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Exploring Java

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7. Basic Utility Classes

If you've been reading this book sequentially, you've read all about the core Java language constructs, including the object-oriented aspects of the language and the use of threads. Now it's time to shift gears and talk about the Java Application Programming Interface (API), the collection of classes that comes with every Java implementation. The Java API encompasses all the public methods and variables in the classes that comprise the core Java packages, listed in Table 7.1. This table also lists the chapters in this book that describe each of the packages.

Table 7.1: Packages of the Java API
Package Contents Chapter(s)
java.lang Basic language classes 4, 5, 6, 7
java.io Input and output 8
java.util Utilities and collections classes 7
java.text International text classes 7
java.net Sockets and URLs 9
java.applet The applet API 10
java.awt The Abstract Windowing Toolkit 10, 11, 12, 13, 14
java.awt.image AWT image classes 13, 14
java.beans Java Beans API  
java.rmi RMI classes  
java.security Encryption and signing  
java.sql JDBC classes  

As you can see in Table 7.1, we've already examined some of the classes in java.lang in earlier chapters on the core language constructs. Starting with this chapter, we'll throw open the Java toolbox and begin examining the rest of the classes in the API.

We'll begin our exploration with some of the fundamental language classes in java.lang, including strings and math utilities. Figure 7.1 shows the class hierarchy of the java.lang package.

We cover some of the classes in java.util, such as classes that support date and time values, random numbers, vectors, and hashtables. Figure 7.2 shows the class hierarchy of the java.util package.

7.1 Strings

In this section, we take a closer look at the Java String class (or more specifically, java.lang.String). Because strings are used so extensively throughout Java (or any programming language, for that matter), the Java String class has quite a bit of functionality. We'll test drive most of the important features, but before you go off and write a complex parser or regular expression library, you should probably refer to a Java class reference manual for additional details.

Strings are immutable; once you create a String object, you can't change its value. Operations that would otherwise change the characters or the length of a string instead return a new String object that copies the needed parts of the original. Because of this feature, strings can be safely shared. Java makes an effort to consolidate identical strings and string literals in the same class into a shared string pool.

String Constructors

To create a string, assign a double-quoted constant to a String variable:

String quote = "To be or not to be"; 

Java automatically converts the string literal into a String object. If you're a C or C++ programmer, you may be wondering if quote is null-terminated. This question doesn't make any sense with Java strings. The String class actually uses a Java character array internally. It's private to the String class, so you can't get at the characters and change them. As always, arrays in Java are real objects that know their own length, so String objects in Java don't require special terminators (not even internally). If you need to know the length of a String, use the length() method:

int length = quote.length(); 

Strings can take advantage of the only overloaded operator in Java, the + operator, for string concatenation. The following code produces equivalent strings:

String name = "John " + "Smith"; 
String name = "John ".concat("Smith"); 

Literal strings can't span lines in Java source files, but we can concatenate lines to produce the same effect:

String poem = 
    "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves\n" + 
    "   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:\n" + 
    "All mimsy were the borogoves,\n" + 
    "   And the mome raths outgrabe.\n"; 

Of course, embedding lengthy text in source code should now be a thing of the past, given that we can retrieve a String from anywhere on the planet via a URL. In Chapter 9, Network Programming, we'll see how to do things like:

String poem =  
    (String) new URL 

In addition to making strings from literal expressions, we can construct a String from an array of characters:

char [] data = { 'L', 'e', 'm', 'm', 'i', 'n', 'g' }; 
String lemming = new String( data ); 

Or from an array of bytes:

byte [] data = { 97, 98, 99 }; 
String abc = new String(data, "8859_5"); 

The second argument to the String constructor for byte arrays is the name of an encoding scheme. It's used to convert the given bytes to the string's Unicode characters. Unless you know something about Unicode, you can probably use the form of the constructor that accepts only a byte array; the default encoding scheme will be used.

