Smart Pointers

A smart pointer is a class that holds and manages a pointer through a popular C++ technique called “Resource Acquisiton is Initialization” (RAII). It allows developers to not worry about freeing a pointer, and it also allows pointers to be exception-safe.

Ownership

When refering to memory, ownership answers the question: “Who is in charge of freeing the given resource?”

There are three standard smart pointers defined in the <memory> header file:

  • std::unique_ptr<T> A unique pointer does not share ownership, and will free the resource at the end of the scope.
  • std::shared_ptr<T> A shared pointer does share ownership, and will only free the resource when there are no other owners counted and it has reached the end of the scope.
  • std::weak_ptr<T> A weak pointer is used with a shared pointer, but it does not add to the reference counter like a shared pointer does.

Both unique_ptr and shared_ptr have a corresponding function to create their respective pointers:

  • std::make_unique<T>(value) for unique_ptr
  • std::make_shared<T>(value) for shared_ptr

Unique Pointers

int main() {
auto ptr = std::make_unique<int>(10);
} // The ptr reaches end of scope, no memory leaks

Shared Pointers

int main() {
auto ptr = std::make_shared<int>(10);
std::cout << ptr.use_count() << "\n"; // Prints the reference count (1)
{
auto ptr2 = ptr1; // Reference count is now 2
std::cout << ptr2.use_count() << '\n'; // Prints the reference count (2)
} // The ptr2 reaches end of scope, reference count is 1 so resource not freed
std::cout<< *ptr << "\n";
} // The ptr reaches end of scope, reference count is 0 so resource is freed

Exception Safety

void unsafe_pointer() {
int* ptr = new int(10);
if (*ptr == 10) {
throw;
}
delete ptr; // The ptr not freed because the function throws beforehand
}
void safe_pointer() {
auto ptr = std::make_unique<int>(10);
if (*ptr == 10) {
throw;
}
} // The ptr freed because destructors are called automatically when leaving scope

Contributors

Interested in helping build Docs? Read the Contribution Guide or share your thoughts in this feedback form.

Learn C++ on Codecademy