Objective-c – Would it be beneficial to begin using instancetype instead of id

instancetypeobjective-c

Clang adds a keyword instancetype that, as far as I can see, replaces id as a return type in -alloc and init.

Is there a benefit to using instancetype instead of id?

Best Solution

Yes, there are benefits to using instancetype in all cases where it applies. I'll explain in more detail, but let me start with this bold statement: Use instancetype whenever it's appropriate, which is whenever a class returns an instance of that same class.

In fact, here's what Apple now says on the subject:

In your code, replace occurrences of id as a return value with instancetype where appropriate. This is typically the case for init methods and class factory methods. Even though the compiler automatically converts methods that begin with “alloc,” “init,” or “new” and have a return type of id to return instancetype, it doesn’t convert other methods. Objective-C convention is to write instancetype explicitly for all methods.

With that out of the way, let's move on and explain why it's a good idea.

First, some definitions:

 @interface Foo:NSObject
 - (id)initWithBar:(NSInteger)bar; // initializer
 + (id)fooWithBar:(NSInteger)bar;  // class factory
 @end

For a class factory, you should always use instancetype. The compiler does not automatically convert id to instancetype. That id is a generic object. But if you make it an instancetype the compiler knows what type of object the method returns.

This is not an academic problem. For instance, [[NSFileHandle fileHandleWithStandardOutput] writeData:formattedData] will generate an error on Mac OS X (only) Multiple methods named 'writeData:' found with mismatched result, parameter type or attributes. The reason is that both NSFileHandle and NSURLHandle provide a writeData:. Since [NSFileHandle fileHandleWithStandardOutput] returns an id, the compiler is not certain what class writeData: is being called on.

You need to work around this, using either:

[(NSFileHandle *)[NSFileHandle fileHandleWithStandardOutput] writeData:formattedData];

or:

NSFileHandle *fileHandle = [NSFileHandle fileHandleWithStandardOutput];
[fileHandle writeData:formattedData];

Of course, the better solution is to declare fileHandleWithStandardOutput as returning an instancetype. Then the cast or assignment isn't necessary.

(Note that on iOS, this example won't produce an error as only NSFileHandle provides a writeData: there. Other examples exist, such as length, which returns a CGFloat from UILayoutSupport but a NSUInteger from NSString.)

Note: Since I wrote this, the macOS headers have been modified to return a NSFileHandle instead of an id.

For initializers, it's more complicated. When you type this:

- (id)initWithBar:(NSInteger)bar

…the compiler will pretend you typed this instead:

- (instancetype)initWithBar:(NSInteger)bar

This was necessary for ARC. This is described in Clang Language Extensions Related result types. This is why people will tell you it isn't necessary to use instancetype, though I contend you should. The rest of this answer deals with this.

There's three advantages:

  1. Explicit. Your code is doing what it says, rather than something else.
  2. Pattern. You're building good habits for times it does matter, which do exist.
  3. Consistency. You've established some consistency to your code, which makes it more readable.

Explicit

It's true that there's no technical benefit to returning instancetype from an init. But this is because the compiler automatically converts the id to instancetype. You are relying on this quirk; while you're writing that the init returns an id, the compiler is interpreting it as if it returns an instancetype.

These are equivalent to the compiler:

- (id)initWithBar:(NSInteger)bar;
- (instancetype)initWithBar:(NSInteger)bar;

These are not equivalent to your eyes. At best, you will learn to ignore the difference and skim over it. This is not something you should learn to ignore.

Pattern

While there's no difference with init and other methods, there is a difference as soon as you define a class factory.

These two are not equivalent:

+ (id)fooWithBar:(NSInteger)bar;
+ (instancetype)fooWithBar:(NSInteger)bar;

You want the second form. If you are used to typing instancetype as the return type of a constructor, you'll get it right every time.

Consistency

Finally, imagine if you put it all together: you want an init function and also a class factory.

If you use id for init, you end up with code like this:

- (id)initWithBar:(NSInteger)bar;
+ (instancetype)fooWithBar:(NSInteger)bar;

But if you use instancetype, you get this:

- (instancetype)initWithBar:(NSInteger)bar;
+ (instancetype)fooWithBar:(NSInteger)bar;

It's more consistent and more readable. They return the same thing, and now that's obvious.

Conclusion

Unless you're intentionally writing code for old compilers, you should use instancetype when appropriate.

You should hesitate before writing a message that returns id. Ask yourself: Is this returning an instance of this class? If so, it's an instancetype.

There are certainly cases where you need to return id, but you'll probably use instancetype much more frequently.