Memory Ownership and Smart Pointers

Reset vs Release for Unique Pointers

What's the difference between reset() and release() for unique pointers?

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The reset() and release() functions are both members of std::unique_ptr, but they serve different purposes in managing the ownership of the pointed-to object. Let's dive into each one:

The reset() Function

The reset() function does two things:

  1. It deletes the currently owned object (if any).
  2. It takes ownership of a new object (if provided).

Here's an example:

#include <iostream>
#include <memory>

class Character {
  std::string Name;

int main() {
  auto Frodo{std::make_unique<Character>("Frodo")};
  std::cout << "Before reset: " << Frodo->Name << '\n';

  Frodo.reset(new Character("Samwise")); 
  std::cout << "After reset: " << Frodo->Name << '\n';

  std::cout << "After reset to nullptr: "
      << (Frodo ? Frodo->Name : "nullptr") << '\n';
Before reset: Frodo
After reset: Samwise
After reset to nullptr: nullptr

The release() Function

The release() function, on the other hand:

  1. Releases ownership of the managed object without deleting it.
  2. Returns a pointer to the managed object.
  3. Sets the unique_ptr to null.

Here's an example:

#include <iostream>
#include <memory>

class Character {
  std::string Name;

int main() {
  auto Gandalf{std::make_unique<Character>("Gandalf")};
  std::cout << "Before release: " << Gandalf->Name << '\n';

  Character* RawPtr{Gandalf.release()}; 
  std::cout << "After release: "
      << (Gandalf ? Gandalf->Name : "nullptr")
      << '\n';
  std::cout << "Raw pointer: " << RawPtr->Name << '\n';

  delete RawPtr; // Don't forget to delete!
Before release: Gandalf
After release: nullptr
Raw pointer: Gandalf

Key Differences

Memory Management:

  • reset() handles memory deallocation for you.
  • release() leaves memory management to you.


  • reset() can transfer ownership to the unique_ptr.
  • release() transfers ownership away from the unique_ptr.

Return Value:

  • reset() doesn't return anything.
  • release() returns the raw pointer.

In general, reset() is safer and more commonly used, as it handles memory management automatically. Use release() with caution, typically when you need to transfer ownership to a different memory management scheme.

Answers to questions are automatically generated and may not have been reviewed.

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