C# WeakReference Example

How would you like to be able to write the programming equivalent of “I might need this later….but I’m not so sure”? I’ll show you how.

A WeakReference is an object with a very interesting behavior, it allows you to keep a reference to an object while still making it possible for it to be garbage collected. See a previous post for a little more detail and links. Internally the WeakReference type uses an IntPtr to track a GCHandle that was acquired using the GCHandleType of Weak or WeakTrackResurrection.

This can be very useful if you are trying to managing the lifetime of objects in a cache or adding optimizations to possibly save time by not having to recreate an expensive object.

Let’s look at an example.

In your class you created two member variables:

WeakReference _weakRef = null;

Person _strongRef = null;

You created two new Person objects (which are simple objects I just created for this example, consisting of a Name property and some reference tracking code). Next you set the member variables to the newly created instances of the Person objects.

_strongRef = p;

_weakRef = new WeakReference(p1);

The difference here you’ll notice that _strongRef is just a regular normal reference, whereas _weakRef is set to a WeakReference object with the person object (p1) passed in as a parameter in the constructor.

If a garbage collection were to occur, or just for testing purposes you called it yourself with:


Then the p1 target object that is held by the _weakRef member variable should be garbage collected. You can write code to check:

if (_weakRef.IsAlive)

If the WeakReference is still alive you can convert the WeakReference to a strong or normal reference by using code like this:

Person p = _weakRef.Target as Person;

Now the p reference is treated as a strong reference and won’t be collected until it is no longer used. If you wanted to keep the reference around after the scope you could set that to a member variable.

There aren’t many times in programming that you get to say “maybe”. It’s usually binary — 1 or 0. A WeakReference seems to be one of them.


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