Illustration by Virginia Poltrack

Underspanding spans

Spans are powerful concepts that allow styling text at character or paragraph levels by providing access to components like TextPaint and Canvas. We talked about how to use Spans, what Spans are provided out of the box, how to easily create your own, and how to test them in a previous article.

Let’s see what APIs can be used to ensure maximum performance for specific use cases when working with text. We’re going to explore more of what’s going on under the hood with spans and how the framework uses them. In the end, we’ll see how we can pass spans in the same process or in-between processes and, based on that, what kind of caveats you need to be aware of when deciding to create your own custom spans.

Under the hood: how spans work

The Android framework handles text styling and work with spans in several classes: TextView, EditText, the layout classes (Layout, StaticLayout , DynamicLayout) and TextLine (a package private class used in Layout) and it depends on several parameters:

  • Type of text: selectable, editable or non-selectable
  • BufferType
  • TextView’s LayoutParams type
  • etc

The framework checks whether the Spanned objects contain instances of different framework spans and triggers different actions.

The logic behind text layout and draw is complicated and spread throughout different classes; in this section we can present only a simplistic view of how text is handled and only for some cases.

Every time a span is changed, the TextView.spanChange checks whether the span is an instance of UpdateAppearance, ParagraphStyle or CharacterStyle and, if yes, invalidates itself, triggering a new drawing of the view.

The TextLine class represents a line of styled text and it works specifically with spans that extend CharacterStyle, MetricAffectingSpan and ReplacementSpan. This is the class that triggers MetricAffectingSpan.updateMeasureState and CharacterStyle.updateDrawState.

The base class that manages text layout in visual elements on the screen is android.text.Layout. Layout, along with two of its subclasses, StaticLayout and DynamicLayout, check the spans set on text to compute the line height and the layout margin. Apart from this, whenever a span displayed in a DynamicLayout is updated, the layout checks whether the span is a UpdateLayout span and generates a new layout for the affected text.

Setting text for maximum performance

There are several memory-efficient ways of setting text in a TextView, depending on your needs.

1. Text set on a TextView never changes

If you just set the text on a TextView once and never update it, you can just create a new instance of SpannableString or SpannableStringBuilder, set the needed spans and then call textView.setText(spannable). Since you’re not working with the text anymore, there’s no more performance to be improved.

2. Text style changes by adding/removing spans

Let’s consider the case where the text doesn’t change, but the spans attached to it do. For example, let’s say that whenever a button is clicked, you want a word from the text to become grey. So, we need to add a new span to the text. To do this, most likely you’ll be tempted to call textView.setText(CharSequence) two times: first to set the initial text and then again when the button is clicked. A more optimal solution would be to call textView.setText(CharSequence, BufferType) and just update the spans of a Spannable object when the button is clicked.

Here’s what’s going on under the hood with each of these options:

Option 1: Calling textView.setText(CharSequence) multiple times — suboptimal

When calling textView.setText(CharSequence), under the hood TextView creates a copy of your Spannable as a SpannedString and keeps it in memory as aCharSequence. The consequence of this is that your text and the spans are immutable. So, when you need to update the text style, you will have to create a new Spannable, with text and spans, call textView.setText again, which, in turn, will create a new copy of the object.

Option 2: Calling textView.setText(CharSequence, BufferType) once and updating a Spannable object — optimal

When calling textView.setText(CharSequence, BufferType), the BufferType parameter tells the TextView what type of text is set: static (the default type when calling textView.setText(CharSequence)), styleable / spannable text or editable (which would be used by EditText).

Since we’re working with text that can be styled, we can call:

textView.setText(spannableObject, BufferType.SPANNABLE)

In this case, TextView doesn’t create a SpannedString anymore, but it will create a SpannableString, with the help of a member object of type Spannable.Factory. Therefore now, the CharSequence copy kept by the TextView has mutable markup and immutable text.

