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Boxing and UnBoxing

by srinivs nadella (November 10, 2003)

Q: Boxing and UnBoxing in C#

What is Boxing and UnBoxing in C#?

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A: Boxing and unboxing is a  essential concept in C#’s type system. With Boxing and unboxing one can link between value-types and reference-types by allowing any value of a value-type to be converted to and
from type object. Boxing and unboxing enables a unified view of the type system wherein a value of any
type can ultimately be treated as an object. Converting a value type to reference type is called Boxing. Unboxing is an explicit operation.

C# provides a unified type system. All types including value types derive from the type object. It is
possible to call object methods on any value, even values of  primitive  types such as int.

The example

using System;
class Test
  static void Main()
calls the object-defined ToString method on an integer literal.

The example

class Test
  static void Main()
   int i = 1;
   object o = i;    // boxing
   int j = (int) o; // unboxing

An int value can be converted to object and back again to int.

This example shows both boxing and unboxing. When a variable of a value type needs to be converted to a reference type, an object box is allocated to hold the value, and the value is copied into the box.

Unboxing is just the opposite. When an object box is cast back to its original value type, the value is
copied out of the box and into the appropriate storage location.

Boxing conversions

A boxing conversion permits any value-type to be implicitly converted to the type object or to any
interface-type implemented by the value-type. Boxing a value of a value-type consists of allocating an object instance and copying the value-type
value into that instance.

For example any value-type H, the boxing class would be declared as follows:

class vBox
  H value;
  H_Box(H h)
   value = h;

Boxing of a value v of type H now consists of executing the expression new H_Box(v), and returning the
resulting instance as a value of type object.
Thus, the statements
int i = 12;
object box = i;

conceptually correspond to
int i = 12;
object box = new int_Box(i);

Boxing classes like H_Box and int_Box above don’t actually exist and the dynamic type of a boxed value
isn’t actually a class type. Instead, a boxed value of type G has the dynamic type G, and a dynamic type check using the is operator can simply reference type G.

For example,

int i = 12;
object box = i;
if (box is int)
  Console.Write("Box contains an int");

will output the string  Box contains an int on the console.

A boxing conversion implies making a copy of the value being boxed. This is different from a conversion
of a reference-type to type object, in which the value continues to reference the same instance and
simply is regarded as the less derived type object.

For example, given the declaration

struct Point
  public int x, y;
  public Point(int x, int y)
    this.x = x;
    this.y = y;

the following statements
Point p = new Point(10, 10);
object box = p;
p.x = 20;
will output the value 10 on the console because the implicit boxing operation that occurs in the
assignment of p to box causes the value of p to be copied. Had Point instead been declared a class, the
value 20 would be output because p and box would reference the same instance.

Unboxing conversions

An unboxing conversion permits an explicit conversion from type object to any value-type or from any
interface-type to any value-type that implements the interface-type. An unboxing operation consists of
first checking that the object instance is a boxed value of the given value-type, and then copying the
value out of the instance.
unboxing conversion of an object box to a value-type G consists of executing the expression

Thus, the statements
object box = 12;
int i = (int)box;

conceptually correspond to
object box = new int_Box(12);
int i = ((int_Box)box).value;

For an unboxing conversion to a given value-type to succeed at run-time, the value of the source
argument must be a reference to an object that was previously created by boxing a value of that
value-type. If the source argument is null or a reference to an incompatible object, an
InvalidCastException is thrown.


This type system unification provides value types with the benefits of object-ness without introducing
unnecessary overhead.
For programs that don’t need int values to act like objects, int values are simply 32-bit values. For
programs that need int values to behave like objects, this capability is available on demand. This
ability to treat value types as objects bridges the gap between value types and reference types that
exists in most languages.

srinivs nadella

I am a Sr. Software Engineer at Knowledge Infotech at Hyderabad, India. My work environemnt works on all Microsoft Technologies. I basically lover of Micorosoft.

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