Will my iPhone app take a performance hit if I use Objective-C for low level code?


Question

When programming a CPU intensive or GPU intensive application on the iPhone or other portable hardware, you have to make wise algorithmic decisions to make your code fast.

But even great algorithm choices can be slow if the language you're using performs more poorly than another.

Is there any hard data comparing Objective-C to C++, specifically on the iPhone but maybe just on the Mac desktop, for performance of various similar language aspects? I am very familiar with this article comparing C and Objective-C, but this is a larger question of comparing two object oriented languages to each other.

For example, is a C++ vtable lookup really faster than an Obj-C message? How much faster? Threading, polymorphism, sorting, etc. Before I go on a quest to build a project with duplicate object models and various test code, I want to know if anybody has already done this and what the results where. This type of testing and comparison is a project in and of itself and can take a considerable amount of time. Maybe this isn't one project, but two and only the outputs can be compared.

I'm looking for hard data, not evangelism. Like many of you I love and hate both languages for various reasons. Furthermore, if there is someone out there actively pursuing this same thing I'd be interesting in pitching in some code to see the end results, and I'm sure others would help out too. My guess is that they both have strengths and weaknesses, my goal is to find out precisely what they are so that they can be avoided/exploited in real-world scenarios.

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5/23/2017 11:45:30 AM

Accepted Answer

Mike Ash has some hard numbers for performance of various Objective-C method calls versus C and C++ in his post "Performance Comparisons of Common Operations". Also, this post by Savoy Software is an interesting read when it comes to tuning the performance of an iPhone application by using Objective-C++.

I tend to prefer the clean, descriptive syntax of Objective-C over Objective-C++, and have not found the language itself to be the source of my performance bottlenecks. I even tend to do things that I know sacrifice a little bit of performance if they make my code much more maintainable.

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5/30/2009 12:45:26 AM

Yes, well written C++ is considerably faster. If you're writing performance critical programs and your C++ is not as fast as C (or within a few percent), something's wrong. If your ObjC implementation is as fast as C, then something's usually wrong -- i.e. the program is likely a bad example of ObjC OOD because it probably uses some 'dirty' tricks to step below the abstraction layer it is operating within, such as direct ivar accesses.

The Mike Ash 'comparison' is very misleading -- I would never recommend the approach to compare execution times of programs you have written, or recommend it to compare C vs C++ vs ObjC. The results presented are provided from a test with compiler optimizations disabled. A program compiled with optimizations disabled is rarely relevant when you are measuring execution times. To view it as a benchmark which compares C++ against Objective-C is flawed. The test also compares individual features, rather than entire, real world optimized implementations -- individual features are combined in very different ways with both languages. This is far from a realistic performance benchmark for optimized implementations. Examples: With optimizations enabled, IMP cache is as slow as virtual function calls. Static dispatch (as opposed to dynamic dispatch, e.g. using virtual) and calls to known C++ types (where dynamic dispatch may be bypassed) may be optimized aggressively. This process is called devirtualization, and when it is used, a member function which is declared virtual may even be inlined. In the case of the Mike Ash test where many calls are made to member functions which have been declared virtual and have empty bodies: these calls are optimized away entirely when the type is known because the compiler sees the implementation and is able to determine dynamic dispatch is unnecessary. The compiler can also eliminate calls to malloc in optimized builds (favoring stack storage). So, enabling compiler optimizations in any of C, C++, or Objective-C can produce dramatic differences in execution times.

That's not to say the presented results are entirely useless. You could get some useful information about external APIs if you want to determine if there are measurable differences between the times they spend in pthread_create or +[NSObject alloc] on one platform or architecture versus another. Of course, these two examples will be using optimized implementations in your test (unless you happen to be developing them). But for comparing one language to another in programs you compileā€¦ the presented results are useless with optimizations disabled.

Object Creation

Consider also object creation in ObjC - every object is allocated dynamically (e.g. on the heap). With C++, objects may be created on the stack (e.g. approximately as fast as creating a C struct and calling a simple function in many cases), on the heap, or as elements of abstract data types. Each time you allocate and free (e.g. via malloc/free), you may introduce a lock. When you create a C struct or C++ object on the stack, no lock is required (although interior members may use heap allocations) and it often costs just a few instructions or a few instructions plus a function call.

