Inside the Qt 4 Containers

by Jasmin Blanchette

Qt 4 provides a new set of container classes that are available to Qt applications in addition to the STL containers. In this article, we will see how they are represented in memory. Knowing how containers work internally makes it easier to choose the right container for the right circumstance. Just be aware that some of the classes mentioned here are internal and should not be used directly.

Sequential Containers


QVector stores its items consecutively in memory. With this approach, only one block of memory is allocated, reducing the time and memory overhead associated with dynamic memory allocation.


Like nearly all of Qt's containers and most other value classes (including QString), QVector is implicitly shared, meaning that when we take a copy of a vector, only a pointer (d) is copied and a reference count (ref) is incremented. A deep copy occurs only when we try to modify the data. For this reason, implicit sharing is sometimes referred to as "copy on write". Implicit sharing is the main difference between QVector and STL's std::vector class.

The QBasicAtomic class, used to store the reference count, is an integer type that supports atomic (thread-safe) increment and decrement operations, ensuring that implicit sharing works across threads. QBasicAtomic is internal and implemented in assembly language on the different architectures supported by Qt.

The diagram below depicts the situation in memory when we take two extra copies of an existing QVector (using the QVector copy constructor or assignment operator):


To avoid reallocating the data every time the vector grows, QVector allocates more memory than necessary. While size is the number of elements in the container, alloc is the number of elements that were actually allocated. QVector's growth strategy depends on the type T:

  • If T is a movable type (a data type that can safely be moved around in memory using memcpy() or memmove(), such as the C++ primitive types and Qt's implicitly shared classes), QVector uses realloc() to grow by increments of 4096 bytes. This makes sense because modern operating systems don't copy the entire data when reallocating a buffer; the physical memory pages are simply reordered, and only the data on the first and last pages need to be copied.
  • For non-movable data types, QVector grows by 50 per cent increments, ensuring that repeatedly calling append() results in amortized O(n) behavior rather than O(nІ).

The distinction between movable and non-movable types is also used to speed up insertions in the middle of the vector. When such an insertion takes place, the elements that come after the point of insertion must be moved one position further. If T is a movable type, this is achieved using memmove(); otherwise, QVector needs to move the items one by one using operator=(). The same applies to removals in the middle.

If you use QVector with a custom type T, Qt will assume that the type is non-movable. To declare it movable, use the Q_DECLARE_TYPEINFO() macro after your custom class's definition:

class MyClass
    MyClassPrivateData *data;

The type information provided by Q_DECLARE_TYPEINFO() is used by other containers as well, notably QList. If your data type is a POD type (a "plain old data" type) that has no constructor or destructor and that can be copied and moved in memory using memcpy() or memmove(), you can make a stronger statement about it and specify "primitive" rather than "movable":

class MyClass
    int x;
    int y;

If T is a primitive type, QVector doesn't invoke the constructor and the destructor. In addition, all the optimizations that apply to movable types also apply to primitive types.


Unlike its predecessors QPtrList and QValueList, QList is implemented as an "array list" and not as a linked list. This is consistent with what modern languages such as Java and C# offer.

Depending on the type T, QList has two representations. In the general case, QList has an array of pointers to its items, which are allocated on the heap using new:


This organization makes insertions and removals in the middle faster than what QVector can offer for non-movable types (because pointers can be moved around using memmove()), at the cost of some overhead.

Like QVector, QList preallocates memory at the end of its buffer (up to 4096 bytes), but in addition it also reserves some space at the beginning; the occupied entries are array[begin], array[begin + 1], ..., array[end - 1]. Reserving space at the beginning has two main benefits:

  • A common list operation such as prepending an item or removing the first item usually takes constant time, because the buffer can grow backwards. This is the reason why QQueue is based on QList, whereas QStack is based on QVector.
  • In the general case of an insertion at position k, QList can choose between moving the first k items by one position to the left and moving the last n - k items by one position to the right. If k is 10 and n is 2000, it makes more sense to move 10 items to the left than 1990 to the right.

Exceptionally, in the special case where type T has the size of a pointer and can be moved in memory using memcpy() or memmove(), QList stores the elements directly in its buffer:


This optimization covers several very common types, including virtually all pointers types, most of Qt's implicitly shared classes (including QString), as well as int on 32-bit platforms.


QLinkedList provides a doubly linked list. If you have a very large dataset and need consistent O(1) insertions and removals, QLinkedList is the right container for you.


Be aware that although insertions are guaranteed to occur in constant time, QLinkedList starts paying off only on lists of approximately 200 items or more. For lists smaller than that, QList offers better performance and requires less memory than QLinkedList.

Now that we understand how Qt's main sequential containers are represented in memory, we can reread the guidelines that appear in Qt's reference documentation and check that they square with reality:

  • For most purposes, QList is the right class to use. Its index-based API is more convenient than QLinkedList's iterator-based API, and it is usually faster than QVector because of the way it stores its items in memory. It also expands to less code in your executable.
  • If you need a real linked list, with guarantees of constant time insertions in the middle of the list and iterators to items rather than indexes, use QLinkedList.
  • If you want the items to occupy adjacent memory positions, use QVector.

It turns out the guidelines are sensible, although they don't mention that for pointer types and implicitly shared types like QString, the main difference between QList and QVector is that QList provides faster insertions and removals in the first half of the container.


Unlike the other sequential containers in Qt, QVarLengthArray isn't implicitly shared. It has memory for a certain number of elements, specified by the Prealloc template parameter. If Prealloc isn't specified, it defaults to 256.


