Exploring Java

Previous Chapter 10 Next

10. Understand the Abstract Windowing Toolkit

GUI Concepts in Java

The Abstract Windowing Toolkit (AWT), or "another windowing toolkit," as some people affectionately call it, provides a large collection of classes for building graphical user interfaces in Java. With AWT, you can create windows, draw, work with images, and use components like buttons, scrollbars, and pull-down menus in a platform independant way. The java.awt package contains the AWT GUI classes. The java.awt.image package provides some additional tools for working with images.

AWT is the largest and most complicated part of the standard Java distribution, so it shouldn't be any surprise that we'll take several chapters (five, to be precise) to discuss it. Here's the lay of the land:

We can't cover the full functionality of AWT in this book; if you want complete coverage, see the Java AWT Reference (O'Reilly). Instead, we'll cover the basics of the tools you are most likely to use and show some examples of what can be done with some of the more advanced features. Figure 10.1 shows the user interface portion of the java.awt package.

Figure 10.1: User-interface classes of the java.awt package

[Graphic: Figure 10-1]

As its name suggests, AWT is an abstraction. Its classes and functionality are the same for all Java implementations, so Java applications built with AWT should work in the same way on all platforms. You could choose to write your code on under Windows NT/95, and then run it on an X Window System, or a Macintosh. To achieve platform independence, AWT uses interchangeable toolkits that interact with the host windowing system to display user-interface components, thus shielding your application code from the details of the environment it's running in. Let's say you ask AWT to create a button. When your application or applet runs, a toolkit appropriate to the host environment renders the button appropriately: on Windows, you can get a button that looks like other Windows buttons; on a Macintosh, you can get a Mac button; and so on.

Working with user-interface components in AWT is meant to be easy. While the low-level (possibly native) GUI toolkits may be complex, you won't have to work with them directly unless you want to port AWT to a new platform or provide an alternative "look and feel" for the built-in components. When building a user interface for your application, you'll be working with prefabricated components. It's easy to assemble a collection of user-interface components (buttons, text areas, etc.), and arrange them inside containers to build complex layouts. You can also use simple components as building blocks for making entirely new kinds of interface gadgets that are completely portable and reusable.

AWT uses layout managers to arrange components inside containers and control their sizing and positioning. Layout managers define a strategy for arranging components instead of relying on absolute positioning. For example, you can define a user interface with a collection of buttons and text areas and be reasonably confident it will always display correctly. It doesn't matter that Windows, UNIX, and the Macintosh render your buttons and text areas differently; the layout manager should still position them sensibly with respect to each other.

Unfortunately, the reality is that most of the complaints about Java center around AWT. AWT is very different from what many people are used to and lacks some of the advanced features other GUI environments provide (at least for now). It's also true that most of the bugs in current implementations of Java lie in the AWT toolkits. As bugs are fixed and developers become accustomed to AWT, we would expect the number of complaints to diminish. Java 1.1 is a big improvement over previous versions. But at the time of this writing, there are some rough edges.

10.1 GUI Concepts in Java

Chapter 11, Using and Creating GUI Components contains examples using most of the components in the java.awt package. But before we dive into those examples, we need to spend a bit of time talking about the concepts AWT uses for creating and handling user interfaces. This material should get you up to speed on GUI concepts and on how they are used in Java.


A component is the fundamental user-interface object in Java. Everything you see on the display in a Java application is an AWT component. This includes things like windows, drawing canvases, buttons, checkboxes, scrollbars, lists, menus, and text fields. To be used, a component must usually be placed in a Container. Container objects group components, arrange them for display, and associate them with a particular display device. All components are derived from the abstract java.awt.Component class, as you saw in Figure 10.1. For example, the Button class is a subclass of the Component class, which is derived directly from Object.

For the sake of simplicity, we can split the functionality of the Component class into two categories: appearance and behavior. The Component class contains methods and variables that control an object's general appearance. This includes basic attributes such as whether or not it's visible, its current size and location, and certain common graphical defaults like font and color. The Component class also contains methods implemented by specific subclasses to produce the actual graphics the object displays. When a component is first displayed, it's associated with a particular display device. The Component class encapsulates access to its display area on that device. This includes methods for accessing graphics and for working with off-screen drawing buffers for the display.

By a Component's behavior, we usually mean the way it responds to user-driven events. When the user performs an action (like pressing the mouse button) within a component's display area, an AWT thread delivers an event object that describes "what happened." The event is delivered to objects that have registered themselves as "listeners" for that type of event from that component. For example, when the user clicks on a button, the button delivers an ActionEvent. To receive those events, an object registers with the button as an ActionListener.