As well, ObjC objects are reference counted instances. The actual need for an object to be a std::shared_ptr in performance critical C++ is very rare. It's not necessary or desirable in C++ to make every instance a shared, reference counted instance. You have much more control over ownership and lifetime with C++.

Arrays and Collections

Arrays and many collections in C and C++ also use strongly typed containers and contiguous memory. Since the address of the next element's members are often known, the optimizer can do much more, and you have great cache and memory locality. With ObjC, that's far from reality for standard objects (e.g. NSObject).

Dispatch

Regarding methods, many C++ implementations use few virtual/dynamic calls, particularly in highly optimized programs. These are static method calls and fodder for the optimizers.

With ObjC methods, each method call (objc message send) is dynamic, and is consequently a firewall for the optimizer. Ultimately, that results in many restrictions or inconveniences regarding what you can and cannot do to keep performance at a minimum when writing performance critical ObjC. This may result in larger methods, IMP caching, frequent use of C.

Some realtime applications cannot use any ObjC messaging in their render paths. None -- audio rendering is a good example of this. ObjC dispatch is simply not designed for realtime purposes; Allocations and locks may happen behind the scenes when messaging objects, making the complexity/time of objc messaging unpredictable enough that the audio rendering may miss its deadline.

Other Features

C++ also provides generics/template implementations for many of its libraries. These optimize very well. They are typesafe, and a lot of inlining and optimizations may be made with templates (consider it polymorphism, optimization, and specialization which takes place at compilation). C++ adds several features which just are not available or comparable in strict ObjC. Trying to directly compare langs, objects, and libraries which are very different is not so useful -- it's a very small subset of actual realizations. It's better to expand the question to a library/framework or real program, considering many aspects of design and implementation.

Other Points

C and C++ symbols can be more easily removed and optimized away in various stages of the build (stripping, dead code elimination, inlining and early inlining, as well as Link Time Optimization). The benefits of this include reduced binary sizes, reduced launch/load times, reduced memory consumption, etc.. For a single app, that may not be such a big deal; but if you reuse a lot of code, and you should, then your shared libraries could add a lot of unnecessary weight to the program, if implemented ObjC -- unless you are prepared to jump through some flaming hoops. So scalability and reuse are also factors in medium/large projects, and groups where reuse is high.

Included Libraries

ObjC library implementors also optimize for the environment, so its library implementors can make use of some language and environment features to offer optimized implementations. Although there are some pretty significant restrictions when writing an optimized program in pure ObjC, some highly optimized implementations exist in Cocoa. This is one of Cocoa's strong points, although the C++ standard library (what some people call the STL) is no slouch either. Cocoa operates at a much higher level of abstraction than C++ -- if you don't know well what you're doing (or should be doing), operating closer to the metal can really cost you. Falling back on to a good library implementation if you are not an expert in some domain is a good thing, unless you are really prepared to learn. As well, Cocoa's environments are limited; you can find implementations/optimizations which make better use of the OS.

If you're writing optimized programs and have experience doing so in both C++ and ObjC, clean C++ implementations will often be twice as fast or faster than clean ObjC (yes, you can compare against Cocoa). If you know how to optimize, you can often do better than higher level, general purpose abstractions. Although, some optimized C++ implementations will be as fast as or slower than Cocoa's (e.g. my initial attempt at file I/O was slower than Cocoa's -- primarily because the C++ implementation initializes its memory).

A lot of it comes down to the language features you are familiar with. I use both langs, they both have different strengths and models/patterns. They complement each other quite well, and there are great libraries for both. If you're implementing a complex, performance critical program, correct use of C++'s features and libraries will give you much more control and provide significant advantages for optimization, such that in the right hands, "several times faster" is a good default expectation (don't expect to win every time, or without some work, however). Remember, it takes years to understand C++ well enough to really reach that point.

I keep the majority of my performance critical paths as C++, but also recognize that ObjC is also a very good solution for some problems, and that there are some very good libraries available.


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