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iOS7 Day-by-Day :: Day 19 :: UITableView Row Height Estimation

Posted on 16 Oct 2013 Written by Sam Davies

This post is part of a daily series of posts introducing the most exciting new parts of iOS7 for developers -#iOS7DayByDay. To see the posts you’ve missed check out the introduction page, but have a read through the rest of this post first!


Introduction

Today we’re going to take a look at a fairly small addition to the UIKit API, but one which could make quite a difference to the user experience of apps with complex table views. Row height estimation takes the form of an additional method on the table view delegate, which, rather than having to return the exact height of every row at initial load, allows an estimated size to be returned instead. We’ll look at why this is an advantage in today’s post. In order to demonstrate its potential we’ll construct a slightly contrived app which has a table view which we can view both with and without row height estimation.

The code for this blog post is available in the github repo which accompanies this series – at github.com/ShinobiControls/iOS7-day-by-day.

Without estimation

We create a simple UITableView with a UITableViewController, containing just 1 section with 200 rows. The cells contain their index and their height, which varies on a row-by-row basis. This is important – if all the rows are the same height then we don’t need to implement the heightForRowAtIndexPath: method on the delegate, and we won’t get any improvement out of using the new row height estimation method.

- (NSInteger)numberOfSectionsInTableView:(UITableView *)tableView
{
    // Return the number of sections.
    return 1;
}

- (NSInteger)tableView:(UITableView *)tableView numberOfRowsInSection:(NSInteger)section
{
    // Return the number of rows in the section.
    return 200;
}

- (UITableViewCell *)tableView:(UITableView *)tableView cellForRowAtIndexPath:(NSIndexPath *)indexPath
{
    static NSString *CellIdentifier = @"Cell";
    UITableViewCell *cell = [tableView dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier:CellIdentifier forIndexPath:indexPath];

    // Configure the cell...
    cell.textLabel.text = [NSString stringWithFormat:@"Cell %03d", indexPath.row];
    CGFloat height = [self heightForRowAtIndex:indexPath.row];
    cell.detailTextLabel.text = [NSString stringWithFormat:@"Height %0.2f", height];
    return cell;
}

The heightForRowAtIndex: method is a utility method which will return the height of a given row:

- (CGFloat)heightForRowAtIndex:(NSUInteger)index
{
    CGFloat result;
    for (NSInteger i=0; i < 1e5; i++) {
        result = sqrt((double)i);
    }
    result = (index % 3 + 1) * 20.0;
    return result;
}

If we had a complex table with cells of differing heights, it is likely that we would have to construct the cell to be able to determine its height, which takes a long time. To simulate this we’ve put a superfluous loop calculation in the height calculation method – it isn’t of any use, but takes some computational time.

We also need a delegate to return the row heights as we go, so we create SCNonEstimatingTableViewDelegate:

@interface SCNonEstimatingTableViewDelegate : NSObject <UITableViewDelegate>
- (instancetype)initWithHeightBlock:(CGFloat (^)(NSUInteger index))heightBlock;
@end

This has a constructor which takes a block which is used to calculate the row height of a given row:

@implementation SCNonEstimatingTableViewDelegate
{
    CGFloat (^_heightBlock)(NSUInteger index);
}

- (instancetype)initWithHeightBlock:(CGFloat (^)(NSUInteger))heightBlock
{
    self = [super init];
    if(self) {
        _heightBlock = [heightBlock copy];
    }
    return self;
}
@end

And we implement the relevant delegate method:

#pragma mark - UITableViewDelegate methods
- (CGFloat)tableView:(UITableView *)tableView heightForRowAtIndexPath:(NSIndexPath *)indexPath
{
    NSLog(@"Height (row %d)", indexPath.row);
    return _heightBlock(indexPath.row);
}

This logs that it has been called and uses the block to calculate the row height for the specified index path. With a bit of wiring up in the view controller then we’re done:

- (void)viewDidLoad
{
    [super viewDidLoad];

    _delegate = [[SCNonEstimatingTableViewDelegate alloc] initWithHeightBlock:^CGFloat(NSUInteger index) {
        return [self heightForRowAtIndex:index];
    }];
    self.tableView.delegate = _delegate;
}

