It feels like fleets of new developers dash themselves upon the rocky shores of Objective-C memory management every day on StackOverflow. I can't bear to write the same answers over and over again, so this article will be my final, unabridged explanation of: retain, release, autorelease, alloc, dealloc, copy, and NSAutoreleasePool. There will be some rules to memorize, but we will also take a journey under the hood for a deeper understanding.

This article is intended for people who are new to Objective-C, or who never fully learnt how manual reference counting works. It does assume that you have some programming experience, possibly in another language. If you are a beginner programmer and Objective-C is your first language, I will try to keep the explanations clear, but it may become confusing the more in-depth we get.

We will be covering:

  • A Quick Mention Of ARC And Garbage Collection
  • Coming From C/C++
  • Coming From a Garbage Collected Language (Java, Python, C#, etc.)
  • What Is Reference Counting?
  • How Does Reference Counting Work In Objective-C?
  • NSAutoreleasePool And autorelease
  • Common Mistakes

If something is not explained, or not explained very well, post a question in the comments and I'll expand the article to cover it.

A Quick Mention Of ARC And Garbage Collection

These days, you can mostly avoid manual reference counting by turning on Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) or garbage collection. I haven't used either of those yet, so this article will focus exclusively on manual reference counting using retain and release.

I think Apple is pushing ARC as the new standard (please correct me on this if I'm wrong). I'm guessing this is why the "Memory Management Programming Guide" has been renamed to the "Advanced Memory Management Programming Guide". If you're starting a new project then turn on ARC and you can largely forget about manual reference counting. However, I get the impression that you still need a decent understanding of reference counting to use ARC 100% correctly.

Coming From C/C++

You can skip this section if you don't have experience with manual memory management, such as in C or C++.

In C/C++, you can create objects as local (a.k.a stack-allocated) variables, where allocation and deallocation is handled for you automatically. You don't have this luxury in Objective-C. In Objective-C all objects are allocated on the heap. It is the equivalent of always using new to create objects in C++. As a result, all object variables are pointers.

In C++, an allocated bit of memory usually has a single owner. The owner deallocates the memory when appropriate. This is also slightly different in Objective-C. Objects can have multiple owners by default, as we will see later. You can't say "deallocate this now." Instead, you say "I'm not using this anymore" and the deallocation of an object happens automatically once all owners have said they are no longer using the object.

Coming From a Garbage Collected Language (Java, Python, C#, etc.)

You can skip this section if you don't have experience in a garbage collected language like Java, Python or C#.

In a garbage collected langauge, you create new objects whenever you want. Then, when you're finished with the objects you just stop using them and forget about them. The garbage collector will magically come along and free up the memory that the objects were occupying. This is not so, in Objective-C.

In Objective-C, when you create a new object you are responsible for freeing up (a.k.a. deallocating) the memory once you're done with it. If you forget this, then the object stays in memory until the program exits. This is called a memory leak. If you keep leaking memory, eventually you will use so much that the program will crash.

Conversely, you also have to be careful that you don't use an object that has been deallocated. If an object gets deallocated, but you still have a variable pointing to that object, then the next time you try to use that variable you will crash — or worse. Unlike other languages, just because you have a variable doesn't mean that the object in the variable still exists. This is called a dangling pointer.

What Is Reference Counting?

Every object in Objective-C uses reference counting to manage its lifecycle. The canonical documentation for this is the Advanced Memory Management Programming Guide. Reference counting allows a single object to have multiple "owners", and ensures that the object will stay alive as long as there is at least one owner. Once the last owner is gone, the object deallocates itself.

Reference counting is very simple, and works like this:

  • Every object has a "reference count", which is just an integer.
  • The reference count starts at one when the object is created, and whoever created the object automatically has ownership of it.
  • If you want to take ownership of an object, you increase the reference count of the object by one.
  • When you release ownership of an object because you don't need it any more, you decrease the reference count by one.
  • When the reference count of an object reaches zero that means nobody is using it, so it is safe to be deallocated.