Events are delivered by invoking designated event-handler methods within the receiving object (the "listener"). Objects prepare themselves to receive events by implementing methods for the types of events in which they are interested and then registering as listeners with the sources of the events. There are specific types of events that cover different categories of component and user interaction. For example, MouseEvents describe activities of the mouse within a component's area, KeyEvents describe key presses, and functionally higher level events such as ActionEvents indicate that a user interface component has done its job.

Although events are crucial to the workings of AWT, they aren't limited to building user interfaces. Events are an important interobject communications mechanism that may be used by completely nongraphical parts of an application as well. They are particularly important in the context of Java Beans, which use events as an extremely general notification mechanism. We will describe events thoroughly in this chapter because they are so fundamental to the way in which user interfaces function in Java, but it's good to keep the bigger picture in mind.

Containers often take on certain responsibilities for the components that they hold. Instead of having every component handle events for its own bit of the user interface, a container may register itself or another object to receive the events for its child components, and "glue" those events to the correct application logic.

A component informs its container when it does something that might affect other components in the container, such as changing its size or visibility. The container can then tell the layout manager that it is time to rearrange the child components.

Containers in Java are themselves a kind of component. Because all components share this structure, container objects can manage and arrange Component objects without knowing what they are and what they are doing. Components can be swapped and replaced with new versions easily and combined into composite user-interface objects that can be treated as individual components. This lends itself well to building larger, reusable user-interface items.


We have just described a nice system in which components govern their own appearance, and events are delivered to objects that are "listening" to those components. Unfortunately, getting data out to a display medium and receiving events from input devices involve crossing the line from Java to the real world. The real world is a nasty place full of architecture dependence, local peculiarities, and strange physical devices like mice, trackballs, and '69 Buicks.

At some level, our components will have to talk to objects that contain native methods to interact with the host operating environment. To keep this interaction as clean and well-defined as possible, Java uses a set of peer interfaces. The peer interface makes it possible for a pure Java-language AWT component to use a corresponding real component--the peer object--in the native environment. You won't generally deal directly with peer interfaces or the objects behind them; peer handling is encapsulated within the Component class. It's important to understand the architecture, though, because it imposes some limitations on what you can do with components.

For example, when a component such as a Button is first created and displayed on the screen, code in the Component class asks an AWT Toolkit class to create a corresponding peer object, as shown in Figure 10.2. The Toolkit is a factory that knows how to create objects in the native display system; Java uses this factory design pattern to provide an abstraction that separates the implementation of component objects from their functionality. The Toolkit object contains methods for making instances of each type of component peer. (As a developer, you will probably never work with a native user-interface directly.) Toolkits can be swapped and replaced to provide new implementations of the components without affecting the rest of Java.

Figure 10.2 shows a Toolkit producing a peer object for a Button. When you add a button to a container, the container calls the Button's addNotify() method. In turn, addNotify() calls the Toolkit's createButton() method to make the Button's peer object in the real display system. Thereafter, the component class keeps a reference to the peer object and delegates calls to its methods.

The java.awt.peer package, shown in Figure 10.3, parallels the java.awt package and contains an interface for each type of component. For example, the Button component has a ButtonPeer interface, which defines the capabilities of a button.

The peer objects themselves can be built in whatever way is necessary, using a combination of Java and native code. (We will discuss the implementation of peers a bit more in the AWT performance section of this chapter.) A Java-land button doesn't know or care how the real-world button is implemented or what additional capabilities it may have; it knows only about the existence of the methods defined in the ButtonPeer interface. Figure 10.4 shows a call to the setLabel() method of a Button object, which results in a call to the corresponding setLabel() method of the native button object.

In this case, the only action a button peer must be able to perform is to set its label text; setLabel() is the only method in the ButtonPeer interface. How the native button acts, responds to user input, etc. is entirely up to it. It might turn green when pressed or make a "ka-chunk" sound. The component in Java-land has no control over these aspects of the native button's behavior--and this has important implications. This abstraction allows AWT to use native components from whatever platform it resides on. However, it also means that a lot of a component's functionality is locked away where we can't get to it. We'll see that we can usually intercept events before the peer object has a chance to act on them, but we usually can't change much of the object's basic behavior.