Strings from Things

We can get the string representation of most things with the static String.valueOf() method. Various overloaded versions of this method give us string values for all of the primitive types:

String one = String.valueOf( 1 ); 
String two = String.valueOf( 2.0f ); 
String notTrue = String.valueOf( false ); 

All objects in Java have a toString() method, inherited from the Object class (see Chapter 5, Objects in Java). For class-type references, String.valueOf() invokes the object's toString() method to get its string representation. If the reference is null, the result is the literal string "null":

String date = String.valueOf( new Date() ); 
System.out.println( date ); 
// Sun Dec 19 05:45:34 CST 1999 
date = null; 
System.out.println( date ); 
// null 

Things from Strings

Producing primitives like numbers from String objects is not a function of the String class. For that we need the primitive wrapper classes; they are described in the next section on the Math class. The wrapper classes provide valueOf() methods that produce an object from a String, as well as corresponding methods to retrieve the value in various primitive forms. Two examples are:

int i = Integer.valueOf("123").intValue(); 
double d = Double.valueOf("123.0").doubleValue(); 

In the above code, the Integer.valueOf() call yields an Integer object that represents the value 123. An Integer object can provide its primitive value in the form of an int with the intValue() method.

Although the techniques above may work for simple cases, they will not work internationally. Let's pretend for a moment that we are programming Java in the rolling hills of Tuscany. We would follow the local customs for representing numbers and write code like the following.

double d = Double.valueOf("1.234,56").doubleValue();    // oops!

Unfortunately, this code throws a NumberFormatException. The java.text package, which we'll discuss later, contains the tools we need to generate and parse strings in different countries and languages.

The charAt() method of the String class lets us get at the characters of a String in an array-like fashion:

String s = "Newton"; 
for ( int i = 0; i < s.length(); i++ )     System.out.println( s.charAt( i ) );

This code prints the characters of the string one at a time. Alternately, we can get the characters all at once with toCharArray(). Here's a way to save typing a bunch of single quotes:

char [] abcs = "abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz".toCharArray(); 


Just as in C, you can't compare strings for equality with "==" because as in C, strings are actually references. If your Java compiler doesn't happen to coalesce multiple instances of the same string literal to a single string pool item, even the expression "foo" == "foo" will return false. Comparisons with <, >, <=, and >= don't work at all, because Java can't convert references to integers.

Use the equals() method to compare strings:

String one = "Foo"; 
char [] c = { 'F', 'o', 'o' }; 
String two = new String ( c ); 
if ( one.equals( two ) )                // yes 

An alternate version, equalsIgnoreCase(), can be used to check the equivalence of strings in a case-insensitive way:

String one = "FOO"; 
String two = "foo"; 
if ( one.equalsIgnoreCase( two ) )      // yes 

The compareTo() method compares the lexical value of the String against another String. It returns an integer that is less than, equal to, or greater than zero, just like the C routine string():

String abc = "abc"; 
String def = "def"; 
String num = "123"; 
if ( abc.compareTo( def ) < 0 )         // yes 
if ( abc.compareTo( abc ) == 0 )        // yes
if ( abc.compareTo( num ) > 0 )         // yes 

On some systems, the behavior of lexical comparison is complex, and obscure alternative character sets exist. Java avoids this problem by comparing characters strictly by their position in the Unicode specification.

In Java 1.1, the java.text package provides a sophisticated set of classes for comparing strings, even in different languages. German, for example, has vowels with umlauts (those funny dots) over them and a weird-looking beta character that represents a double-s. How should we sort these? Although the rules for sorting these characters are precisely defined, you can't assume that the lexical comparison we used above works correctly for languages other than English. Fortunately, the Collator class takes care of these complex sorting problems. In the following example, we use a Collator designed to compare German strings. (We'll talk about Locales in a later section.) You can obtain a default Collator by calling the Collator.getInstance() method that has no arguments. Once you have an appropriate Collator instance, you can use its compare() method, which returns values just like String's compareTo() method. The code below creates two strings for the German translations of "fun" and "later," using Unicode constants for these two special characters. It then compares them, using a Collator for the German locale; the result is that "later" (spaeter) sorts before "fun" (spass).

