before we can call any update methods on
1. Insert 3 items at the end
2. Delete 3 items at the end
3. Update item at index 2
4. Move item “c” to the end
5. Delete 3 items at the beginning, then insert 3 items at the end
With multiple different operations, we should use performBatchUpdates
You can use this method in cases where you want to make multiple changes to the collection view in one single animated operation, as opposed to in several separate animations. You might use this method to insert, delete, reload, or move cells or use it to change the layout parameters associated with one or more cells
6. Insert 3 items at the end, then delete 3 items at the beginning
If you run the example 6, you will get a crash
Terminating app due to uncaught exception
reason: ‘attempt to insert item 6 into section 0,
but there are only 6 items in section 0 after the update’
It is because the way
performBatchUpdates works. Take a look at the documentation:
Deletes are processed before inserts in batch operations. This means the indexes for the deletions are processed relative to the indexes of the collection view’s state before the batch operation, and the indexes for the insertions are processed relative to the indexes of the state after all the deletions in the batch operation.
No matter how we call insert or delete,
performBatchUpdates always performs deletions first. So we need to call
insertItems with the correct
IndexPath if the deletions occur first.
There are many operations on
UICollectionView, and there are operations to update whole section as well. Take a look at Ordering of Operations and Index Paths
Doing these calculations by hand is quite tedious and error prone. We can build our own abstraction using some algorithms. The naive one is Wagner–Fischer algorithm which uses Dynamic Programming to tell the edit distance between two strings of characters.
Edit distance means the number of steps needed to change from one string to another. String is just a collection of characters, so we can generalise this concept to make it work for any collection of items. Instead of comparing character, we require items to conform to
“kit” to “kat”
How can we transform form of the word “kit” to “kat”? What kinds of operations do we need to perform? You may tell “just change the letter i to a”, but this trivial example helps you understand the algorithm. Let’s get started.
If we go from “kit” to an empty string “”, we need 3 deletions
“kit” -> “” 👉 3 deletions
“ki” -> “” 👉 2 deletions
“k” -> “” 👉 1 deletion
If we go from an empty string “” to “kat”, we need 3 insertions
“” -> “k” 👉 1 insertion
“” -> “ka” 👉 2 insertions
“” -> “kat” 👉 3 insertions
If equal, take value from the top left
You can think of the algorithm as if we go from source string, to empty string, to destination string. We try to find the minimum steps to update. Going horizontally means insertions, vertically means deletions and diagonally means substitutions.
This way we can build our matrix, iterate from row to row, column by column. First, the letter “k” from source collection is the same with letter “k” from destination collection, we simply take value from the top left, which is 0 substitution
If not equal
We continue with the next letter from the destination collection. Here “k” and “a” are not the same. We take minimum value from left, top, top left. Then increase by one
Here we take value from left, which is horizontally, so we increase by 1 insertion.
“k” to “kat” 👉 2 insertions
Continue,”t” and “k” are not the same, so we take value from left horizontally. Here you can see it kind makes sense, as to go from “k” to “kat”, we need 2 insertions, which is to insert letters “a” and “t”.
The bottom right value
Continue with the next row, and the next row until we got to the bottom right value, which gives you the edit distance. Here 1 substitution means that we need to perform 1 substitution to go from “kit” to “kat”, which is update “i” with “a”’.
You can easily see that we need to update index 1. But how do we know that it is index 1 🤔
The algorithm shows the changes between 2 strings, but since string is just a collection of characters. We can generalise the concept to make it work for any collection of items.
The implementation of DeepDiff is on GitHub. Here is how it’s used. Given an
new array, it computes the changes needed to transform. The changes consist of: type of change (
move) and the
index of the change.
Code is the ultimate source of explanation. But in the next sections, I will outline some technical points in the library for you to easily follow. You can take a look here
We iterate through the matrix, where
n are the length of source and destination collection respectively. So we can see that the complexity of this algorithm is
Also the performance greatly depends on the size of the collection and how complex the item is. The more complex and how deep you want to perform
Equatable can greatly affect your performance.
If you take a look at the wiki page , there’s some hints on what we can do to improve performance.
“We can adapt the algorithm to use less space, O(m) instead of O(mn), since it only requires that the previous row and current row be stored at any one time.”
Seeing that we only operate one row at a time, it’s inefficient to store the whole matrix, instead we can just use 2 arrays to compute, and that also reduces the memory footprint.
Since each kind of
Change is mutual exclusive, they are perfect to be represented as enum
insert: The item was inserted at an index
delete: The item was deleted from an index
replace: The item at this index was replaced by another item
move: The same item has moved from this index to another index
Using 2 rows
As said, we only need to keep track of 2 rows at a time to operate. Each slot in a row is a collection of changes. Here diff is a generic function that accepts any collection of
Hashable items, that includes strings.
I like to keep separation of concerns, so each row should manage state on its own. Start by declaring a
Row object which holds an array of slots
Recall in the algorithm that we go row by row, then column by column. So we use 2 loops
And our job is just to compare items in old and new arrays, and update the slots in
Row object correctly.
We need to be clever on equation check, as when objects are complex, the Equatable function can take time. We know that
Hashable conforms to
Equatable, and that 2 same objects have the same hash value. So if they don’t have same hash value, they are not equatable. The reversed is not guaranteed, but this is enough to reduce the number of calls to
The algorithms have some other little details, but you should take a look at the code, it tells you more.
How about the Move
By now you have notice we have just updated steps for insertions, deletions and replacement. Where’s the move? Turn out that’s it’s not difficult. A move is just a deletion following by insertion of the same item. You can take a look at the
MoveReducer, it’s not very efficiently implemented, but at least it gives you some hints.
With the changes array returned by
DeepDiff, we can infer the required set of
IndexPath to feed to
UICollectionView to perform the updates.
The conversion from
IndexPath is pretty much self explanatory. You can take a look at
There’s one thing to notice, otherwise you will get the familiar ‘
NSInternalInconsistencyException’. That is to call
reloadItems outside the
performBatchUpdates . It is because the
Replace step returned by this algorithm contains
IndexPath of the state after collection are updated, but
UICollectionView expects them to be before that state.
Other than that it’s pretty straightforward. You can go to the example to be amazed by how fast and informative it is about the changes.
Where to go from here
When finishing this guide, you know how to do manual update to
UICollectionView through manual computation of
IndexPath. After struggling with exceptions, you know how such help from a library is preferred. You also know algorithm and how to implement it in pure Swift. You also know how
Equatable are used.
The current version of
DeepDiff now uses
Heckel algorithm, which runs in linear time and performs a lot faster. You can take a look at the benchmark here
IGListKit also implements that
Heckel algorithm, but in Objective C++ and optimises it a lot. In the next article, I will write about
Heckel algorithm and how to implement it in pure Swift, also how to write unit test for these diff algorithms. Stay tuned!
In the mean time, if you feel adventurous, here are some other algorithms that are said to be very performant: