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Boxing and unboxing: Boxing conversions

C sharp

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Boxing and unboxing

Boxing and unboxing is a central concept in C#ís type system. It provides a bridge between value-types and reference-types by permitting 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.




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.

The actual process of boxing a value of a value-type is best explained by imagining the existence of a boxing class for that type. For any value-type T, the boxing class would be declared as follows:

class T_Box

}

Boxing of a value v of type T now consists of executing the expression new T_Box(v), and returning the resulting instance as a value of type object. Thus, the statements

int i = 123;
object box = i;

conceptually correspond to

int i = 123;
object box = new int_Box(i);

Boxing classes like T_Box and int_Box above donít actually exist and the dynamic type of a boxed value isnít actually a class type. Instead, a boxed value of type T has the dynamic type T, and a dynamic type check using the is operator can simply reference type T. For example,

int i = 123;
object box = i;
if (box is int)

will output the string ďBox contains an intĒ 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

}

the following statements

Point p = new Point(10, 10);
object box = p;
p.x = 20;
Console.Write(((Point)box).x);

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 been declared a class instead, 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.

Referring to the imaginary boxing class described in the previous section, an unboxing conversion of an object box to a value-type T consists of executing the expression ((T_Box)box).value. Thus, the statements

object box = 123;
int i = (int)box;

conceptually correspond to

object box = new int_Box(123);
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 operand must be a reference to an object that was previously created by boxing a value of that value-type. If the source operand is null or a reference to an incompatible object, a System.InvalidCastException is thrown.



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