String fun = "Spa\u00df";
String later = "sp\u00e4ter";
Collator german = Collator.getInstance(Locale.GERMAN);
if (german.compare(later, fun) < 0)  // yes

Using collators is essential if you're working with languages other than English. In Spanish, for example, "ll" and "ch" are treated as separate characters, and alphabetized separately. A collator handles cases like these automatically.


The String class provides several methods for finding substrings within a string. The startsWith() and endsWith() methods compare an argument String with the beginning and end of the String, respectively:

String url = "http://foo.bar.com/"; 
if ( url.startsWith("http:") ) 
    // do HTTP 

Overloaded versions of indexOf() search for the first occurrence of a character or substring:

int i = abcs.indexOf( 'p' );            // i = 15 
int i = abcs.indexOf( "def" );          // i = 3 

Correspondingly, overloaded versions of lastIndexOf() search for the last occurrence of a character or substring.


A number of methods operate on the String and return a new String as a result. While this is useful, you should be aware that creating lots of strings in this manner can affect performance. If you need to modify a string often, you should use the StringBuffer class, as I'll discuss shortly.

trim() is a useful method that removes leading and trailing white space (i.e., carriage return, newline, and tab) from the String:

String abc = "   abc   "; 
abc = abc.trim();                       // "abc" 

In the above example, we have thrown away the original String (with excess white space), so it will be garbage collected.

The toUpperCase() and toLowerCase() methods return a new String of the appropriate case:

String foo = "FOO".toLowerCase(); 
String FOO = foo.toUpperCase(); 

substring() returns a specified range of characters. The starting index is inclusive; the ending is exclusive:

String abcs = "abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz"; 
String cde = abcs.substring(2, 5);      // "cde" 

String Method Summary

Many people complain when they discover the Java String class is final (i.e., it can't be subclassed). There is a lot of functionality in String, and it would be nice to be able to modify its behavior directly. Unfortunately, there is also a serious need to optimize and rely on the performance of String objects. As I discussed in Chapter 5, Objects in Java, the Java compiler can optimize final classes by inlining methods when appropriate. The implementation of final classes can also be trusted by classes that work closely together, allowing for special cooperative optimizations. If you want to make a new string class that uses basic String functionality, use a String object in your class and provide methods that delegate method calls to the appropriate String methods.

Table 7.2 summarizes the methods provided by the String class.

Table 7.2: String Methods
Method Functionality
charAt() Gets at a particular character in the string
compareTo() Compares the string with another string
concat() Concatenates the string with another string
copyValueOf() Returns a string equivalent to the specified character array
endsWith() Checks if the string ends with a suffix
equals() Compares the string with another string
equalsIgnoreCase() Compares the string with another string and ignores case
getBytes() Copies characters from the string into a byte array
getChars() Copies characters from the string into a character array
hashCode() Returns a hashcode for the string

Searches for the first occurrence of a character or substring in the string


Fetches a unique instance of the string from a global shared string pool


Searches for the last occurrence of a character or substring in a string

length() Returns the length of the string

Checks whether a region of the string matches the specified region of another string


Replaces all occurrences of a character in the string with another character

startsWith() Checks if the string starts with a prefix
substring() Returns a substring from the string
toCharArray() Returns the array of characters from the string
toLowerCase() Converts the string to uppercase
toString() Converts the string to a string
toUpperCase() Converts the string to lowercase
trim() Removes the leading and trailing white space from the string
valueOf() Returns a string representation of a value


The java.lang.StringBuffer class is a growable buffer for characters. It's an efficient alternative to code like the following:

String ball = "Hello"; 
ball = ball + " there."; 
ball = ball + " How are you?"; 

The above example repeatedly produces new String objects. This means that the character array must be copied over and over, which can adversely affect performance. A more economical alternative is to use a StringBuffer object and its append() method:

StringBuffer ball = new StringBuffer("Hello"); 
ball.append(" there."); 
ball.append(" How are you?"); 

The StringBuffer class actually provides a number of overloaded append() methods, for appending various types of data to the buffer.