A component gets its peer when it's added to a container. Containers are associated with display devices through Toolkit objects, and thus control the process of peer creation. We'll talk more the ramifications of this when we discuss addNotify() later. (See "Component peers and addNotify()".)

The Model/View/Controller Framework

Before we continue our discussion of GUI concepts, I want to make a brief aside and talk about the Model/View/Controller (MVC) framework. MVC is a method of building reusable components that logically separates the structure, representation, and behavior of a component into separate pieces. MVC is primarily concerned with building user-interface components, but the basic ideas can be applied to many design issues; its principles can be seen throughout Java. Java doesn't implement all of MVC, whose origins are in Smalltalk, but MVC's influence is apparent throughout the language.

The fundamental idea behind MVC is the separation of the data model for an item from its presentation. For example, we can draw different representations (e.g., bar graphs, pie charts) of the data in a spreadsheet. The data is the "model"; the particular representation is the "view." A single model can have many views that show different representations of the data. The behavior of a user-interface component usually changes its model and affects how the component is rendered as a view. If we were to create a button component for example, its data model could be as simple as a boolean value for whether it's up or down. The behavior for handling mouse-press events would alter the model, and the display would examine that data when it draws the on-screen representation.

The way in which AWT objects communicate, by passing events from sources to listeners, is part of this MVC concept of separation. Event listeners are "observers" and event sources are "observables." When an observable changes or performs a function, it notifies all of its observers of the activity.[1]

[1] Although they are not used by AWT, Java provides generic Observer class and Observable interface in the java.util package. (In practice, these are more a design hint than of day to day usefulness.)

This model of operation is also central to the way in which Java works with graphics, as you'll see in Chapter 11, Using and Creating GUI Components. Image information from a producer, such as a graphics engine or video stream, is distributed to consumers that can represent different views of the data. Consumers register with a producer and receive updates as the image is created or when the image has changed.

The factory concept used by the Toolkit objects is related to MVC; factories use Java interfaces to separate the implementation of an object from its behavior. An object that implements an interface doesn't have to fit into a particular class structure; it needs only to provide the methods defined by the interface. Thus, an AWT Toolkit is a factory that produces native user-interface components that correspond to Java components. The native components don't need to match AWT's class structure, provided they implement the appropriate interface.

Painting and Updating

Components can be asked to draw themselves at any time. In a more procedural programming environment, you might expect a component would be involved in drawing only when first created or when it changes its appearance. In Java, components act in a way that is more closely tied to the underlying behavior of the display environment. For example, when you obscure a component with a window and then reexpose it, an AWT thread asks the component to redraw itself.

AWT asks a component to draw itself by calling its paint() method. paint() may be called at any time, but in practice, it's called when the object is first made visible, whenever it changes its appearance, and whenever some tragedy in the display system messes up its area. Because paint() can't make any assumptions about why it was called, it must redraw the component's entire display.

However, redrawing the whole component is unnecessary if only a small part changes, especially in an anticipated way. In this case, you'd like to specify what part of the component has changed, and redraw that part alone. Painting a large portion of the screen is time consuming, and can cause flickering that is especially annoying if you're redrawing the object frequently, as with animation. When a component realizes it needs to redraw itself, it should ask AWT to schedule a call to its update() method. update() can do drawing of its own, but often, it simply defines a clipping region--by calling clipRect()--on its graphics context; to limit the extent of the painted area and then calling paint() explicitly. A simple component doesn't have to implement its own update() method, but that doesn't mean the method doesn't exist. In this case, the component gets a default version of update() that simply clears the component's area and calls paint().

A component never calls its update() method directly. Instead, when a component requires redrawing, it schedules a call to update() by invoking repaint(). The repaint() method asks AWT to schedule the component for repainting. At some point in the future, a call to update() occurs. AWT is allowed to manage these requests in whatever way is most efficient. If there are too many requests to handle, or if there are multiple requests for the same component, AWT can reschedule a number of repaint requests into a single call to update(). This means that you can't predict exactly when update() will be called in response to a repaint(); all you can expect is that it happens at least once, after you request it.

Normally, calling repaint() is an implicit request to be updated as soon as possible. There is another form of repaint() that allows you to specify a time period within which you would like an update, giving the system more flexibility in scheduling the request. An application can use this method to govern its refresh rate. For example, the rate at which you render frames for an animation might vary, depending on other factors (like the complexity of the image). You could impose an effective maximum frame rate by calling repaint() with a time (the inverse of the frame rate) as an argument. If you then happen to make more than one repaint request within that time period, AWT is not obliged to physically repaint for each one. It can simply condense them to carry out a single update within the time you have specified.

