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Using collections in Java: sets

A List such as an ArrayList is useful in cases where we want to store some arbitrary large group of objects in a fixed order, and possibly refer to those objects by their position in the list. But a list is not so good for another type of problem where:

  • we don't necessarily care about ordering;
  • we don't care about the number of times that an object is in the collection;
  • we just want to know if a given object is in the collection or not.

A collection in which an object may be "present or not" (but not present multiple times) is called a set.

Why use a set?

It may have occurred to you that you could use a plain old list for the above purpose. After all, List has a contains() method to see if a given object is in the list, and to preserve the present-or-not condition, we could just check before adding if the given object was already in the list, and if so not add it again. So what's the point of a "set"?

The point is simply efficiency:

If your only necessary criterion is present or not and you don't need the extra functionality of a list (such as ordering, being able to retrieve the nth item), then it is possible to use a more efficient data structure. That's generally what Java's set implementations do.

Next: introducing the HashSet

On the next page, we look at how to use a Java set, with the introduction of the HashSet class.

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Written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2012. All rights reserved. If you have any feedback on the Java collections tutorials in this section or about the content of this site in general, please leave a message on the Javamex forum.