Let's look at an example of correct usage, using a reference counted television object.

Action Change Reference Count
Jerry wants to watch Seinfeld, so he creates a TV object. Creating the object makes him the only owner. 1
Elaine wants to watch the same TV object as Jerry, so she also takes ownership of the object. +1 2
Jerry gets bored of the Seinfeld episode he is watching and decides to leave, so he releases ownership of the TV object. -1 1
The episode of Seinfeld finishes, so Elaine releases ownership of the TV object and leaves. -1 0

Now let's look at an incorrect usage, which causes a memory leak:

Action Change Reference Count
Ned wants to watch Game of Thrones, so he creates a TV object. Creating the object makes him the only owner. 1
Joffrey wants to watch the TV with Ned, so he also takes ownership. +1 2
Joffrey beheads Ned. 2
Joffrey leaves, and releases ownership of the object. -1 1
The TV object is never deallocated because the reference count will stay at one forever. 1

This memory leak occurs because Ned forgot to release ownership of the object before he was beheaded.

Now let's look at another incorrect usage that causes a dangling pointer:

Action Change Reference Count
Simon wants to watch Grandma's House, so he creates a TV object. Creating the object makes him the only owner. 1
Adam starts watching too, but doesn't bother taking ownership. 1
Simon releases ownership and leaves. -1 0
The reference count has hit zero, so the TV object deallocates itself.
Adam tries to keep watching, but the TV object is gone so the universe explodes.

How Does Reference Counting Work In Objective-C?

Memory management in Objective-C involves four basic rules. If you follow these rules, then you will not leak memory or cause dangling pointers.

Rule 1. If you create an object using a method that starts with "alloc", "copy" or "new", then you own it.

This is where you have created a new object with a retain count of one, which automatically makes you the owner.

Examples:

NSString* iOwnThis1 = [[NSString alloc] initWithString:@"hello"];
NSString* iOwnThis2 = [someOtherString copy];
NSMutableString* iOwnThis3 = [someOtherString mutableCopy];
NSString* iOwnThis4 = [NSString new];

[iOwnThis1 release];
[iOwnThis2 release];
[iOwnThis3 release];
[iOwnThis4 release];

Rule 2. If you retain an object, then you own it.

This is where you call retain on an object, which increases the retain count by one.

Examples:

[donkey retain];
[eagle retain];
[eagle retain];
[eagle retain];

[donkey release];
[eagle release];
[eagle release];
[eagle release];

Note that you can take ownership of an object more than once. If you own the object three times, then you have to release it three times.

Rule 3. If you own it, you must release it.

This is where you call the release method on an object, which decreases the retain count by one. When you call release and the retain count reaches zero, the object will deallocate itself by calling dealloc. This means you should never call dealloc directly. Just release the object correctly, and it will handle everything itself.

Examples:

NSString* iMadeThis = [[NSString alloc] init]; // Rule 1
[iMadeThis release];

[imSharingThis retain]; // Rule 2
[imSharingThis release];

//can own the same object many times
Pidgeon* pidgeon = [[Pidgeon alloc] init]; // Rule 1
[pidgeon retain]; // Rule 2
[pidgeon release];
[pidgeon release];

Rule 4. If you keep a pointer to an object, then you must own the object (with some rare exceptions).

Basically, if you own an object, then you know it is definitely safe to use. If you don't own it, then it is sometimes safe to use temporarily (discussed in the autorelease section). If you want to keep an object to use later, such as storing it in an ivar or a global, you must retain it. Otherwise, it might be deallocated and you will be left with a dangling pointer.

One exception is the use of strings you type directly into the code (string literals). String literals are never deallocated, and retain and release don't do anything to them. Another exception is when you are trying to avoid retain cycles, which we will look at later.