Both paint() and update() take a single argument: a Graphics object. The Graphics object represents the component's graphics context. It corresponds to the area of the screen on which the component can draw and provides the methods for performing primitive drawing and image manipulation. We'll look at the Graphics class in detail in Chapter 11, Using and Creating GUI Components.

All components paint and update themselves using this mechanism. However, you really care about it only when doing your own drawing, and in practice, you should be drawing only on a Canvas, Panel, Applet, or your own subclasses of Component. Other kinds of objects, like buttons and scrollbars, have lots of behavior built into their peers. You may be able to draw on one of these objects, but unless you specifically catch the appropriate events and redraw (which could get complicated), your handiwork is likely to disappear.

Canvases, Panels, and lightweight components (which we will discuss fully later in this chapter) are "blank slates" for you to implement your own behavior and appearance. For example, by itself, the AWT Canvas has no outward appearance; it takes up space and has a background color, but otherwise, it's empty. By subclassing Canvas and adding your own code, you can create a more complicated object like a graph or a flying toaster. A lightweight component is even "emptier" than that. It doesn't have a real Toolkit peer for its implementation; you get to specify all of the behavior and appearance yourself. We'll talk more about using Canvas and lightweight components to create new kinds of GUI objects later in this chapter.

A Panel is like a Canvas, but it's also a Container, so that it can hold other user-interface components. In the same way, a lightweight container is a simple extension of the AWT Container class. (More about that when we talk about containers below.)

Enabling and Disabling Components

Standard AWT components can be turned on and off by calling the enable() and disable() methods. When a component like a Button or TextField is disabled, it becomes "ghosted" or "greyed-out" and doesn't respond to user input.

For example, let's see how to create a component that can only be used once. This requires getting ahead of the story; I won't explain some aspects of this example until later. Earlier, I said that a Button generates an ActionEvent when it is pressed. This event is delivered to the listeners' actionPerformed() method. The code below disables whatever component generated the event:

public boolean void actionPerformed(ActionEvent e ) {

This code calls getSource() to find out which component generated the event. We cast the result to Component because we don't necessarily know what kind of component we're dealing with; it might not be a button, because other kinds of components can generate action events. Once we have our component, we disable it.

You can also disable an entire container. Disabling a Panel, for instance, disables all the components it contains. Unfortunately, disabling components and containers is handled by the AWT Toolkit at a low level. It is currently not possible to have custom (pure Java) components notified when their native containers are disabled. This flaw should be corrected in a future release.

Focus, please

In order to receive keyboard events, a component has to have keyboard focus. The component with the focus is simply the currently selected input component. It receives all keyboard event information until the focus changes. A component can ask for focus with the Component's requestFocus() method. Text components like TextField and TextArea do this automatically whenever you click the mouse in their area. A component can find out when it gains or loses focus through the FocusListener interface (see the table of events below). If you want to create your own text-oriented component, you could implement this behavior yourself. For instance, you might request focus when the mouse is clicked in your component's area. After receiving focus, you could change the cursor or do something else to highlight the component.

Many user interfaces are designed so that the focus automatically jumps to the "next available" component when the user presses the TAB key. This behavior is particularly common in forms; users often expect to be able to tab to the next text entry field. AWT handles automatic focus traversal for you when it is applicable. You can get control over the behavior through the transferFocus() and isFocusTraversable() methods of Component. transferFocus() passes the focus to the next appropriate component. You can use transferFocus() to control the order of tabbing between components by overriding it in the container and implementing your own policy. isFocusTraversable() returns a boolean value specifying whether or not the component should be considered eligible for receiving a transfer focus. Your components can override this method to determine whether or not they can be "tabbed to."

Other Component Methods

The Component class is very large; it has to provide the base level functionality for all of the various kinds of Java GUI objects. We don't have room to document every method of the component class here, but we'll flesh out our discussion by covering some more of the important ones.

Container getParent()

Return the container that holds this component.

String getName() / void setName(String name)

Get or assign the String name of this component. Giving a component a name is useful for debugging. The name shows up when you do a toString().

setVisible(boolean visible)

Make the component visible or invisible, within its container. If you change the components, visibility, remember to call validate() on the container; this causes the layout manager to lay out the container again.

