Python – Why is [] faster than list()


I recently compared the processing speeds of [] and list() and was surprised to discover that [] runs more than three times faster than list(). I ran the same test with {} and dict() and the results were practically identical: [] and {} both took around 0.128sec / million cycles, while list() and dict() took roughly 0.428sec / million cycles each.

Why is this? Do [] and {} (and probably () and '', too) immediately pass back a copies of some empty stock literal while their explicitly-named counterparts (list(), dict(), tuple(), str()) fully go about creating an object, whether or not they actually have elements?

I have no idea how these two methods differ but I'd love to find out.
I couldn't find an answer in the docs or on SO, and searching for empty brackets turned out to be more problematic than I'd expected.

I got my timing results by calling timeit.timeit("[]") and timeit.timeit("list()"), and timeit.timeit("{}") and timeit.timeit("dict()"), to compare lists and dictionaries, respectively. I'm running Python 2.7.9.

I recently discovered "Why is if True slower than if 1?" that compares the performance of if True to if 1 and seems to touch on a similar literal-versus-global scenario; perhaps it's worth considering as well.

Best Solution

Because [] and {} are literal syntax. Python can create bytecode just to create the list or dictionary objects:

>>> import dis
>>> dis.dis(compile('[]', '', 'eval'))
  1           0 BUILD_LIST               0
              3 RETURN_VALUE        
>>> dis.dis(compile('{}', '', 'eval'))
  1           0 BUILD_MAP                0
              3 RETURN_VALUE        

list() and dict() are separate objects. Their names need to be resolved, the stack has to be involved to push the arguments, the frame has to be stored to retrieve later, and a call has to be made. That all takes more time.

For the empty case, that means you have at the very least a LOAD_NAME (which has to search through the global namespace as well as the builtins module) followed by a CALL_FUNCTION, which has to preserve the current frame:

>>> dis.dis(compile('list()', '', 'eval'))
  1           0 LOAD_NAME                0 (list)
              3 CALL_FUNCTION            0
              6 RETURN_VALUE        
>>> dis.dis(compile('dict()', '', 'eval'))
  1           0 LOAD_NAME                0 (dict)
              3 CALL_FUNCTION            0
              6 RETURN_VALUE        

You can time the name lookup separately with timeit:

>>> import timeit
>>> timeit.timeit('list', number=10**7)
>>> timeit.timeit('dict', number=10**7)

The time discrepancy there is probably a dictionary hash collision. Subtract those times from the times for calling those objects, and compare the result against the times for using literals:

>>> timeit.timeit('[]', number=10**7)
>>> timeit.timeit('{}', number=10**7)
>>> timeit.timeit('list()', number=10**7)
>>> timeit.timeit('dict()', number=10**7)

So having to call the object takes an additional 1.00 - 0.31 - 0.30 == 0.39 seconds per 10 million calls.

You can avoid the global lookup cost by aliasing the global names as locals (using a timeit setup, everything you bind to a name is a local):

>>> timeit.timeit('_list', '_list = list', number=10**7)
>>> timeit.timeit('_dict', '_dict = dict', number=10**7)
>>> timeit.timeit('_list()', '_list = list', number=10**7)
>>> timeit.timeit('_dict()', '_dict = dict', number=10**7)

but you never can overcome that CALL_FUNCTION cost.