Here are some examples showing the right and wrong way to keep a variable:

//good - no retain necessary on string literal
NSString* g_globalDefaultName = @"Balram";

@interface Tiger {
    NSString* name;
    NSImage* picture;
}
//BAD! This property should be `copy` or `retain`
@property(assign) NSImage* picture;

-(id) initWithName:(NSString*)nameArg;
+(void) setDefaultName:(NSString*)defaultName;
@end

@implementation

@synthesize picture;

-(id) initWithName:(NSString*)nameArg;
{
    if((self = [super init])){
        //BAD!
        name = nameArg;
        
        //Should be:
        //name = [nameArg copy]; //good
        
        //Could also be:
        //name = [nameArg retain]; //good
    }
    return self;
}

-(void) dealloc;
{
    //good - always release the ivars you own in `dealloc`
    [name release];
    [image release];
    [super dealloc];
}

+(void) setDefaultName:(NSString*)defaultName;
{
    //BAD!
    g_globalDefaultName = defaultName;
    
    //Should be:
    //if(g_globalDefaultName != defaultName){
    //    [g_globalDefaultName release];
    //    g_globalDefaultName = [defaultName copy];
    //}
}
@end

NSAutoreleasePool And Autorelease

The final peice of the puzzle is autoreleasing. Let's say we create an object like this:

NSString* greeting = [NSString stringWithFormat:@"%@, %@!", @"Hello", @"sailor"];

According to Rule 1, we do not own the greeting string because the method stringWithFormat does not begin with "alloc", "copy" or "new". How can we not own an object we just created? If we don't release it then what will?

At (almost) any time, there is a global NSAutoreleasePool in use. When you call autorelease on an object, all it does is add that object to the global pool. Later on, the pool will be "drained" which causes release to be called on every object in the pool. So, autorelease just calls release some time in the future.

This is the reason why we don't own the greeting string. It has already been autoreleased, which means it has been added to the current pool, and will be released later when the pool is drained. If we don't retain the string now, then when the pool is drained the retain count will hit zero, and the string will be deallocated. The object is safe to use until the pool is drained, but it will not be safe after that.

So now the question becomes "how long can I safely use the object before the autorelease pool is drained?" In Cocoa, the pool is drained after every NSEvent is sent. For example, if the user clicks the mouse twice then the pool will be drained in between the first and the second click. This is why it is safe to use an object temporarily, but it is not safe to keep an object unless you own it. If you don't retain your ivar and the user moves her mouse, suddenly your ivar is gone and you're probably going to crash very shortly.

You can actually create your own autorelease pools if you need to drain them frequently:

//put `outside` in the current global pool (the "old pool")
Tiger* outside = [[[Tiger alloc] init] autorelease];

//make a new current global pool (the "new pool")
NSAutoreleasePool* newPool = [[NSAutoreleasePool alloc] init];

//put `inside` into the new pool
Tiger* inside = [[[Tiger alloc] init] autorelease];

//drain the new pool, which makes the old pool become current again
[newPool drain];

//BAD! `inside` is gone, because it was in the new pool, and
//the new pool has been drained. This will probably crash.
[inside speak];

//good - `outside` was in the old pool, so it was not affected by the
//new pool being drained
[outside speak];

The basic rule of thumb is this: It's safe to use an object you don't own until the current function/method returns. After you return from the function/method someone might drain the pool, or they might release one of the arguments they gave you. If you want to be sure the object will live after the function/method returns, then retain it. It's always safe to use an object you own.

Common Mistakes

Releasing An Object You Don't Own

One common mistake is to think "I have to release this string because I created it with [NSString stringWithString:@"hello"]." Look at Rule 1 again. stringWithString: does not start with "alloc", "copy" or "new", which means you don't own the object, so don't release it. The only exception I can think of is the mutableCopy method, which really should have been called copyMutable instead.

