How Not to Crash #6: Properties and Accessors

This gives me the willies:

- (void)someRandomMethod {
  some stuff…
  _thing = otherThing;
  other stuff…

You could prove that it’s correct. You’re using ARC, so the proper retains and releases are added. And nobody is observing _thing.

Fine. It’s legal and it works.

Say you realize that thing should be observable. So every place you set thing, you bracket the call:

[self willChangeValueForKey:kThingKey];
_thing = otherThing;
[self didChangeValueForKey:kThingKey];

Also legal, also works.

The problem is the future: later today, tomorrow, or in six months, you or somebody else writes a custom setter for thing — maybe because you need something like self.needsDisplay = YES when thing is set — and now you have a bug where the view doesn’t redraw whenever thing changes.

Or worse: perhaps that future custom setter tears down an observer and sets up a new one whenever thing changes. Since you’re setting _thing directly, the observations won’t be maintained properly, and you’ll get crashes.

The answer is a simple rule: use the accessor when getting and setting properties.

In other words, do this:

- (void)someRandomMethod {
  some stuff…
  self.thing = otherThing;
  other stuff…

This works whether or not you have a custom setter. When setting thing, you don’t have to care one way or the other.

(Here’s the simple test of a programming rule: if you can’t go wrong by following it, but you can go wrong by not following it, then you should follow it.)

(Don’t worry about the performance issue of going through accessors. I’m a performance junkie, and I’ve never seen this become a problem. If your app develops performance issues, profile it and find out the real cause.)


You should not go through the accessor in four places: init methods, dealloc, custom getter, and custom setter. This avoids side effects.

If you need a side effect — removing an observer, for instance, in dealloc — that you’d normally place in the setter, make it a separate method and call it from the setter and from dealloc. (Also consider that adding and removing observers outside of init and dealloc is a possible sign that your code needs refactoring.)


Don’t create instance variables, ever. Declare properties instead.

Properties auto-synthesize instance variables. Use @synthesize only when Xcode tells you you need to.


And if you have non-ARC code, upgrade it to use ARC. Manual memory management is error-prone. Even someone with years of experience will make mistakes from time to time, and mistakes can cause crashes (or memory leaks or abandoned memory, at best).

Normally I don’t advocate editing working code that’s running fine — but if you have code that needs maintaining, do yourself and your co-workers a favor and convert it to ARC. (Everybody is going to get worse at manual memory management over time. And there are no points added for being a hero.)

(It is possible to run into performance issues with ARC, particularly if you’re dealing with lots of objects in a loop. Remember to use autorelease pools. And don’t jump to conclusions: use the profiler.)

(Also: the ARC converter may not always do what you want. If you use it, check the changes it makes. Remember that you can convert one file at a time. Targets can have both ARC and non-ARC files.)

Don’t do->this

This gives me the screaming meemies: thing->property. No.


If you don’t need dealloc (since you’re using ARC), then don’t create it. There’s no need to set properties to nil in dealloc.

A big exception is delegates: nil out the delegates.

Use weak

Weak is awesome. Delegates, for instance, should be weak.

Parents should retain their children, but children should have a weak reference to their parents (if they have a reference at all). Weak gets you out of those invalidate methods where you break retain cycles.

Do not, under any circumstances whatsoever, use unsafe_unretained. It’s a trap. You might as well do this:

#define CRASHING_BUG unsafe_unretained

It’s literally called unsafe.

Don’t run with scissors. Heck — don’t even touch these scissors. They have a bunch of poison on them.

27 May 2015