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1. Introduction

Comparing objects is an essential feature of object-oriented programming languages.

In this tutorial, we're going look at some of the features of the Java language that allow us to compare objects. Additionally, we'll look at such features in external libraries.

2. == and != Operators

Let's begin with the == and != operators that can tell if two Java objects are the same or not, respectively.

2.1. Primitives

For primitive types, being the same means having equal values:

assertThat(1 == 1).isTrue();

Thanks to auto-unboxing, this also works when comparing a primitive value with its wrapper type counterpart:

Integer a = new Integer(1);
assertThat(1 == a).isTrue();

If two integers have different values, the == operator would return false, while the != operator would return true.

2.2. Objects

Let's say we want to compare two Integer wrapper types with the same value:

Integer a = new Integer(1);
Integer b = new Integer(1);

assertThat(a == b).isFalse();

By comparing two objects, the value of those objects is not 1. Rather it is their memory addresses in the stack that are different since both objects were created using the new operator. If we had assigned a to b, then we would've had a different result:

Integer a = new Integer(1);
Integer b = a;

assertThat(a == b).isTrue();

Now, let's see what happens when we're using the Integer#valueOf factory method:

Integer a = Integer.valueOf(1);
Integer b = Integer.valueOf(1);

assertThat(a == b).isTrue();

In this case, they are considered the same. This is because the valueOf() method stores the Integer in a cache to avoid creating too many wrapper objects with the same value. Therefore, the method returns the same Integer instance for both calls.

Java also does this for String:

assertThat("Hello!" == "Hello!").isTrue();

However, if they were created using the new operator, then they would not be the same.

Finally, two null references are considered to be the same, while any non-null object will be considered different from null:

assertThat(null == null).isTrue();

assertThat("Hello!" == null).isFalse();

Of course, the behavior of the equality operators can be limiting. What if we want to compare two objects mapped to different addresses and yet having them considered equal based on their internal states? We'll see how in the next sections.

3. Object#equals Method

Now, let's talk about a broader concept of equality with the equals() method.

This method is defined in the Object class so that every Java object inherits it. By default, its implementation compares object memory addresses, so it works the same as the == operator. However, we can override this method in order to define what equality means for our objects.

First, let's see how it behaves for existing objects like Integer:

Integer a = new Integer(1);
Integer b = new Integer(1);

assertThat(a.equals(b)).isTrue();

The method still returns true when both objects are the same.

We should note that we can pass a null object as the argument of the method, but of course, not as the object we call the method upon.

We can use the equals() method with an object of our own. Let's say we have a Person class:

public class Person {
    private String firstName;
    private String lastName;

    public Person(String firstName, String lastName) {
        this.firstName = firstName;
        this.lastName = lastName;
    }
}

We can override the equals() method for this class so that we can compare two Persons based on their internal details:

@Override
public boolean equals(Object o) {
    if (this == o) return true;
    if (o == null || getClass() != o.getClass()) return false;
    Person that = (Person) o;
    return firstName.equals(that.firstName) &&
      lastName.equals(that.lastName);
}

For more information, see our article about this topic.

4. Objects#equals Static Method

Let's now look at the Objects#equals static method. We mentioned earlier that we can't use null as the value of the first object otherwise a NullPointerException would be thrown.

The equals() method of the Objects helper class solves that problems. It takes two arguments and compares them, also handling null values.

Let's compare Person objects again with:

Person joe = new Person("Joe", "Portman");
Person joeAgain = new Person("Joe", "Portman");
Person natalie = new Person("Natalie", "Portman");

assertThat(Objects.equals(joe, joeAgain)).isTrue();
assertThat(Objects.equals(joe, natalie)).isFalse();

As we said, the method handles null values. Therefore, if both arguments are null it will return true, and if only one of them is null, it will return false.

This can be really handy. Let's say we want to add an optional birth date to our Person class:

public Person(String firstName, String lastName, LocalDate birthDate) {
    this(firstName, lastName);
    this.birthDate = birthDate;
}

Then, we'd have to update our equals() method but with null handling. We could do this by adding this condition to our equals() method:

birthDate == null ? that.birthDate == null : birthDate.equals(that.birthDate);

However, if we add many nullable fields to our class, it can become really messy. Using the Objects#equals method in our equals() implementation is much cleaner, and improves readability:

Objects.equals(birthDate, that.birthDate);

5. Comparable Interface

Comparison logic can also be used to place objects in a specific order. The Comparable interface allows us to define an ordering between objects, by determining if an object is greater, equal, or lesser than another.

The Comparable interface is generic and has only one method, compareTo(), which takes an argument of the generic type and returns an int. The returned value is negative if this is lower than the argument, 0 if they are equal, and positive otherwise.

Let's say, in our Person class, we want to compare Person objects by their last name:

public class Person implements Comparable<Person> {
    //...

    @Override
    public int compareTo(Person o) {
        return this.lastName.compareTo(o.lastName);
    }
}

The compareTo() method will return a negative int if called with a Person having a greater last name than this, zero if the same last name, and positive otherwise.

For more information, take a look at our article about this topic.

6. Comparator Interface

The Comparator interface is generic and has a compare method that takes two arguments of that generic type and returns an integer. We already saw that pattern earlier with the Comparable interface.

Comparator is similar; however, it's separated from the definition of the class. Therefore, we can define as many Comparators we want for a class, where we can only provide one Comparable implementation.