Color getForeground() / void setForeground(Color c)
Color getBackground() / void setBackground(Color c)

Get and set the foreground and background colors for this component. The foreground color of any component is the default color used for drawing. For example, it is the color used for text in a text field; it is also the default drawing color for the Graphics object passed to the component's paint() method. The background color is used to fill the component's area when it is cleared by the default implementation of update().

Font getFont() / void setFont(Font f)

Get or set the Font for this component. (Fonts are discussed in Chapter 13, Drawing With the AWT.) You can set the Font on text components like TextField and TextArea. For Canvases, Panels, and lightweight components, this will also be the default font used for drawing text on the Graphics context passed to paint().

FontMetrics getFontMetrics(Font font)

Find out the characteristics of a font when rendered on this component. FontMetrics allow you to find out the dimensions of text when rendered in that font.

Dimension getSize() / void setSize(int width, int height)

Get and set the current size of the component. Remember to call validate() on the component's container if you change its size (see Containers below). There are other methods in Component to set its location, but normally this is the job of a layout manager.

Cursor getCursor() / void setCursor(Cursor cursor)

Get or set the type of cursor (mouse pointer) used when the mouse is over this component's area. For example:

Component myComponent = ...;
Cursor crossHairs = Cursor.getPredefinedCursor( Cursor.CROSSHAIR_CURSOR );
myComponent.setCursor( crossHairs );


Now that you understand components a little better, our discussion of containers should be easy. A container is a kind of component that holds and manages other AWT components. If you look back to Figure 10.1, you can see the part of the java.awt class hierarchy that descends from Container.

The most useful Container types are Frame, Panel, and Applet. A Frame is a top-level window on your display. Frame is derived from Window, which is pretty much the same, but lacks a border. A Panel is a generic container element used to group components inside of Frames and other Panels. The Applet class is a kind of Panel that provides the foundation for applets that run inside Web browsers. As a Panel, an Applet has the ability to contain other user-interface components. All these classes are subclasses of the Container class; you can also use the Container class directly, like a Panel, to hold components inside of another container. This is called a "lightweight container," and is closely related to lightweight components. We'll discuss lightweight components and containers later in this chapter.

Because a Container is a kind of Component, it has all of the methods of the Component class, including the graphical and event-related methods we're discussing in this chapter. But a container also maintains a list of "child" components, which are the components it manages, and therefore has methods for dealing with those components. By themselves, most components aren't very useful until they are added to a container and displayed. The add() method of the Container class adds a component to the container. Thereafter, this component can be displayed in the container's area and positioned by its layout manager. You can also remove a component from a container with the remove() method.

Layout managers

A layout manager is an object that controls the placement and sizing of components within the display area of a container. A layout manager is like a window manager in a display system; it controls where the components go and how big they are. Every container has a default layout manager, but you can easily install a new one by calling the container's setLayout() method.

AWT comes with a few layout managers that implement common layout schemes. The default layout manager for a Panel is a FlowLayout, which tries to place objects at their preferred size from left to right and top to bottom in the container. The default for a Frame is a BorderLayout, which places a limited number of objects at named locations like "North," "South," and "Center." Another layout manager, the GridLayout, arranges components in a rectangular grid. The most general (and difficult to use) layout manager is GridBagLayout, which lets you do the kinds of things you can do with HTML tables. We'll get into the details of all of these layout managers in Chapter 12, Layout Managers.

As I mentioned above, you normally call add() to add a component to a container. There is an overloaded version of add() that you may need, depending on what layout manager you're using. Often you'll use the version of add() that takes a single Component as an argument. However, if you're using a layout manager that uses "constraints," like BorderLayout or GridBagLayout, you need to specify additional information about where to put the new component. For that you can use the version that takes a constraint object:

add( Component component, Object constraint);

For example, to add a component to the top of a BorderLayout, you might say:

add( newComponent, "North");

In this case, the constraint object is the string "North." The GridBagLayout uses a much more complex constraint object to specify positioning.