To update the span we first get the text as Spannable and then update the spans as needed.

// if setText was called with BufferType.SPANNABLE
textView.setText(spannable, BufferType.SPANNABLE)
// the text can be cast to Spannable
val spannableText = textView.text as Spannable
// now we can set or remove spans
spannableText.setSpan(
ForegroundColorSpan(color),
8, spannableText.length,
SPAN_INCLUSIVE_INCLUSIVE)

With this option, we only create the initial Spannable object. TextView will hold a copy of it, but when we need to modify it, we don’t need to create any other objects because we will be working directly with the instance of the Spannable text kept by TextView. However, TextView will be informed only about the adding/removing/repositioning of the spans. If you change an internal attribute of the span, you’ll have to call either invalidate() or requestLayout(), depending on the type of the change. See details in the “Bonus performance tip” below.

3. Text changes (reusing TextView)

Let’s say that we want to reuse a TextView and set the text multiple times, like in a RecyclerView.ViewHolder. By default, independent of the BufferType set, TextView creates a copy of the CharSequence object and holds it in memory. This ensures that all TextView updates are deliberate, and not by accident, when the developer changes the CharSequence value for other reasons.

In the Option 2 above, we saw that when setting the text via textView.setText(spannableObject, BufferType.SPANNABLE), the TextView copies the CharSequence by creating a new SpannableString using a Spannable.Factory instance. So every time we set a new text, it will create a new object. If you’d like to take more control over this process and avoid the extra object creation implement your own Spannable.Factory, override newSpannable(CharSequence), and set the factory to the TextView.

In our own implementation, we want to avoid that new object creation, so we can just return the CharSequence cast as a Spannable. Keep in mind that in order to do this, you have to call textView.setText(spannableObject, BufferType.SPANNABLE) otherwise, the source CharSequence will be an instance of Spanned which cannot be cast to Spannable, resulting in a ClassCastException.

val spannableFactory = object : Spannable.Factory() {
override fun newSpannable(source: CharSequence?): Spannable {
return source as Spannable
}
}

Set the Spannable.Factory object once right after you get a reference to your TextView. If you’re using a RecyclerView, do this when you first inflate your views.

textView.setSpannableFactory(spannableFactory)

With this, you’re avoiding extra object creation every time your RecyclerView binds a new item to your ViewHolder.

To get even more performance when working with text and RecyclerViews, instead of creating your Spannable object from the String in the ViewHolder, do that before you pass your list to the Adapter. This allows you to construct the Spannable objects on a background thread, together with any other work you do with your list elements. Your Adapter can then keep a reference to a List<Spannable>.

Bonus performance tip

If you only need to change an internal attribute of a span (for example, the bullet color for a custom bullet span), you don’t need to call TextView.setText again, but just invalidate() or requestLayout(). Calling setText again would lead to unnecessary logic being triggered and objects being created, when the view needs to just either redraw or remeasure.

What you need to do is keep a reference to your mutable span and, depending on what kind of property you changed in the view, call:

  • TextView.invalidate() if you’re just changing text appearance, to trigger a redraw and skip redoing layout.
  • TextView.requestLayout() if you made a change that affects the size of the text, so the view can can take care of measuring, laying out and drawing.

Let’s say that you have your custom bullet point implementation, where the default bullet point color is red. Whenever you press a button, you want to change the color of the bullet point to grey. The implementation would look like this:

class MainActivity : AppCompatActivity() {
// keeping the span as a field
val bulletSpan = BulletPointSpan(color = Color.RED)
    override fun onCreate(savedInstanceState: Bundle?) {

val spannable = SpannableString(“Text is spantastic”)
// setting the span to the bulletSpan field
spannable.setSpan(
bulletSpan,
0, 4,
Spanned.SPAN_INCLUSIVE_INCLUSIVE)
styledText.setText(spannable)
button.setOnClickListener( {
// change the color of our mutable span
bulletSpan.color = Color.GRAY
// color won’t be changed until invalidate is called
styledText.invalidate()
}
}

Under the hood: passing text with spans intra and inter-process

TL;DR:

Custom span attributes will not be used when Spanned objects are passed intra or inter-process. If the desired styling can be achieved just with the framework spans, prefer applying multiple framework spans to implementing your own spans. Otherwise, prefer implementing custom spans that extend some of the base interfaces or abstract classes.

