Be Careful When Combining Collections of Different Type

1 minute read

Sometimes the runtime speed of collection methods can vary extremely when called with different Collection implementations. But why?

Have a look at this code:

Set<Integer>        set1 = getHashSetHaving5000Elements();
Collection<Integer> c1   = getArrayListHaving5001Elements();
Set<Integer>        set2 = getHashSetHaving5000Elements();
Collection<Integer> c2   = getArrayListHaving4999Elements();


Which block will be faster? ‘The second one!’, you yell, ‘It contains two elements less!’. That’s true. But it will surprise you to know that it is more than twice as fast, not just a couple of milliseconds! How come? The solution is in the documentation of AbstractSet.removeAll():

This implementation determines which is the smaller of this set and the specified collection, by invoking the size method on each. If this set has fewer elements, then the implementation iterates over this set, checking each element returned by the iterator in turn to see if it is contained in the specified collection. If it is so contained, it is removed from this set with the iterator’s remove method. If the specified collection has fewer elements, then the implementation iterates over the specified collection, removing from this set each element returned by the iterator, using this set’s remove method.

So if the passed collection is bigger, even by one element, the implementation will call c1.contains() for each element of the set – which is pretty slow for ArrayList. That’s surprising, isn’t it? Here’s the code of AbstractSet.removeAll():

public boolean removeAll(Collection<?> c) {
	boolean modified = false;
	if (size() > c.size()) {
	    for (Iterator<?> i = c.iterator(); i.hasNext(); )
	        modified |= remove(;
	} else {
	    for (Iterator<?> i = iterator(); i.hasNext(); ) {
	        if (c.contains( {
	            modified = true;
	return modified;

I understand why the designers of AbstractSet did this ‘optimization’. After all you can’t know how both instances (the AbstractSet instance and the Collection instance) are implemented. But I’d have overridden this method in HashSet, and would have added some black list checks for types which are known to be slower than HashSet.