static const vs #define


Is it better to use static const vars than #define preprocessor? Or maybe it depends on the context?

What are advantages/disadvantages for each method?

10/29/2018 8:38:08 AM

Accepted Answer

Personally, I loathe the preprocessor, so I'd always go with const.

The main advantage to a #define is that it requires no memory to store in your program, as it is really just replacing some text with a literal value. It also has the advantage that it has no type, so it can be used for any integer value without generating warnings.

Advantages of "const"s are that they can be scoped, and they can be used in situations where a pointer to an object needs to be passed.

I don't know exactly what you are getting at with the "static" part though. If you are declaring globally, I'd put it in an anonomous namespace instead of using static. For example

namespace {
   unsigned const seconds_per_minute = 60;

int main (int argc; char *argv[]) {
10/28/2009 1:49:49 PM

Pros and cons to everything, depending on usage:

  • enums
    • only possible for integer values
    • properly scoped / identifier clash issues handled nicely, particularly in C++11 enum classes where the enumerations for enum class X are disambiguated by the scope X::
    • strongly typed, but to a big-enough signed-or-unsigned int size over which you have no control in C++03 (though you can specify a bit field into which they should be packed if the enum is a member of struct/class/union), while C++11 defaults to int but can be explicitly set by the programmer
    • can't take the address - there isn't one as the enumeration values are effectively substituted inline at the points of usage
    • stronger usage restraints (e.g. incrementing - template <typename T> void f(T t) { cout << ++t; } won't compile, though you can wrap an enum into a class with implicit constructor, casting operator and user-defined operators)
    • each constant's type taken from the enclosing enum, so template <typename T> void f(T) get a distinct instantiation when passed the same numeric value from different enums, all of which are distinct from any actual f(int) instantiation. Each function's object code could be identical (ignoring address offsets), but I wouldn't expect a compiler/linker to eliminate the unnecessary copies, though you could check your compiler/linker if you care.
    • even with typeof/decltype, can't expect numeric_limits to provide useful insight into the set of meaningful values and combinations (indeed, "legal" combinations aren't even notated in the source code, consider enum { A = 1, B = 2 } - is A|B "legal" from a program logic perspective?)
    • the enum's typename may appear in various places in RTTI, compiler messages etc. - possibly useful, possibly obfuscation
    • you can't use an enumeration without the translation unit actually seeing the value, which means enums in library APIs need the values exposed in the header, and make and other timestamp-based recompilation tools will trigger client recompilation when they're changed (bad!)
  • consts
    • properly scoped / identifier clash issues handled nicely
    • strong, single, user-specified type
      • you might try to "type" a #define ala #define S std::string("abc"), but the constant avoids repeated construction of distinct temporaries at each point of use
    • One Definition Rule complications
    • can take address, create const references to them etc.
    • most similar to a non-const value, which minimises work and impact if switching between the two
    • value can be placed inside the implementation file, allowing a localised recompile and just client links to pick up the change
  • defines
    • "global" scope / more prone to conflicting usages, which can produce hard-to-resolve compilation issues and unexpected run-time results rather than sane error messages; mitigating this requires:
      • long, obscure and/or centrally coordinated identifiers, and access to them can't benefit from implicitly matching used/current/Koenig-looked-up namespace, namespace aliases etc.
      • while the trumping best-practice allows template parameter identifiers to be single-character uppercase letters (possibly followed by a number), other use of identifiers without lowercase letters is conventionally reserved for and expected of preprocessor defines (outside the OS and C/C++ library headers). This is important for enterprise scale preprocessor usage to remain manageable. 3rd party libraries can be expected to comply. Observing this implies migration of existing consts or enums to/from defines involves a change in capitalisation, and hence requires edits to client source code rather than a "simple" recompile. (Personally, I capitalise the first letter of enumerations but not consts, so I'd be hit migrating between those two too - maybe time to rethink that.)
    • more compile-time operations possible: string literal concatenation, stringification (taking size thereof), concatenation into identifiers
      • downside is that given #define X "x" and some client usage ala "pre" X "post", if you want or need to make X a runtime-changeable variable rather than a constant you force edits to client code (rather than just recompilation), whereas that transition is easier from a const char* or const std::string given they already force the user to incorporate concatenation operations (e.g. "pre" + X + "post" for string)
    • can't use sizeof directly on a defined numeric literal
    • untyped (GCC doesn't warn if compared to unsigned)
    • some compiler/linker/debugger chains may not present the identifier, so you'll be reduced to looking at "magic numbers" (strings, whatever...)
    • can't take the address
    • the substituted value need not be legal (or discrete) in the context where the #define is created, as it's evaluated at each point of use, so you can reference not-yet-declared objects, depend on "implementation" that needn't be pre-included, create "constants" such as { 1, 2 } that can be used to initialise arrays, or #define MICROSECONDS *1E-6 etc. (definitely not recommending this!)
    • some special things like __FILE__ and __LINE__ can be incorporated into the macro substitution
    • you can test for existence and value in #if statements for conditionally including code (more powerful than a post-preprocessing "if" as the code need not be compilable if not selected by the preprocessor), use #undef-ine, redefine etc.
    • substituted text has to be exposed:
      • in the translation unit it's used by, which means macros in libraries for client use must be in the header, so make and other timestamp-based recompilation tools will trigger client recompilation when they're changed (bad!)
      • or on the command line, where even more care is needed to make sure client code is recompiled (e.g. the Makefile or script supplying the definition should be listed as a dependency)

As a general rule, I use consts and consider them the most professional option for general usage (though the others have a simplicity appealing to this old lazy programmer).

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