Insets specify a container's margins; the space specified by the container's insets won't be used by a layout manager. Insets are described by an Insets object, which has four int fields: top, bottom, left, and right. You normally don't need to worry about the insets, the container will set them automatically, taking into account extras like the menu bar that may appear at the top of a frame. However, you should modify the insets if you're doing something like adding a decorative border (for example, a set of "index tabs" at the top of a container) that reduces the space available for components. To change the insets, you override the component's getInsets() method, which returns an Insets object. For example:

//reserve 50 pixels at the top, 5 at the sides and 10 at the bottom
public Insets getInsets() {
    return new Insets (50,5,10,5);

Z-ordering (stacking components)

In most layout schemes, components are not allowed to overlap, but they can. If they do, the order in which components were added to a container matters. When components overlap they are "stacked" in the order in which they were added: the first component added to the container is on top, the last is on the bottom. To give you more control over stacking, two additional forms of the add() method take an additional integer argument that lets you specify the component's exact position in the container's stacking order.

validate( ) and layout( )

A layout manager arranges the components in a container only when asked to. Several things can mess up a container after it's initially laid out:

  • Changing its size

  • Resizing or moving one of its child components

  • Adding, showing, removing, or hiding a child component

Any of these actions causes the container to be marked invalid. Saying that a container is invalid simply means it needs to have its child components readjusted by its layout manager. This is accomplished by calling the Container's validate() method. validate() then turns around and calls the Container's doLayout() method, which asks the layout manager to do its job. In addition, validate() also notes that the Container has been fixed (i.e., it's valid again) and looks at each child component of the container, recursively validating any containers that are also messed up.

So if you have an applet that contains a small Panel--say a keypad holding some buttons--and you change the size of the Panel by calling its resize() method, you should also call validate() on the applet. The applet's layout manager may then reposition or resize the keypad within the applet. It also automatically calls validate() for the keypad, so that it can rearrange its buttons to fit inside its new area.

There are two things you should note. First, all components, not just containers, maintain a notion of when they are valid or invalid. But most components (e.g., buttons) don't do anything special when they're validated. If you have a custom component that wants to be notified when it is resized, it might be best to make it a container (perhaps a lightweight container) and do your work in the doLayout() method.

Next, child containers are validated only if they are invalid. That means that if you have an invalid component nested inside a valid component and you validate a container above them both, the invalid component may never be reached. However, the invalidate() method that marks a container as dirty automatically marks parent containers as well, all the way up the container hierarchy. So that situation should never happen.

Component peers and addNotify()

A component gets its peer when it's added to a container. Containers are associated with display devices through Toolkit objects, and thus control the process of peer creation. This means that you can't ask certain questions about a component before it's placed in a container. For example, you can't find out about a component's size or its default font until the component knows where it's being displayed (until it has its peer).

You probably also shouldn't be able to ask a component with no peer about other resources controlled by the peer, such as off screen graphics areas and font metrics. Java's developers apparently thought this restriction too onerous so container-less components are associated with the "default" toolkit that can answer some of these kinds of inquiries. In practice, the default toolkit is usually able to provide the right answer, because with current implementations of Java the default toolkit is probably the only toolkit available. This approach may cause problems in the future, if Java's developers add the ability for different containers to have different toolkits.

The same issue (the existence of a component's peer) also comes up when you are making your own kinds of components and need access to some of these peer resources before you can complete the setup. For example, suppose that you want to set the size or some other feature of your component based on the default font used. You can't complete this setup in your constructor, because the peer doesn't exist yet. The solution to all of these problems is proper use of the addNotify() method. As its name implies, addNotify() can be used to get notification when the peer is created. You can override it to do your own work, as long as you remember to call super.addNotify() to complete the peer creation. For example:

class FancyLabel  {
    FancyLabel() {
        // No peer yet...
    public void addNotify() {
        super.addNotify();  // complete the peer creation
        // Complete setup based on Fonts
        // and other peer resources.

Managing Components

There are a few additional tools of the Container class that we should mention.

Component[] getComponents()

Returns the container's components in an array.

void list(PrintWriter out, int indent)

Generates a list of the components in this container and writes them to the specified PrintWriter.

Component getComponentAt(int x, int y)

Tells you what component is at the specified coordinates in the container's coordinate system.

Listening for Components

Finally, an important tool to be aware of is the ContainerListener interface. It lets you receive an event whenever a component is added to or removed from a container. (It lets you hear the tiny cries of the component as it is imprisoned in its container or torn away.) You can use the ContainerListener interface to automate the process of setting up components when they are added to your container. For instance, your container might need to register other kinds of event listeners with its components to track the mouse or handle certain kinds of actions.

Windows and Frames

Windows and frames are the "top level" containers for Java components. A Window is simply a plain, graphical screen that displays in your windowing system. Windows have no frills; they are mainly suitable for making "splash" screens and dialogs--things that limit the user's control. Frame, on the other hand, is a subclass of Window that have a border and can hold a menu-bar. Frames are under the control of your window manager, so you can normally drag a Frame around on the screen and resize it, using the normal controls for your environment. Figure 10.5 shows a Frame on the left and a Window on the right.