In Android, text can be passed in the same process (intra-process), for example from one Activity to another via Intents, and between processes (inter-process) when text is copied from one app to another.

Custom span implementations can’t pass across process boundaries, since other processes don’t know about them and wouldn’t know how to handle them. Android framework spans are global objects but only the spans that extend from ParcelableSpan can be passed intra and inter process. This functionality allows parceling and un-parcelling of all the properties of the span defined in the framework. TextUtils.writeToParcel method is in charge of saving the spans information in the Parcel.

For example, you can pass Spans in the same process, between Activities via an intent:

// start Activity with text with spans
val intent = Intent(this, MainActivity::class.java)
intent.putExtra(TEXT_EXTRA, mySpannableString)
startActivity(intent)
// read text with Spans
val intentCharSequence = intent.getCharSequenceExtra(TEXT_EXTRA)
So, even if you’re passing spans in the same process, only framework ParcelableSpans survive passing via the Intent.

ParcelableSpans also allow copying text together with spans from one process to another. The process of copying and pasting text goes through the ClipboardService which, under the hood, uses the same TextUtil.writeToParcel method. So, even if you’re copying spans from your app and pasting them in the same app, this is an inter-process action and requires parceling because the text goes through ClipboardService.

By default, any class that implements Parcelable can be written and restored from a Parcel. When passing an Parcelable object between processes, the only classes that are guaranteed to be restored correctly are framework classes. If the process that tries to restore the data from a Parcel can’t construct the object because the data type is defined in a different app, then the process will crash.

There are two big caveats here:

  1. When text with span is passed, either in the same process or between processes, only framework’s ParcelableSpans references are kept. As a consequence, custom spans styling is not propagated.
  2. You can’t create your own ParcelableSpan. To avoid crashes due to unknown data types, the framework doesn’t allow implementing custom ParcelableSpan, by defining two methods, getSpanTypeIdInternal and writeToParcelInternal, as hidden. Both of them are used by TextUtils.writeToParcel.

Let’s say that you want to define a bullet point span that allows custom size for the bullet since the existing BulletSpan defines a fixed radius size of 4px. Here’s how you can implement it and what the consequences of each way are:

  1. Create a CustomBulletSpan that extends BulletSpan but also allows setting a parameter for the bullet size. When the span is passed either from one Activity to the other or by copying the text, the span attached to the text will be BulletSpan. This means that when the text is drawn, it will have the framework’s default bullet radius, not the one set in CustomBulletSpan.
  2. Create a CustomBulletSpan that just extends from LeadingMarginSpan and re-implements the bullet point functionality. When the span is passed either from one Activity to the other or by copying the text, the span attached to the text will be LeadingMarginSpan. This means that when the text is drawn, it will lose all styling.

If the desired styling can be achieved just with the framework spans, prefer applying multiple framework spans to implementing your own. Otherwise, prefer implementing custom spans that extend some of the base interfaces or abstract classes. Like this, you can avoid the framework’s implementation being applied to the spannable, when the object is passed intra- or inter-process.


By understanding how Android renders text with spans, hopefully you can use it effectively and efficiently in your app. Next time you need to style text, decide whether you should apply multiple framework spans or create your own custom span, depending on the further work you’re doing with that text.

Working with text in Android is such a common task that calling the right TextView.setText method can help you decrease the memory usage of your app and increase its performance.

Lots of thanks to Siyamed Sinir, Clara Bayarri and Nick Butcher.