If size is larger than Prealloc, QVarLengthArray allocates an extra buffer using malloc() and ignores the preallocated buffer:


QVarLengthArray is ideal for tight loops, because in the common case where size <= Prealloc, it doesn't perform any dynamic memory allocation. Plain C++ arrays cannot be used in that case, because C++ requires that the array size is known at compile-time.

Associative Containers


QMap stores a list of (keyvalue) pairs ordered by key and provides lookups in O(log n). Internally, QMap uses a skip-list, a data structure that offers similar performance and the same algorithmic complexity as the more common red-black tree. Earlier versions of QMap used a red-black tree, but skip-lists result in less code in the executable and require less memory per node.


Skip-lists are a generalization of linked lists, where each node has one, two, three, or more forward pointers; forward[0] points to the next node, forward[1] (if present) points to the next node that has a forward[1] field, and so on. The backward pointer in each node is used to iterate backwards.

To lookup a key, QMap starts by advancing as far as possible using the chain of forward[11] pointers, then it continues with forward[10], forward[9], ..., forward[0]. Since items are sorted by key, by comparing the current node's key with the key to find, QMap can tell whether it has gone too far or not.

For example, to find item G in the skip-list depicted below, we follow QMapData's forward[2] link to D. Continuing with forward[2] would lead us to H, which is too far; therefore we follow forward[1], which brings us to F. From there, forward[1] leads to H, which is too far, so we follow forward[0] and reach G.


In an ideal world, skip-lists would always be perfectly balanced as shown above, in a nice 1-2-1-3-1-2-1-4-1-2-1-3... pattern that is reminiscent of the notches on a ruler. In practice, this rarely happens, because items can be inserted in any order. But there are circumstances where this utopian scenario occurs: when we read a QMap from a QDataStream, and when a deep copy of a QMap is taken.


Hash tables usually provide faster lookups than map. For that reason, Qt offers QHash as an (unsorted) alternative to QMap. The two classes have almost identical APIs, but the requirements on the Key type are different:

  • For QMap, the Key type must support operator<(), which specifies a total order (i.e., if neither x < y nor y < x, then x == y).
  • For QHash, the Key type must support operator==() as well as qHash(), a global hash function.

Qt provides implementations of qHash() for C++ primitive numeric types, pointer types, QChar, QByteArray, and QString. For example, here is the qHash() overload that handles QStrings:

uint qHash(const QString &key)
    const QChar *ptr = key.unicode();
    int n = key.size();
    uint h = 0;
    uint g;
    while (n--) {
        h = (h << 4) + (ptr++)->unicode();
        if ((g = (h & 0xf0000000)) != 0)
            h ^= g >> 23;
        h &= ~g;
    return h;

You can use custom types as Keys in a QHash, as long as you provide a custom qHash() implementation. Your implementation must meet the requirement that if x == y, then qHash(x) == qHash(y).

In addition, to ensure maximum performance, the hash function should be designed in such a way that if x != y, then it's highly likely that qHash(x) != qHash(y). Thus, a trivial implementation such as

uint qHash(const MyClass & /* key */)
    return 0;
is a very poor hash function (although it does qualify as one).

Inside QHash, each item is stored in a separate node and the nodes are linked together inside a bucket. The hash function is used to determine in which bucket to put an item. More precisely, an item with key k is stored in buckets[qHash(k) % numBuckets].

With the trivial qHash() implementation above, all the items would end up in bucket 0, creating a long chain of items and resulting in very slow (linear) lookups. With a suitable qHash() implementation, the items are more likely to be distributed evenly among the buckets, and lookups occur in constant time on average (which beats QMap's O(log n) behavior).


To minimize the number of collisions, the bucket table always has a prime number of entries. As the QHash grows, so does the number of buckets. If you know in advance approximately how many items you will store in the QHash, you can call reserve() to set the number of buckets, avoiding the continual resizing of the bucket table.

If the Key type is int or uint, the hash function used is the identity function (i.e., qHash(x) == x). In addition, QHash is smart enough not to store the key in that case, since it is identical to the hash value, saving four bytes per node.

When traversing a QHash using an iterator, the iterator points directly at a node. Calling ++ on the iterator advances the iterator to the next node in the same bucket, using the current node's next pointer. If the current node is the last node in the bucket (as is typically the case when we use a suitable hash function), next points to the QHashData object. This object is recognizable by its first field (fakeNext), which is always a null pointer. From there, the iterator continues iterating in the next bucket.

QMultiMap and QMultiHash have the same representation as their base class. QCache uses a QHash, and QSet uses a QHashQHashDummyValue>, where QHashDummyValue is an internal type that doesn't use any memory.


Whereas STL's containers are optimized for raw speed, Qt's container classes have been carefully designed to provide convenience, minimal memory usage, and minimal code expansion. For example, Qt's containers are implicitly shared, meaning that they can be passed around as values without forcing a deep copy to occur. Also, sizeof(QXxx) == sizeof(void *) for any Qt container, and no memory allocation takes place for empty containers.

Qt's containers fully take advantage of partial template instantiation to provide different implementations depending on the data type that is stored. Qt solves the code expansion issue that arises in conjunction with C++ templates by putting most of the container code in non-template internal classes such as QListData and QMapData, making Qt's containers particularly well suited for embedded programming.

Now that you know how the Qt 4 containers work under the hood, you can take advantage of this knowledge to write code that does the proper memory/space tradeoffs based on your needs.

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