All other components and containers in Java must be held, at some level, inside of a Window or Frame. Applets, as we've mentioned a few times, are a kind of Panel. Even applets must be housed in a Java frame or window, though normally you don't see an applet's parent frame because it is part of (or simply is) the browser or appletviewer displaying the applet.

A Frame is the only Component that can be displayed without being added to or attached to another Container. After creating a Frame, you can call the show() method to display it. Let's create a standalone equivalent of our HelloWeb applet from Chapter 2, A First Applet:

class HelloWebApp {
    public static void main( String [] args ) {
        Frame myFrame = new Frame("The Title");
        myFrame.add("Center", new Label("Hello Web!", Label.CENTER) );

Here we've got our minimal, graphical, standalone Java application. The Frame constructor can take a String argument that supplies a title, displayed in the Frame's title bar. (Another approach would be to create the Frame with no title, and call setTitle() to supply the title later.) After creating the Frame, we add our Label to it and then call pack(), which prepares the Frame for display. pack() does a couple of things, but its most important effect in this case is that it sets the size of the Frame to the smallest needed to hold all of its components. Specifically, pack() calls:

setSize( preferredSize() );

Next, we call show() to get the Frame onto the screen. The show() method returns immediately, without blocking. Fortunately, our application does not exit while the Frame is showing. To get rid of a Frame, call the dispose() method. If you want to hide the Frame temporarily, call setVisible(false). You can check to see if a Frame is showing with the isShowing() method.

In this example, we let pack() set the size of the Frame for us before we show() it. If we hadn't, the Frame would have come up at an undefined size. If we instead want the Frame to be a specific size (not just hugging its child components) we could simply call setSize() instead of pack().

myFrame.setSize( 300, 300 );

Other Methods for Controlling Frames

The setLocation() method of the Component class can be used on a Frame or Window to set its position on the screen. The x and y coordinates are considered relative to the screen's origin (the top left corner).

You can use the toFront() and toBack() methods, respectively, to pull a Frame or Window to the front of other windows, or push it to the background. By default, a user is allowed to resize a Frame, but you can prevent resizing by calling setResizable(false) before showing the Frame.

On most systems, frames can be "iconfied"; that is, they can be represented by a little icon image. You can get and set a frame's icon image by calling getIconImage() and setIconImage(). Remember that as with all components, you can set the cursor by calling the setCursor() method.

Using Windows

Windows and frames have a slightly convoluted relationship. We said above that Frame is a subclass of Window. However, if you look, you'll see that to create a Window you have to have a Frame available to serve as its parent. The Window constructor takes a Frame as an argument.

Window myWindow = new Window( myFrame );

The rationale for this is long and boring. Suffice it to say that this limitation will probably go away in the future.

Prepacking Windows and Frames

Earlier we said that calling pack() on a Frame sets the frame's size to the preferred size of its layout. However, the pack() method is not simply equivalent to a call to setSize(). pack() is often called before any of the frame's components have their peers. Therefore, calling pack() forces the container to choose its Toolkit and to create the peers of any components that have been added to it. After that is done, the layout manager can reliably determine its preferred size.

For a large frame with lots of components, packing the frame is a convenient way to do this setup work in advance, before the frame is displayed. Whether or not this is useful depends on whether you'd rather have your application start up faster, or pop up its frames faster, once it is running.

AWT Performance and Lightweight Components

Java's developers initially decided to implement the standard AWT components with a "mostly native" Toolkit. As we described above, that means that most of the important functionality of these classes is delegated to peer objects, which live in the native operating system. Using native peers allows Java to take on the look and feel of the local operating environment. Macintosh users see Mac applications, PC users see Windows' windows, and Unix users can have their Motif motif; warm fuzzy feelings abound. Java's chameleon-like ability to blend into the native environment is considered by many to be an integral part of platform independance. However, there are a few important downsides to this arrangement.

First, as we mentioned earlier, using native peer implementations makes it much more difficult (if not impossible) to subclass these components to specialize or modify their behavior. Most of their behavior comes from the native peer, and therefore can't be overidden or extended easily. As it turns out, this is not a terrible problem because of the ease with which we can make our own components in Java; we will give you an idea of how to start in Chapter 11, Using and Creating GUI Components. It is also true that a sophisticated new component, like an HTML viewer, would benefit little in deriving from a more primitive text viewing component like TextArea.