Running the app up now will demonstrate the variable row height table:

TableView

Looking at the log messages we can see that the row height method gets called for every single row in the table before we first render the table. This is because the table view needs to know its total height (for drawing the scroll bar etc). This can present a problem in complex table views, where calculating the height of a row is a complex operation – it might involve fetching the content, or rendering the cell to discover how much space is required. It’s not always an easy operation. Our heightForRowAtIndex: utility method simulates this complexity with a long loop of calculations. Adding a bit of timing logic we can see that in this contrived example (and running on a simulator) we have a delay of nearly half a second from loading the tableview, to it appearing:

Without estimation

With estimation

The new height estimation delegate methods provide a way to improve this initial delay to rendering the table. If we implementtableView:estimatedHeightForRowAtIndexPath: in addition to tableView:heightForRowAtIndexPath: then rather than calling theheight method for every row before rendering the tableview, the estimatedHeight method will be called for every row, and theheight method just for rows which are being rendered on the screen. Therefore, we have separated the height calculation into a method which requires the exact height (since the cell is about to appear on screen), and a method which is just used to calculate the height of the entire tableview (hence doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate).

To demonstrate this in action we create a new delegate which will implement the height estimation method:

@interface SCEstimatingTableViewDelegate : SCNonEstimatingTableViewDelegate
- (instancetype)initWithHeightBlock:(CGFloat (^)(NSUInteger index))heightBlock
                    estimationBlock:(CGFloat (^)(NSUInteger index))estimationBlock;
@end

Here we’ve got a constructor with 2 blocks, one will be used for the exact height method, and one for the estimation:

@implementation SCEstimatingTableViewDelegate {
    CGFloat (^_estimationBlock)(NSUInteger index);
}

- (instancetype)initWithHeightBlock:(CGFloat (^)(NSUInteger index))heightBlock
                    estimationBlock:(CGFloat (^)(NSUInteger index))estimationBlock
{
    self = [super initWithHeightBlock:heightBlock];
    if(self) {
        _estimationBlock = [estimationBlock copy];
    }
    return self;
}
@end

And then we implement the new estimation method:

#pragma mark - UITableViewDelegate methods
- (CGFloat)tableView:(UITableView *)tableView estimatedHeightForRowAtIndexPath:(NSIndexPath *)indexPath
{
    NSLog(@"Estimating height (row %d)", indexPath.row);
    return _estimationBlock(indexPath.row);
}

Updating the view controller with a much cheaper height estimation method – just returning the average height for our cells (40.0).

- (void)viewDidLoad
{
    [super viewDidLoad];

    if(self.enableEstimation) {
        _delegate = [[SCEstimatingTableViewDelegate alloc] initWithHeightBlock:^CGFloat(NSUInteger index) {
            return [self heightForRowAtIndex:index];
        } estimationBlock:^CGFloat(NSUInteger index) {
            return 40.0;
        }];
    } else {
        _delegate = [[SCNonEstimatingTableViewDelegate alloc] initWithHeightBlock:^CGFloat(NSUInteger index) {
            return [self heightForRowAtIndex:index];
        }];
    }
    self.tableView.delegate = _delegate;
}

Running the app up now and observing the log and we’ll see that the height method no longer gets called for every cell before initial render, but instead the estimated height method. The height method is called just for the cells which are being rendered on the screen. Consequently see that the load time has dropped to a fifth of a second:

With Estimation

Conclusion

As was mentioned before, this example is a little contrived, but it does demonstrate rather well that if calculating the actual height is hard work then implementing the new estimation height method can really improve the responsiveness of your app, particularly if you have a large tableview. There are additional height estimation methods for section headers and footers which work in precisely the same manner. It might not be a groundbreaking API change, but in some cases it can really improve the user experience, so it’s definitely worth doing.

Don’t forget that you can get the code for this project on github at github.com/ShinobiControls/iOS7-day-by-day. If you have any feedback/comments then feel free to use the comments box below, or hit me up on twitter – @iwantmyrealname.

sam

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