What use cases are there in JavaScript for Sparse Arrays?

What possible programming use could you have where a sparse array would be better than an (regular) object?

By sparse array I mean one where:

arr = [];                             //Initialize
arr[0] = 'W';
arr[1] = 'T';
arr[3] = 'F';

console.log(arr[0] !== undefined)    //true
console.log(arr[1] !== undefined)    //true
console.log(arr[2] === undefined)    //true
console.log(arr[3] !== undefined)    //true

Or more formally:

An object, O, is said to be sparse if the following algorithm returns true:

1. Let len be the result of calling the [[Get]] internal method of O with argument 

2. For each integer i in the range 0?i<ToUint32(len)
    a. Let elem be the result of calling the [[GetOwnProperty]] internal method of O     
    with argument ToString(i).

    b. If elem is undefined, return true.

3. Return false.

ECMA 262 5.1 - 15.4 Array Objects

Moreover, the ECMA 262 5.1 Standard further defines length specifically as:

The length property of this Array object is a data property whose value is always numerically greater than the name of every deletable property whose name is an array index.

So the example above, arr.length === 4 despite there only being three elements defined.

In fact, according to the standard, any Number greater than 3 is a valid length for arr, including Math.PI.

Consequently, does this mean that no one should use:

for(var i=0; i<arr.length; i++)
    //Cannot trust arr[i] exists

and instead it would be more appropriate to use

for(key in arr)
    //Always exists

I've never encountered an intentional one in the wild, and really only began thinking about it while reading an odd Q&A here, and now I'm a little unsettled.

I've long known that there's not a neat way to remove an element from an Array, but now I'm even more confused as to why you would intentionally leave a hole, let alone define a standard where length can be any number greater than the last defined element.

If I wanted random key value pairs, I'd use an Object. If I want to be able to cleanly iterate, I use an Array. Am I missing something?

Note, I'm looking for a specific use case, or a class of generalized use cases not a reference to the standards, or an opinion. I know it's allowed, and I already have an opinion. :)

To add a test or see some of the ones I've seen where the Array standard works in unexpected ways, check out this fiddle

Sorry if this is a bit abstract. Been thinking about it all night.



One possible use-case for sparse arrays that I've come across in real usage is for a heat-map.

Start with your map being an empty array of X × Y elements. Load your data, and populate it into the map by incrementing the array elements at the relevant co-ords.

Another similar example might be a battleship game, where boats are placed into an empty grid by populating the array elements at the appropriate co-ordinates.

That's not to say this is this only way to do this, or even the best way -- both examples can quite easily be achieved without using a sparse array -- but the question was asking for use cases, so there you go.


It depends on what your definition of "sparse array" is. For example, you want to express in code something like

"2 items of product 51472 and 1 item of product 81369"

Then, according to one possible definition (a, so to speak, "mathematical" definition) that thought you want to express in code is a "sparse array". Nothing wrong with that, the thought is the use case. The correct implementation is, use plain Objects {}.

The other possible definition of "sparse array" is, in the above scenario, just because all occurring keys are natural numbers, you think it should be an array ([]) - a, so to speak, "javascriptological" definition. This second definition of "sparse array" has absolutely no use cases. Zero. It is wrong. Very very very very very very wrong. Bad. Pure 100% bad, not a fraction of an atom of goodness.

It's completely unnecessary, because {} does what you want, and using [] instead will make you write inefficient slow code, but you won't find the error until years later. Don't do it.

How that? read this


Recent Questions

Top Questions

Home Tags Terms of Service Privacy Policy DMCA Contact Us

©2020 All rights reserved.