Next, porting the native code makes it much more difficult to bring Java to a new platform. For the user, this can only mean one thing: bugs. Quite simply, while the Java language itself has been quite stable, the cross platform behavior of the AWT has been an Achilles' heel. Although the situation is steadily improving, the lack of large, commercial quality Java applications until relatively recently testifies to the difficulties involved. At this time, new development has been saturated with Java for well over a year (a decade in Net time) and very few real applications are with us.

Finally, we come to a somewhat counterintuitive problem with the use of native peers. In most current implementations of Java, the native peers are quite "heavy" and consume a lot of resources. You might expect that relying on native code would be much more efficient than creating the components in Java. However, it can take a long time to instantiate a large number of GUI elements when each requires the creation of a native peer from the toolkit. And in some cases you may find that once they are created, they don't perform as well as the pure Java equivalents that you can create yourself.

An extreme example would be a spreadsheet that uses an AWT TextField for each cell. Creating hundreds of TextFieldPeer objects would be something between slow and impossible. While simply saying "don't do that" might be a valid answer, this begs the question: how do you create large applications with complex GUIs? Java would not be a very interesting environment if it was only limited to simple tasks. One solution, taken by development environments like Sun's JavaWorkshop, is to use "wrapper" classes for the standard AWT components; the wrapper controls when peer objects are created. Another attack on the problem has been to create "lightweight" components that are written entirely in Java, and therefore don't require native code.

Using Lightweight Components and Containers

A "lightweight" component is simply a component that is implemented entirely in Java. You implement all of its appearance by drawing in the paint() and update() methods; you implement its behavior by catching user events (usually at a low level) and possibly generating new events. Lightweight components can be used to create new kinds of gadgets, in the same way you might use a Canvas or a Panel. But they avoid some of the performance penalties inherent in the use of peers, and, perhaps more importantly, they provide more flexibility in their appearance. A lightweight component can have a transparent background, allowing its container to "show through" its own area. It is also more reasonable to have another component or container overlap or draw into a lightweight component's area.

You create a lightweight component by subclassing the Component and Container classes directly. That is, instead of writing:

class myCanvas extends Canvas { ... }

you write:

class myCanvas extends Container { ... } // lightweight

That's often all you need to do to create a lightweight component. When the lightweight component is put into a container, it doesn't get a native peer. Instead, it gets a LightweightPeer that serves as a place holder and identifies the component as lightweight and in need of special help. The container then takes over the responsibilities that would otherwise be handled by a native peer: namely, low-level delivery of events and paint requests. The container receives mouse movement events, key strokes, paint requests, etc., for the lightweight component. It then sorts out the events that fall within the component's bounds and dispatches them to it. Similarly, it translates paint requests that overlap the lightweight component's area and forwards them to it.

Figure 10.7 shows a component receiving a paint() request via its container. This makes it easy to see how a lightweight component can have a transparent background. The component is actually drawing directly onto its container's graphics context. Conversely, anything that the container drew on its background is visible in the lightweight component. For an ordinary container, this will simply be the container's background color. But you can do much cooler things too. (See the PictureButton example at the end of the next chapter.) All of the normal rules still apply; your lightweight component's paint() method should render the component's entire image (assume that the container has obliterated it), but your update() method can assume that whatever drawing it has done previously is still intact.

Just as you can create a lightweight component by subclassing Component, you can create a lightweight container by subclassing Container. A lightweight container can hold any components, including other lightweight components and containers. In this case, event handling and paint requests are managed by the first "regular" container in the container hierarchy. (There has to be one somewhere, if you think about it.) This brings us to the cardinal rule of subclassing containers, which is:

"Always call super.paint() if you override a container's paint() method."

If you don't, the container won't be able to manage lightweight components properly.

To summarize, lightweight components are very flexible, pure Java components that are managed by their container and have a transparent background by default. Lightweight components do not rely on native peers from the AWT toolkit to provide their implementations and so they can not readily take on the look and feel of the local platform. In a sense, a lightweight component is just a convenient way to package an extension to a container's painting and event handling methods. But, again, all of this happens automatically, behind the scenes; you can create and use lightweight components as you would any other kind of component.

We'll see examples of lightweight components and containers in the next chapter.

Previous Home Next
Writing a Protocol Handler Book Index Applets

Java in a Nutshell Java Language Reference Java AWT Java Fundamental Classes Exploring Java