Keeping And Using An Object You Don't Own

A similar mistake to the previous one is doing something like this:

@interface Tiger {
    NSString* voice;
}
-(void) speak;
@end;

@implementation Tiger
-(id) init;
{
    if((self = [super init])){
        //DANGER! You don't own the string, so it will be deallocated
        voice = [NSString stringWithFormat:@"%@, I'm a %@", "ROAR", "tiger"];
    }
}

-(void) speak;
{
    //This will crash when `voice` becomes a dangling pointer
    NSLog(@"%@", voice);
}

-(void) dealloc;
{
    //This will also crash when `voice` becomes a dangling pointer
    [voice release];
    [super dealloc]
}

@end

Again, look at Rule 1. stringWithFormat: does not begin with "alloc", "copy" or "new", so you don't own the string it creates. Objects should retain their ivars unless they have a very good reason not to.

Scarily, this may work without crashing, depending on how the Tiger class is used. It is, however, still a ticking time bomb.

Calling dealloc Directly

Some people jump into Objective-C assuming that memory management works the same way as C++. However, they quickly learn that this is a very bad idea:

//WRONG
Tiger* pet = [Tiger alloc];
[pet speak];
[pet dealloc];

//CORRECT
Tiger* pet = [[Tiger alloc] init];
[pet speak];
[pet release];

Firstly, never call dealloc directly. Secondly, you must call one of the init methods directly after calling alloc.

Once again, the scary thing is that the above code can actually work without crashing sometimes, depending on the class being used.

Looking At retainCount

The retainCount method returns — you guessed it — the current retain count. Occassionally someone will look at this number and say "OMG, something is wrong! I know the retain count should be 1 but it's 3!"

Looking at the retain count is not reliable because it doesn't show autoreleases. Take this peice of code, for example:

NSMutableString* str = [NSMutableString string];
[str appendString:"Testy Cakes"];
for(int i = 0; i < 3; ++i){
    NSLog(@"%@", str);
    NSLog(@"Retain count is %d", [str retainCount]);
}

The output is this:

Testy Cakes
Retain count is 2
Testy Cakes
Retain count is 3
Testy Cakes
Retain count is 4

NSLog is retaining str every time it is called. That doesn't mean that NSLog is leaking memory. If you could look into the current autorelease pool — which you can't, as far as I know — you would find that str has been autoreleased four times.

Anything can retain your objects. I could write a function that retains every argument 1000 times and then autoreleases it 1000 times just to make you freak out when you look at the retain count, but it wouldn't leak a drop.

Over-releasing

Despite your best efforts, you will occassionally accidentally release something twice instead of once, or maybe release something that you don't own. This will cause a crash. Fortunately, these bugs are pretty easy to find if you turn on zombies in Instruments. And I'm not talking about sexually arousing the walking dead inside of a clarinet, or anything like that.

Xcode 4 makes this pretty easy:

  • Click and hold the "Run" button in the toolbar.
  • Select "Profile" from the drop down menu.
  • When Instruments pops up, select the "Zombies" instrument.
  • Go to your running app and trigger the crash.
  • Instruments will pop up a little box that says something like: "You messaged a zombie at 0xDEADBEEF." Click the little arrow in there.
  • In the bottom pane, Instruments will show you every single retain, release and autorelease that ever happened to the object, so you can figure out the problem from that.

Retain Cycles

Normally you retain an ivar in a setter or an initialiser method, then you release it in dealloc. That way, when an object is deallocated there is a cascading effect. The root object releases its children, then it's children release their children, until the whole data structure is fully released.

If you have a situation where object X owns object Y, and object Y also owns object X then you have a problem. X and Y will never be deallocated while they own each other, because they are keeping each others retain counts at one. So you just end up leaking both of the objects.

The reason why objects don't retain their delegates is because the delegate is usually the owner of the object. Image if delegates were retained. The NSWindowController owns the NSWindow, and the NSWindow owns it's delegate, which just happens to be the NSWindowController. Now you've leaked an entire window and its controller, which could take up a huge chunk of memory.

The way you get around this, is you basically say "Ok, the controller is going to live longer than the window which means we shouldn't get any dangling pointers, so just don't retain the controller." If you want to be super safe, you can set the delegate to nil inside of the dealloc of the window controller. That way, even if the window outlives the controller, you can be sure that there won't be a dangling pointer.