C# – What are the differences between C, C# and C++ in terms of real-world applications?


As I posted earlier here I've decided to try my hand at one of these, but given my interests as a web developer, I'd like to know the difference between them in their real-world applications.

Edit Note:

While I'm a web developer, please don't let that limit your answer. I'm 30…I've got years of career changing ahead of me.

Best Solution

Bear in mind that I speak ASFAC++B. :) I've put the most important differentiating factor first.

Garbage Collection

Garbage Collection (GC) is the single most important factor in differentiating between these languages.

While C and C++ can be used with GC, it is a bolted-on afterthought and cannot be made to work as well (the best known is here) - it has to be "conservative" which means that it cannot collect all unused memory.

C# is designed from the ground up to work on a GC platform, with standard libraries also designed that way. It makes an absolutely fundamental difference to developer productivity that has to be experienced to be believed.

There is a belief widespread among C/C++ users that GC equates with "bad performance". But this is out-of-date folklore (even the Boehm collector on C/C++ performs much better than most people expect it to). The typical fear is of "long pauses" where the program stops so the GC can do some work. But in reality these long pauses happen with non-GC programs, because they run on top of a virtual memory system, which occasionally interrupts to move data between physical memory and disk.

There is also widespread belief that GC can be replaced with shared_ptr, but it can't; the irony is that in a multi-threaded program, shared_ptr is slower than a GC-based system.

There are environments that are so frugal that GC isn't practical - but these are increasingly rare. Cell phones typically have GC. The CLR's GC that C# typically runs on appears to be state-of-the-art.

Since adopting C# about 18 months ago I've gone through several phases of pure performance tuning with a profiler, and the GC is so efficient that it is practically invisible during the operation of the program.

GC is not a panacea, it doesn't solve all programming problems, it only really cleans up memory allocation, if you're allocating very large memory blocks then you will still need to take some care, and it is still possible to have what amounts to a memory leak in a sufficiently complex program - and yet, the effect of GC on productivity makes it a pretty close approximation to a panacea!

Undefined Behaviour

C++ is founded on the notion of undefined behaviour. That is, the language specification defines the outcome of certain narrowly defined usages of language features, and describes all other usages as causing undefined behaviour, meaning in principle that the operation could have any outcome at all (in practice this means hard-to-diagnose bugs involving apparently non-deterministic corruption of data).

Almost everything about C++ touches on undefined behaviour. Even very nice forthcoming features like lambda expressions can easily be used as convenient way to corrupt the stack (capture a local by reference, allow the lambda instance to outlive the local).

C# is founded on the principle that all possible operations should have defined behaviour. The worst that can happen is an exception is thrown. This completely changes the experience of software construction.

(There's unsafe mode, which has pointers and therefore undefined behaviour, but that is strongly discouraged for general use - think of it as analogous to embedded assembly language.)


In terms of complexity, C++ has to be singled out, especially if we consider the very-soon-to-be standardized new version. C++ does absolutely everything it can to make itself effective, short of assuming GC, and as a result it has an awesome learning curve. The language designers excuse much of this by saying "Those features are only for library authors, not ordinary users" - but to be truly effective in any language, you need to build your code as reusable libraries. So you can't escape.

On the positive side, C++ is so complex, it's like a playground for nerds! I can assure you that you would have a lot of fun learning how it all fits together. But I can't seriously recommend it as a basis for productive new work (oh, the wasted years...) on mainstream platforms.

C keeps the language simple (simple in the sense of "the compiler is easy to write"), but this makes the coding techniques more arcane.

Note that not all new language features equate with added complexity. Some language features are described as "syntactic sugar", because they are shorthand that the compiler expands for you. This is a good way to think of a great deal of the enhancements to C# over recent years. The language standard even specifies some features by giving the translation to longhand, e.g. using statement expands into try/finally.

At one point, it was possible to think of C++ templates in the same way. But they've since become so powerful that they are now form the basis of a whole separate dimension of the language, with its own enthusiastic user communities and idioms.


The strangest thing about C and C++ is that they don't have a standard interchangeable form of pre-compiled library. Integrating someone else's code into your project is always a little fiddly, with obscure decisions to be made about how you'll be linking to it.

Also, the standard library is extremely basic - C++ has a complete set of data structures and a way of representing strings (std::string), but that's still minimal. Is there a standard way of finding a list of files in a directory? Amazingly, no! Is there standard library support for parsing or generating XML? No. What about accessing databases? Be serious! Writing a web site back-end? Are you crazy? etc.

So you have to go hunting further afield. For XML, try Xerces. But does it use std::string to represent strings? Of course not!

And do all these third-party libraries have their own bizarre customs for naming classes and functions? You betcha!

The situation in C# couldn't be more different; the fundamentals were in place from the start, so everything inter-operates beautifully (and because the fundamentals are supplied by the CLR, there is cross-language support).

It's not all perfect; generics should have been in place from the start but wasn't, which does leave a visible scar on some older libraries; but it is usually trivial to fix this externally. Also a number of popular libraries are ported from Java, which isn't as good a fit as it first appears.

Closures (Anonymous Methods with Local Variable Capture)

Java and C are practically the last remaining mainstream languages to lack closures, and libraries can be designed and used much more neatly with them than without (this is one reason why ported Java libraries sometimes seem clunky to a C# user).

The amusing thing about C++ is that its standard library was designed as if closures were available in the language (container types, <algorithm>, <functional>). Then ten years went by, and now they're finally being added! They will have a huge impact (although, as noted above, they leak underfined behaviour).

C# and JavaScript are the most widely used languages in which closures are "idiomatically established". (The major difference between those languages being that C# is statically typed while JavaScript is dynamically typed).

Platform Support

I've put this last only because it doesn't appear to differentiate these languages as much as you might think. All these languages can run on multiple OSes and machine architectures. C is the most widely-supported, then C++, and finally C# (although C# can be used on most major platforms thanks to an open source implementation called Mono).

My experience of porting C++ programs between Windows and various Unix flavours was unpleasant. I've never tried porting anything very complex in C# to Mono, so I can't comment on that.