What's the deal with Swing?

Dave Smith dave at thesmithfam.org
Tue Mar 28 21:08:59 MST 2006

ross at indessed.com wrote:
> <a fantastic writeup on the history of AWT/Swing/SWT>

The following opinions are highly personal. All my evidence is 
anecdotal. Please enjoy my comments and rebut where you'd like.

I learned Visual Basic years ago, then AWT, then Swing, then Borland 
Delphi, then SWT. Then, I picked up Qt. I've been coding in Qt (in C++) 
at work for about a year now, and I love it. Qt is the greenest GUI 
pasture I've ever played in. Swing is the worst. Let me elaborate:

* Swing is too verbose.

Java is, by its nature and to its credit, very verbose. This makes it 
readable, but somewhat more time-consuming to write. This isn't a deal 
breaker for Java. In fact, I quite like it. Swing takes verbosity to the 
extreme. It takes too many lines of code to create and place a widget. 
SWT got it slightly better by giving each widget its parent in the 
widget's constructor. Qt got it just right by providing an excellent 
graphical GUI builder that actually works!

* Hard-to-use layout managers.

One word: GridBagLayout (wait, was that 3 words?). I dislike Swing 
layout managers. With Swing, I spent a lot of time 
coding/compiling/running/repeating over and over to tweak layout. The 
first time I tried to layout a pretty simple dialog with a few input 
boxes and labels, it took me hours to get it right. If I had been 
satisfied with the heinous defaults, I could have let it go after 30 
minutes, but please. Any GUI toolkit that doesn't provide real-time 
layout feedback wastes too much developer time. SWT got it slightly 
better with FormLayout, which I found very useful. Then I discovered 
Qt's layouts: horizontal, vertical, and grid. That's it. Super simple. 
Qt got it right, because widgets know how they are supposed to stretch. 
Don't you love the Swing "hello, button" sample program where one button 
fills the entire JFrame? Who's idea was that? Qt knows that buttons 
aren't supposed to expand to fill the whole panel, while other widgets 
(like progress bars and line edits) usually do. Every QWidget can tell 
the layout manager how to lay it out, and buttons know that they 
shouldn't behave like scrollbars.

* Cumbersome Deployment

Since we're talking about desktop applications, we have to mention 
deployment. Java desktop applications are hard to deploy. I think Java 
WebStart is pretty nifty, but it requires a JVM to work! My experience 
porting from Java 1.3 to 1.4 was painful enough to teach me that Java 
apps would have to ship their own JVM (meaning they would never be able 
to adapt to the already installed JVM at runtime). That's sad, because 
the JVM is huge, even by today's standards. I used InstallAnywhere to 
deploy my Swing app at work, and that thing took 30 minutes just to 
build the installer. Now I use Nullsoft's NSIS, which takes about 3 
seconds to build my Qt GUI's installer. All I do is install the 2Mb Qt 
DLL on Windows and I'm done. If I don't have that liberty, then I 
statically link the whole executable (which works fine on Windows and 
Linux), and I have zero dependencies! Zero!

* Swing is ugly by default

Last I used Swing, it was still "ugly by default." What I mean here is 
that Swing requires some heavy tweaking to make it look decent. Qt, on 
the other hand, is pretty by default. I don't have to choose styles, or 
subclass buttons to make my Qt GUIs look nice. SWT is pretty darn good 
in this respect too, but Qt is by far better.

* Swing's canvas is crappy

It is hard to use JCanvas. I've found QCanvas to be a delight to work 
with, even with very complex display/interaction. QCanvas supports 
animation, velocities, and double-buffering out of the box. Every object 
you create on a QCanvas knows how to draw itself, and you can reposition 
them with a single line of code, without having to worry about all the 
other items on the canvas. JCanvas doesn't provide such a powerful API.

* Swing is slow by default

It's bad to do heavy lifting on the event thread. Every GUI developer 
knows this. Swing makes it hard to avoid though. So they invented the 
invokeLater() hack, which ends up filling your code with anonymous 
instances of Runnables (Runnable is pretty cool, though), which still 
get run in the event thread, just a tiny bit later, resulting in a slow 
GUI. On the other hand, all of Qt's API is non-blocking. That means you 
can call QSocket.connect() and it will immediately return. The QSocket 
will notify you when it's done. The same is true of all of Qt's classes. 
In Swing, you would have to code all that infrastructure yourself.

Thanks for reading! Hope you found this useful!


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