Pointers vs References in C++

Prerequisite: Pointers, References

C and C++ support pointers which is different from most of the other programming languages. Other languages including C++, Java, Python, Ruby, Perl and PHP support references.

On the surface, both references and pointers are very similar, both are used to have one variable provide access to another. With both providing lots of same capabilities, it’s often unclear what is different between these different mechanisms. In this article, I will try to illustrate the differences between pointers and references.

Pointers: A pointer is a variable that holds memory address of another variable. A pointer needs to be dereferenced with * operator to access the memory location it points to.

References : A reference variable is an alias, that is, another name for an already existing variable. A reference, like a pointer is also implemented by storing the address of an object.
A reference can be thought of as a constant pointer (not to be confused with a pointer to a constant value!) with automatic indirection, i.e the compiler will apply the * operator for you.

int i = 3; 

// A pointer to variable i (or stores
// address of i)
int *ptr = &i; 

// A reference (or alias) for i.
int &ref = i; 

Differences :

  1. Reassignment: A pointer can be re-assigned. This property is useful for implementation of data structures like linked list, tree, etc. See the following examples:
    int x = 5;
    int y = 6;
    int *p;
    p =  &x;
    p = &y;

    On the other hand, a reference cannot be re-assigned, and must be assigned at initialization.

    int x = 5;
    int y = 6;
    int &r = x;
  2. Memory Address: A pointer has its own memory address and size on the stack whereas a reference shares the same memory address (with the original variable) but also takes up some space on the stack. References may be passed to functions, stored in classes, etc. in a manner very similar to pointers.  Pointer is an independent variable and can be assigned NEW address values; whereas a reference, once assigned, can never refer to any new object until the variable goes out of scope.
  3. NULL value: Pointer can be assigned NULL directly, whereas reference cannot. The constraints associated with references (no NULL, no reassignment) ensure that the underlying operations do not run into exception situation.
  4. Indirection: You can have pointers to pointers to pointers offering extra levels of indirection. Whereas references only offer one level of indirection.
  5. Arithmetic operations: Various arithmetic operations can be performed on pointers whereas there is no such thing called Reference Arithmetic.(but you can take the address of an object pointed by a reference and do pointer arithmetics on it as in &obj + 5).)

When to use What

The performances are exactly the same, as references are implemented internally as pointers. But still you can keep some points in your mind to decide when to use what :

  • Use references
    • In function parameters and return types.
  • Use pointers:
    • To implement data structures like linked list, tree, etc and their algorithms.
    • Use pointers if  pointer arithmetic or passing NULL-pointer is needed. For example for arrays (Note that array access is implemented using pointer arithmetic).

Quoted in C++ FAQ Lite : Use references when you can, and pointers when you have to. References are usually preferred over pointers whenever you don’t need “reseating”. This usually means that references are most useful in a class’s public interface. References typically appear on the skin of an object, and pointers on the inside.

The exception to the above is where a function’s parameter or return value needs a “sentinel” reference — a reference that does not refer to an object. This is usually best done by returning/taking a pointer, and giving the NULL pointer this special significance (references must always alias objects, not a dereferenced null pointer).

Related Article:
When do we pass arguments as Reference or Pointers?

This article is contributed by Rishav Raj. If you like GeeksforGeeks and would like to contribute, you can also write an article using contribute.geeksforgeeks.org or mail your article to contribute@geeksforgeeks.org. See your article appearing on the GeeksforGeeks main page and help other Geeks.

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