What C++ Smart Pointer Implementations are available?

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Comparisons, Pros, Cons, and When to Use?

This is a spin-off from a garbage collection thread where what I thought was a simple answer generated a lot of comments about some specific smart pointer implementations so it seemed worth starting a new post.

Ultimately the question is what are the various implementations of smart pointers in C++ out there and how do they compare? Just simple pros and cons or exceptions and gotchas to something you might otherwise think should work.

I've posted some implementations that I've used or at least glossed over and considered using as an answer below and my understanding of their differences and similarities which may not be 100% accurate so feel free to fact check or correct me as needed.

The goal is to learn about some new objects and libraries or correct my usage and understanding of existing implementations already widely in use and end up with a decent reference for others.

C++ Solutions

Solution 1 - C++


std::auto_ptr - Perhaps one of the originals it suffered from first draft syndrome only providing limited garbage collection facilities. The first downside being that it calls delete upon destruction making them unacceptable for holding array allocated objects (new[]). It takes ownership of the pointer so two auto pointers shouldn't contain the same object. Assignment will transfer ownership and reset the rvalue auto pointer to a null pointer. Which leads to perhaps the worst drawback; they can't be used within STL containers due to the aforementioned inability to be copied. The final blow to any use case is they are slated to be deprecated in the next standard of C++.

std::auto_ptr_ref - This is not a smart pointer it's actually a design detail used in conjunction with std::auto_ptr to allow copying and assignment in certain situations. Specifically it can be used to convert a non-const std::auto_ptr to an lvalue using the Colvin-Gibbons trick also known as a move constructor to transfer ownership.

On the contrary perhaps std::auto_ptr wasn't really intended to be used as a general purpose smart pointer for automatic garbage collection. Most of my limited understanding and assumptions are based on Herb Sutter's Effective Use of auto_ptr and I do use it regularly although not always in the most optimized way.


std::unique_ptr - This is our friend who will be replacing std::auto_ptr it will be quite similar except with the key improvements to correct the weaknesses of std::auto_ptr like working with arrays, lvalue protection via private copy constructor, being usable with STL containers and algorithms, etc. Since it's performance overhead and memory footprint are limited this is an ideal candidate for replacing, or perhaps more aptly described as owning, raw pointers. As the "unique" implies there is only one owner of the pointer just like the previous std::auto_ptr.

std::shared_ptr - I believe this is based off TR1 and boost::shared_ptr but improved to include aliasing and pointer arithmetic as well. In short it wraps a reference counted smart pointer around a dynamically allocated object. As the "shared" implies the pointer can be owned by more than one shared pointer when the last reference of the last shared pointer goes out of scope then the object will be deleted appropriately. These are also thread safe and can handle incomplete types in most cases. std::make_shared can be used to efficiently construct a std::shared_ptr with one heap allocation using the default allocator.

std::weak_ptr - Likewise based off TR1 and boost::weak_ptr. This is a reference to an object owned by a std::shared_ptr and will therefore not prevent the deletion of the object if the std::shared_ptr reference count drops to zero. In order to get access to the raw pointer you'll first need to access the std::shared_ptr by calling lock which will return an empty std::shared_ptr if the owned pointer has expired and been destroyed already. This is primarily useful to avoid indefinite hanging reference counts when using multiple smart pointers.


boost::shared_ptr - Probably the easiest to use in the most varying scenarios (STL, PIMPL, RAII, etc) this is a shared referenced counted smart pointer. I've heard a few complaints about performance and overhead in some situations but I must have ignored them because I can't remember what the argument was. Apparently it was popular enough to become a pending standard C++ object and no drawbacks over the norm regarding smart pointers come to mind.

boost::weak_ptr - Much like previous description of std::weak_ptr, based on this implementation, this allows a non-owning reference to a boost::shared_ptr. You not surprisingly call lock() to access the "strong" shared pointer and must check to make sure it's valid as it could have already been destroyed. Just make sure not to store the shared pointer returned and let it go out of scope as soon as you're done with it otherwise you're right back to the cyclic reference problem where your reference counts will hang and objects will not be destroyed.

boost::scoped_ptr - This is a simple smart pointer class with little overhead probably designed for a better performing alternative to boost::shared_ptr when usable. It's comparable to std::auto_ptr especially in the fact that it can't be safely used as an element of a STL container or with multiple pointers to the same object.

