Prefix-casting versus as-casting in C#


This is a story of two types: GenericType and SpecificType, where GenericType is a superclass of SpecificType. There are two types of explicit cast in C#:

The Prefix cast:

[01] GenericType g=...;
[02] SpecificType t=(SpecificType) g;

The as cast:

[03] GenericType g=...;
[04] SpecificType t=g as SpecificType;

Most programmers have a habit of using one or the other — this isn’t usually a conscious decision, but more of a function of which form a programmer saw first. I, for instance, programmed in Java before I learned C#, so I was already in the prefix cast habit. People with a Visual Basic background often do the opposite. There are real differences between the two casting operators which can make a difference in the reliability and performance of your application.

Prefix casting: Reliable Casting

The major difference between prefix- and as-casting is what happens when the cast fails. Imagine, for instance, that g is really an instance of AnotherSpecificType, which is not a subclass of SpecificType. In this case, the prefix-cast throws an exception at line [2] — however, the as-cast returns null when the cast fails, letting the execution of the program barrel on.

It’s easier to implement correct error handling in programs that use prefix-casting, and programs that use prefix-casting are easier to debug. Prefix-casting causes an exception to be thrown at the moment of the cast, where the problem is obvious. As-casting, on the other hand, can cause an exception to be thrown at the moment where the SpecificType t is referenced. The used of the SpecificType can be far away in the program: it can be in another method, or another class — it could even happen hours after the cast is performed. Be it in development or production, bugs caused by corrupted data structures can be maddeningly difficult to find and correct.

As-casting: Fast Casting

If it’s harder to write correct programs with as-casting, why would anybody use it? For one thing, as-casting is faster than prefix casting by quite a lot. Benchmarks show that as-casting is about five times faster than prefix casting. That said, the performance of casting is only going to matter in the innermost of loops of most programs. The fastest kind of casting is no casting at all: it’s best to use generics to eliminate the need for casting when possible and to move casting outside loops. (Generics also improve the reliability of your code because they help C#’s static type checking catch mistakes.)

There are some cases where as-casting could be convenient, for instance, when you expect the cast to fail sometimes. Often I like to ‘tag’ classes with interfaces that specify certain behaviors. For example,

[05] public Interface IBoppable {
[06]     void Bop();
[07] }

Now i might want to loop through a bunch of Thing objects, and bop all the ones that implement IBoppable: it’s reasonable to use as-casting here:

[08] List<Thing> list=...
[09] foreach(Thing thing in list) {
[10]    List boppable=thing as IBoppable;
[11]    if (boppable !=null) {
[12]        boppable.Bop()
[13]    }
[14] }

It’s OK to use as-casting if you’re going to check to see if the value is null immediately after the cast. The above code is correct, but has the bad smell that the boppable variable continues to exist in the block after the cast… It’s still there for a later maintainer to use erroneously. In cases like this, code can be made clearer with the is operator:

[15] List<Thing> list=...
[16] foreach(Thing thing in list) {
[17]    if(thing is IBoppable) {
[18]        ((IBoppable) boppable).Bop()
[19]    }
[20] }

(Speed freaks can use as-cast on line 18, as we know it’s not going to fail.)

The pattern of testing for null after an as-cast has a few problems. (i) It doesn’t distinguish between the case of the original object being null from the case of the original object being the wrong type and (ii) correct error handling often requires more contorted logic than using an exception — and once you added test logic, you’ve lost the speed advantage of as-casting.


C# offers two casting operators: the prefix-cast and the as-cast. Although the two operators compile to different op-codes in the CLR, the practical difference between them is in how they handle failed casts. Prefix-cast throws an exception on cast failure, while as-cast returns null. It’s easier to implement correct error handling when you use prefix cast, because it doesn’t require manual checks for null values that can cause problems in distant parts of your program. Prefix-cast should be the default cast operator on your fingertips, that you use for everyday situations — reserve as-cast for special cases where performance matters. (For best performance, however, eliminate the cast entirely.)

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