Friday, March 11, 2011

Android Thread Constructs(Part 1): The UI Thread

Earlier, I talked on passing data between threads. I would like to continue the same "thread" of discussion and in the next few posts of this multipart article, explore and try to explain about various ways of performing tasks.

A pictorial and diagrammatic representation makes me understand concepts well. Every time I learn something new, I try to make a diagram in my mind. This helps me understand better. So, I'll be providing my own diagrams along the way.

Note : The diagrams I use are to help myself understand the concept and may not be an exact representation of the concept. You may still need to read the related documentation.

Enough said, lets get into the Thread !

The UI Thread:

So, in an Android application, each application is sandboxed and runs in its own process. Unlike traditional languages, the Android application may not have a single entry point. So, the application can be entered through from any of the application components (Activities, Services, Broadcast receivers) described in the Application Fundamentals on the developer blog.

All these application components run on a single Main thread called as the UI thread. I like to imagine this concept as in figure below:

So, as you see all the components will run on the MainThread or the UI thread. All the lifecycle methods (of Activity, Service, Receivers starting with on*) will run on the UI thread.

One of the main task of the UI thread is to manipulate the user interface. Hence, if you have long tasks to perform, you should not be doing those in the main thread. (I'm sure, you must have read this several times). The reason is that if you perform any long or blocking task - the UI thread will be blocked - hence blocking or delaying the UI updates and will lead the user to think that the system is running slow. The Android platform doesn't want this blame on itself, so when it detects that some long task is running on the UI thread for some application, it will declare that the application is "foobar-ed" and throw out the nasty ANR (Application Not Responding) dialog - pissing off the user and provoking him/her to uninstall, and underrate your application ! Deadly and Evil  :O

So, in order to do longer tasks, from any of the application components, you should create threads. However, its worth noting that you should not manipulate the UI from any worker thread. i.e for example if you run a long task on a thread on a button click as follows:

public void onClick(View v) {
  new Thread(new Runnable() {
    public void run() {
      Bitmap b = loadImageFromNetwork();
Code source :

Here, the worker thread is trying to update the UI. As the documentation states, this may lead to hard to find and funny (not for you) problems. So, updating the UI is the job of the main thread. The following figure helps me remember that :)

Now, it is evident and advisable that we do long and/or blocking tasks on worker threads and if any results are produced, convey them to the main thread. In my previous article, I talked about passing data around threads. This involves implementing Handlers, making appropriate Looper calls, obtaining the Message Object and passing it around, getting data from it blah blah blah... (Go read the article if you havent')

Android provides certain constructs that offload from us the tasks for creation and administration of threads and let us focus on what we need to do. IntentService, AsyncTask, HandlerThread are among those.

I'm going to discuss IntentService and AsyncTask (with my diagrammatic representations) in the next articles and then try to come up with rough guidelines regarding when to use each of the constructs.

Stay tuned.