Iterator-based vs. Index-based Loops

When should I use iterator-based loops instead of index-based loops?

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When working with containers in C++, you have the choice between using iterator-based loops or index-based loops. Both approaches have their use cases, and understanding when to use each can help you write more efficient and idiomatic code.

Iterator-based loops:

  • Use iterator-based loops when you want to iterate over elements in a container using the container's iterator interface.
  • Iterator-based loops are more generic and can work with any container that provides an iterator interface, regardless of whether the container supports random access or not.
  • Iterator-based loops are the idiomatic way to iterate over elements in C++, as they provide a higher level of abstraction and are more expressive.
std::vector<int> numbers{1, 2, 3, 4, 5};
for (auto it = numbers.begin();
  it != numbers.end(); ++it) {
  std::cout << *it << " ";

Index-based loops:

  • Use index-based loops when you need to access elements by their index or when you require random access to elements.
  • Index-based loops are typically used with containers that provide random access, such as std::vector or std::array.
  • Index-based loops can be more intuitive when working with algorithms that rely on element indices, such as certain mathematical or computational problems.
std::vector<int> numbers{1, 2, 3, 4, 5};
for (std::size_t i = 0; i < numbers.size(); ++i) {
  std::cout << numbers[i] << " ";

Here are some guidelines to help you choose between iterator-based and index-based loops:

Prefer iterator-based loops when:

  • You are working with containers that don't provide random access, such as std::list or std::forward_list.
  • You want to write generic code that can work with different container types.
  • You are using algorithms or functions that expect iterators as input, such as those in the C++ Standard Library.
  • You want to express the intent of iterating over elements clearly and idiomatically.

Consider index-based loops when:

  • You need to access elements by their index, such as in certain mathematical or computational algorithms.
  • You are working with containers that provide efficient random access, such as std::vector or std::array, and you need to access elements in a non-sequential manner.
  • You are interoperating with legacy code or APIs that rely on indices.

In modern C++, range-based for loops and algorithms with iterator-based interfaces are often preferred over explicit iterator-based or index-based loops. They provide a more concise and expressive way to iterate over elements.

std::vector<int> numbers{1, 2, 3, 4, 5};
for (const auto& num : numbers) {
  std::cout << num << " ";

Ultimately, the choice between iterator-based and index-based loops depends on the specific requirements of your code and the conventions of the libraries or frameworks you are using. It's important to understand the strengths and limitations of each approach and choose the one that best fits your needs.

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

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