We can get a String from the StringBuffer with its toString() method:

String message = ball.toString(); 

StringBuffer also provides a number of overloaded insert() methods for inserting various types of data at a particular location in the string buffer.

The String and StringBuffer classes cooperate, so that even in this last operation, no copy has to be made. The string data is shared between the objects, unless and until we try to change it in the StringBuffer.

So, when should you use a StringBuffer instead of a String? If you need to keep adding characters to a string, use a StringBuffer; it's designed to efficiently handle such modifications. You'll still have to convert the StringBuffer to a String when you need to use any of the methods in the String class. You can print a StringBuffer directly using System.out.println()because println() calls the toString() for you.

Another thing you should know about StringBuffer methods is that they are thread-safe, just like all public methods in the Java API. This means that any time you modify a StringBuffer, you don't have to worry about another thread coming along and messing up the string while you are modifying it. If you recall our discussion of synchronization in Chapter 6, Threads, you know that being thread-safe means that only one thread at a time can change the state of a StringBuffer instance.

On a final note, I mentioned earlier that strings take advantage of the single overloaded operator in Java, +, for concatenation. You might be interested to know that the compiler uses a StringBuffer to implement concatenation. Consider the following expression:

String foo = "To " + "be " + "or";

This is equivalent to:

String foo = new
  StringBuffer().append("To ").append("be ").append("or").toString();

This kind of chaining of expressions is one of the things operator overloading hides in other languages.


A common programming task involves parsing a string of text into words or "tokens" that are separated by some set of delimiter characters. The java.util.StringTokenizer class is a utility that does just this. The following example reads words from the string text:

String text = "Now is the time for all good men (and women)..."; 
StringTokenizer st = new StringTokenizer( text ); 
while ( st.hasMoreTokens() )  { 
    String word = st.nextToken(); 

First, we create a new StringTokenizer from the String. We invoke the hasMoreTokens() and nextToken() methods to loop over the words of the text. By default, we use white space (i.e., carriage return, newline, and tab) as delimiters.

The StringTokenizer implements the java.util.Enumeration interface, which means that StringTokenizer also implements two more general methods for accessing elements: hasMoreElements() and nextElement(). These methods are defined by the Enumeration interface; they provide a standard way of returning a sequence of values, as we'll discuss a bit later. The advantage of nextToken() is that it returns a String, while nextElement() returns an Object. The Enumeration interface is implemented by many items that return sequences or collections of objects, as you'll see when we talk about hashtables and vectors later in the chapter. Those of you who have used the C strtok()function should appreciate how useful this object-oriented equivalent is.

You can also specify your own set of delimiter characters in the StringTokenizer constructor, using another String argument to the constructor. Any combination of the specified characters is treated as the equivalent of white space for tokenizing:

text = "http://foo.bar.com/"; 
tok = new StringTokenizer( text, "/:" ); 
if ( tok.countTokens() < 2 )            // bad URL 
String protocol = tok.nextToken();      // protocol = "http" String host = tok.nextToken();          // host = "foo.bar.com" 

The example above parses a URL specification to get at the protocol and host components. The characters "/" and ":" are used as separators. The countTokens() method provides a fast way to see how many tokens will be returned by nextToken(), without actually creating the String objects.

An overloaded form of nextToken() accepts a string that defines a new delimiter set for that and subsequent reads. And finally, the StringTokenizer constructor accepts a flag that specifies that separator characters are to be returned individually as tokens themselves. By default, the token separators are not returned.

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