Swift Language Captures, strong/weak references, and retain cycles


Example

class MyClass {
    func sayHi() { print("Hello") }
    deinit { print("Goodbye") }
}

When a closure captures a reference type (a class instance), it holds a strong reference by default:

let closure: () -> Void
do {
    let obj = MyClass()
    // Captures a strong reference to `obj`: the object will be kept alive
    // as long as the closure itself is alive.
    closure = { obj.sayHi() }
    closure()  // The object is still alive; prints "Hello"
} // obj goes out of scope
closure()  // The object is still alive; prints "Hello"

The closure's capture list can be used to specify a weak or unowned reference:

let closure: () -> Void
do {
    let obj = MyClass()
    // Captures a weak reference to `obj`: the closure will not keep the object alive;
    // the object becomes optional inside the closure.
    closure = { [weak obj] in obj?.sayHi() }
    closure()  // The object is still alive; prints "Hello"
} // obj goes out of scope and is deallocated; prints "Goodbye"
closure()  // `obj` is nil from inside the closure; this does not print anything.
let closure: () -> Void
do {
    let obj = MyClass()
    // Captures an unowned reference to `obj`: the closure will not keep the object alive;
    // the object is always assumed to be accessible while the closure is alive.
    closure = { [unowned obj] in obj.sayHi() }
    closure()  // The object is still alive; prints "Hello"
} // obj goes out of scope and is deallocated; prints "Goodbye"
closure()  // crash! obj is being accessed after it's deallocated.

For more information, see the Memory Management topic, and the Automatic Reference Counting section of The Swift Programming Language.

Retain cycles

If an object holds onto a closure, which also holds a strong reference to the object, this is a retain cycle. Unless the cycle is broken, the memory storing the object and closure will be leaked (never reclaimed).

class Game {
    var score = 0
    let controller: GCController
    init(controller: GCController) {
        self.controller = controller

        // BAD: the block captures self strongly, but self holds the controller
        // (and thus the block) strongly, which is a cycle.
        self.controller.controllerPausedHandler = {
            let curScore = self.score
            print("Pause button pressed; current score: \(curScore)")
        }

        // SOLUTION: use `weak self` to break the cycle.
        self.controller.controllerPausedHandler = { [weak self] in
            guard let strongSelf = self else { return }
            let curScore = strongSelf.score
            print("Pause button pressed; current score: \(curScore)")
        }
    }
}