Let's imagine we have a web page displaying people in a table view, and we want to offer the user the possibility to sort them by first names rather than last names. It isn't possible with Comparable if we also want to keep our current implementation, but we could implement our own Comparators.

Let's create a Person Comparator that will compare them only by their first names:

Comparator<Person> compareByFirstNames = Comparator.comparing(Person::getFirstName);

Let's now sort a List of people using that Comparator:

Person joe = new Person("Joe", "Portman");
Person allan = new Person("Allan", "Dale");

List<Person> people = new ArrayList<>();
people.add(joe);
people.add(allan);

people.sort(compareByFirstNames);

assertThat(people).containsExactly(allan, joe);

There are other methods on the Comparator interface we can use in our compareTo() implementation:

@Override
public int compareTo(Person o) {
    return Comparator.comparing(Person::getLastName)
      .thenComparing(Person::getFirstName)
      .thenComparing(Person::getBirthDate, Comparator.nullsLast(Comparator.naturalOrder()))
      .compare(this, o);
}

In this case, we are first comparing last names, then first names. Then, we compare birth dates but as they are nullable we must say how to handle that so we give a second argument telling they should be compared according to their natural order but with null values going last.

7. Apache Commons

Let's now take a look at the Apache Commons library. First of all, let's import the Maven dependency:

<dependency>
    <groupId>org.apache.commons</groupId>
    <artifactId>commons-lang3</artifactId>
    <version>3.10</version>
</dependency>

7.1. ObjectUtils#notEqual Method

First, let's talk about the ObjectUtils#notEqual method. It takes two Object arguments, to determine if they are not equal, according to their own equals() method implementation. It also handles null values.

Let's reuse our String examples:

String a = new String("Hello!");
String b = new String("Hello World!");

assertThat(ObjectUtils.notEqual(a, b)).isTrue();

It should be noted that ObjectUtils has an equals() method. However, that's deprecated since Java 7, when Objects#equals appeared

7.2. ObjectUtils#compare Method

Now, let's compare object order with the ObjectUtils#compare method. It's a generic method that takes two Comparable arguments of that generic type and returns an Integer.

Let's see that using Strings again:

String first = new String("Hello!");
String second = new String("How are you?");

assertThat(ObjectUtils.compare(first, second)).isNegative();

By default, the method handles null values by considering them as greater. It offers an overloaded version that offers to invert that behavior and consider them lesser, taking a boolean argument.

8. Guava

Now, let's take a look at Guava. First of all, let's import the dependency:

<dependency>
    <groupId>com.google.guava</groupId>
    <artifactId>guava</artifactId>
    <version>29.0-jre</version>
</dependency>

8.1. Objects#equal Method

Similar to the Apache Commons library, Google provides us with a method to determine if two objects are equal, Objects#equal. Though they have different implementations, they return the same results:

String a = new String("Hello!");
String b = new String("Hello!");

assertThat(Objects.equal(a, b)).isTrue();

Though it's not marked as deprecated, the JavaDoc of this method says that it should be considered as deprecated since Java 7 provides the Objects#equals method.

8.2. Comparison Methods

Now, the Guava library doesn't offer a method to compare two objects (we'll see in the next section what we can do to achieve that though), but it does provide us with methods to compare primitive values. Let's take the Ints helper class and see how its compare() method works:

assertThat(Ints.compare(1, 2)).isNegative();

As usual, it returns an integer that may be negative, zero, or positive if the first argument is lesser, equal, or greater than the second, respectively. Similar methods exist for all the primitive types, except for bytes.

8.3. ComparisonChain Class

Finally, the Guava library offers the ComparisonChain class that allows us to compare two objects through a chain of comparisons. We can easily compare two Person objects by the first and last names:

Person natalie = new Person("Natalie", "Portman");
Person joe = new Person("Joe", "Portman");

int comparisonResult = ComparisonChain.start()
  .compare(natalie.getLastName(), joe.getLastName())
  .compare(natalie.getFirstName(), joe.getFirstName())
  .result();

assertThat(comparisonResult).isPositive();

The underlying comparison is achieved using the compareTo() method, so the arguments passed to the compare() methods must either be primitives or Comparables.

9. Conclusion

In this article, we looked at the different ways to compare objects in Java. We examined the difference between sameness, equality, and ordering. We also had a look at the corresponding features in the Apache Commons and Guava libraries.

As usual, the full code for this article can be found over on GitHub.

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4 Comments
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Andres Guevara
Andres Guevara
4 months ago

Hi, very small uninteresting non-technical comment. There is a typo in this sentence:

“…in a cache two avoid…”. It should be ” to “

Loredana Crusoveanu
4 months ago
Reply to  Andres Guevara

Hi Andres,
Thanks for catching that. We’ll correct it.

Kev
Kev
4 months ago

Comparator<Person> compareByFirstNames = Comparator.comparing(Person::firstName);
 
Is the above statement correct?
Person::firstName // firstName is not a method, Java expects a method here.

Loredana Crusoveanu
4 months ago
Reply to  Kev

Hi Kev,
When you take a look at the GitHub examples, you’ll notice that Person::firstName is a valid method reference. We usually skip the standard getter & setters in the code examples.
We’ll update these to follow the standard getXX naming pattern, as it can be confusing otherwise.

Thanks for the feedback.

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