Manual Memory Management in Objective-C

Objective-C on iOS has no garbage collector, so it is up to the programmer to make sure that memory is properly freed once an object is no longer needed. On the other hand, Objective-C on the Mac does have a garbage collector (in Objective C 2.0). This blog post focuses on how to manage memory in the absence of a garbage collector.

When managing memory manually, two major issues to watch out for are premature deallocation and memory leaks.

Cocoa Touch framework uses manual reference counting to manage memory on the iOS devices. Reference counting works on the principle that once created, every object has an owner. During its existence, its owner may change and it may even have more than one owners. When the number of owners for an object drops to zero, it deallocates itself to free up the memory being used.

retain & release:

Owners are tracked via retain counts. When an object is created it always has a retain count of 1. To own an object its retain count is incremented via the retain message. On the other hand, when the object is no longer needed its ownership is relinquished by decrementing the retain count via the release message. When the count reaches zero, the object sends itself the dealloc message and returns all the memory back to the heap.


autorelease marks an object for future release (delayed release). When an object is sent the autorelease message, its retain count is incremented and it is added to an instance of NSAutoreleasePool. The Autorelease pool keeps track of all the objects that have been sent the autorelease message. This pool is drained periodically, at which time all the objects within it are sent the release message.

autorelease is really handy when the creator of an object (e.g. a factory) simply creates the object and returns it to the caller. At this point, the creator has nothing to do with the object anymore, so it is up to the caller to retain the returned object in order to continue using it.

An Example – A Ticket class

Let us work through an example to see manual memory management in action. Suppose I am writing a ticketing framework, and I have a Ticket entity. The header file for Ticket looks as:

@interface Ticket : NSObject {
	NSString *ticketId;

- (NSString *) ticketId;
- (void) setTicketId:(NSString *) tid;

- (id) initWithId:(NSString *) tid;
+ (id) ticketWithId:(NSString *) tid;


And the implementation file for Ticket looks as follows:

#import "Ticket.h"
@implementation Ticket

- (void) dealloc
	[ticketId release];
	[super dealloc];

- (NSString *) ticketId
	return ticketId;

- (void) setTicketId:(NSString *)tid
	[tid retain];
	[ticketId release];
	ticketId = tid;

- (id) initWithId:(NSString *) tid
	if (self = [super init])
		[self setTicketId:tid];

	return self;

+ (id) ticketWithId:(NSString *)tid
	Ticket *newTkt = [[Ticket alloc] initWithId:tid];
	return [newTkt autorelease];


There are three memory management points to note here:

1. Inside dealloc, an object must release all its instance variables first. Then it should go up its class hierarchy and release any instance variables of its superclass. We should never directly send the dealloc message to instance variables, as some other objects might still have references to those variables.

2. A setter must retain the value passed in before it releases the old value, as tid and ticketId could be pointers to the same object.

3. The ticketWithId: method creates a ticket and simply returns it to the caller. It has no use for the newTkt, but it owns newTkt by virtue of creating it. At this point, if newTkt were released before method-exit, then the caller would get a pointer to unallocated heap. To avoid this, we put the newTkt on the autorelease pool, thus incrementing the retain count to 1. Periodically, the autorelease pool is drained and all the objects it it are sent the release message thus decrementing the retain count.

Essentially, the ticketWithId: method is saying that it does not want to be the owner for newTkt and puts that responsibility on the caller. If the caller wants to hold on to newTkt once it is returned, it must send it the retain message.

Using the Ticket class:

- (void) processTicketWithId:(NSString *)ticketId
	Ticket* tkt = [[Ticket alloc] initWithId:ticketId];
	// Do something with tkt
	// ...
	[tkt release];

At this point, the retain count for tkt is 1. Moreover, since the processTicketWithId: method created the tkt object, it is now the owner and thus is responsible for cleaning it up before this method exits. Clean up is done by sending it the release message

Let’s see another example:

- (void) processTicketWithId:(NSString *)ticketId
	Ticket* tkt = [Ticket ticketWithId:ticketId];
	[tkt retain];
	// Do something with tkt
	// ...
	[tkt release];

In this example, the memory for tkt wasn’t allocated by processTicketWithId: method, so it doesn’t own the tkt object. However, as we’ve seen in the implementation of the Ticket class, the ticketWithId: method created the Ticket object and added it to the autorelease pool. In order to continue using tkt, we must retain it so that even if it is drained from the autorelease pool, we can still continue to use the tkt object. Once done, we need to clean up and send the release message.

Summary of Memory Management Rules for Objective-C:

Rule-1: If you get/create the object from new, alloc or copy, you must release it when done.

Rule-2: If you get the object any other way, assume that it has been autoreleased. If you want to hold on to this object, send it the retain message.

Rule-3: If you retain an object, you must balance every retain with a release.

Rule-4: Never send the dealloc message to an object directly. Others might be holding references to this object, and if deallocated, they’ll be left with pointers to unallocated memory.

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Filed under Cocoa

6 responses to “Manual Memory Management in Objective-C

  1. You may want to check out the popular dev tool called Accessorizer for iOS and Mac OS X development. It’s a tool I wrote to help eliminate the tedium of writing boiler plate Objective-C and Cocoa code including support for writing both Objective-C 1.0 explicit accessors and Objective-C 2.0 properties.

    • Umair

      Thank you for pointing me to Accessorizer. I’m trying it out, and I agree it is very useful. Thanks for the tip and for writing the tool :-)

  2. MarkR

    “This pool is drained periodically, at which time all the objects within it are sent the release message.” – ah! I wondered how autorelease did it’s magic. Simple really. I’m the sort of person who needs to know how stuff works :-)

    Thanks for a great blog entry Umair!

  3. LinhD

    Hi Umair, autorelease message does not make increase the count. It only adds into Pool.
    If you assume the count is increased. Object is be creating by ticketWithId then have count is 2(call for creating 1, assume autorelease 1). and then on Example 2 this count is 3 (calling retain)
    So, this object is never destroy.

    Please correct it!

    • Umair

      You are absolutely correct. I’ve fixed the incorrect lines (crossed out). Thank you for pointing it out!

      I’m amazed that this mistake has lived for such a long time (3+ years!). This was the time when I first started coding in Objective-C (Jan 2011), back when I still used to update my blog. Alas, had I done any review of this post in the past 3 years, I would’ve been able to catch such an obvious error.

      In any case, I appreciate that you pointed it out.

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