boost::intrusive_ptr - I've never used this but from my understanding it's designed to be used when creating your own smart pointer compatible classes. You need to implement the reference counting yourself, you'll also need to implement a few methods if you want your class to be generic, furthermore you'd have to implement your own thread safety. On the plus side this probably gives you the most custom way of picking and choosing exactly how much or how little "smartness" you want. intrusive_ptr is typically more efficient than shared_ptr since it allows you to have a single heap allocation per object. (thanks Arvid)

boost::shared_array - This is a boost::shared_ptr for arrays. Basically new [], operator[], and of course delete [] are baked in. This can be used in STL containers and as far as I know does everything boost:shared_ptr does although you can't use boost::weak_ptr with these. You could however alternatively use a boost::shared_ptr<std::vector<>> for similar functionality and to regain the ability to use boost::weak_ptr for references.

boost::scoped_array - This is a boost::scoped_ptr for arrays. As with boost::shared_array all the necessary array goodness is baked in. This one is non-copyable and so can't be used in STL containers. I've found almost anywhere you find yourself wanting to use this you probably could just use std::vector. I've never determined which is actually faster or has less overhead but this scoped array seems far less involved than a STL vector. When you want to keep allocation on the stack consider boost::array instead.


QPointer - Introduced in Qt 4.0 this is a "weak" smart pointer which only works with QObject and derived classes, which in the Qt framework is almost everything so that's not really a limitation. However there are limitations namely that it doesn't supply a "strong" pointer and although you can check if the underlying object is valid with isNull() you could find your object being destroyed right after you pass that check especially in multi-threaded environments. Qt people consider this deprecated I believe.

QSharedDataPointer - This is a "strong" smart pointer potentially comparable to boost::intrusive_ptr although it has some built in thread safety but it does require you to include reference counting methods (ref and deref) which you can do by subclassing QSharedData. As with much of Qt the objects are best used through ample inheritance and subclassing everything seems to be the intended design.

QExplicitlySharedDataPointer - Very similar to QSharedDataPointer except it doesn't implicitly call detach(). I'd call this version 2.0 of QSharedDataPointer as that slight increase in control as to exactly when to detach after the reference count drops to zero isn't particularly worth a whole new object.

QSharedPointer - Atomic reference counting, thread safe, sharable pointer, custom deletes (array support), sounds like everything a smart pointer should be. This is what I primarily use as a smart pointer in Qt and I find it comparable with boost:shared_ptr although probably significantly more overhead like many objects in Qt.

QWeakPointer - Do you sense a reoccurring pattern? Just as std::weak_ptr and boost::weak_ptr this is used in conjunction with QSharedPointer when you need references between two smart pointers that would otherwise cause your objects to never be deleted.

QScopedPointer - This name should also look familiar and actually was in fact based on boost::scoped_ptr unlike the Qt versions of shared and weak pointers. It functions to provide a single owner smart pointer without the overhead of QSharedPointer which makes it more suitable for compatibility, exception safe code, and all the things you might use std::auto_ptr or boost::scoped_ptr for.

Solution 2 - C++

There is also Loki which implements policy-based smart pointers.

Other references on policy-based smart pointers, addressing the problem of the poor support of the empty base optimization along with multiple inheritance by many compilers:

Solution 3 - C++

In addition to the ones given, there are some safety oriented ones too:


mse::TRefCountingPointer is a reference counting smart pointer like std::shared_ptr. The difference being that mse::TRefCountingPointer is safer, smaller and faster, but does not have any thread safety mechanism. And it comes in "not null" and "fixed" (non-retargetable) versions that can be safely assumed to always be pointing to a validly allocated object. So basically, if your target object is shared among asynchronous threads then use std::shared_ptr, otherwise mse::TRefCountingPointer is more optimal.

mse::TScopeOwnerPointer is similar to boost::scoped_ptr, but works in conjunction with mse::TScopeFixedPointer in a "strong-weak" pointer relationship kind of like std::shared_ptr and std::weak_ptr.

mse::TScopeFixedPointer points to objects that are allocated on the stack, or whose "owning" pointer is allocated on the stack. It is (intentionally) limited in it's functionality to enhance compile-time safety with no runtime cost. The point of "scope" pointers is essentially to identify a set of circumstances that are simple and deterministic enough that no (runtime) safety mechanisms are necessary.

mse::TRegisteredPointer behaves like a raw pointer, except that its value is automatically set to null_ptr when the target object is destroyed. It can be used as a general replacement for raw pointers in most situations. Like a raw pointer, it does not have any intrinsic thread safety. But in exchange it has no problem targeting objects allocated on the stack (and obtaining the corresponding performance benefit). When run-time checks are enabled, this pointer is safe from accessing invalid memory. Because mse::TRegisteredPointer has the same behavior as a raw pointer when pointing to valid objects, it can be "disabled" (automatically replaced with the corresponding raw pointer) with a compile-time directive, allowing it to be used to help catch bugs in debug/test/beta modes while incurring no overhead cost in release mode.

Here is an article describing why and how to use them. (Note, shameless plug.)


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