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Understanding and Using Pointers in Delphi

An Introduction to Pointers and their Useage for Delphi Beginners

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Even though pointers are not so important in Delphi as the are in C or C++, pointers are such a "basic" tool that almost anything having to do with programming must deal with pointers in some fashion. For that reason, you will read that "a string is really just a pointer" or that "an object is really just a pointer" or "event handler such as OnClick is actually a pointer to a procedure".

Pointer as Data Type

Simply put, a pointer is a variable that holds the address of anything in memory.

To concrete this definition, keep in mind the following: everything used in an application is stored somewhere in the computer's memory. Because a pointer holds the address of another variable, it is said to point to that variable.

Most of the time pointers in Delphi point to a specific type:

 var
  iValue, j : integer;
  pIntValue : ^integer;
 begin
   iValue := 2001;
   pIntValue := @iValue;
   ...
   j:= pIntValue^;
 end; 
The syntax to declare a pointer data type uses a caret (^). In the code above iValue is an integer type variable and pIntValue is an integer type pointer. Since a pointer is nothing more than an address in memory, we must assign to it the location (address) of value stored in iValue integer variable. The @ operator returns the address of a variable (or a function or procedure as will be seen later in this article). Equivalent to the @ operator is the Addr function. Note that pIntValue's value is not 2001.

In the code above the pIntValue is a typed integer pointer. Good programming style is to use typed pointers as much as you can. The Pointer data type is a generic pointer type - represents a pointer to any data.

Note that when "^" appears after a pointer variable it dereferences the pointer; that is, it returns the value stored at the memory address held by the pointer. In the code above (after it) variable j has the same value as iValue. It might look like this has no purpose when we can simply assign iValue to j, but this piece of code lies behind most calls to Win API.

NILing pointers

Unassigned pointers are dangerous. Since pointers let us work directly with computer's memory, if we try to (by mistake) write to a protected location in memory we could get a access violation error. This is the reason why we should always initialize a pointer to NIL.

NIL is a special constant that can be assigned to any pointer. When nil is assigned to a pointer, the pointer doesn’t reference anything. Delphi presents, for example, an empty dynamic array or a long string as a nil pointer.

Character Pointers

The fundamental types PAnsiChar and PWideChar represent pointers to AnsiChar and WideChar values. The generic PChar represents a pointer to a Char variable. These character pointers are used to manipulate null-terminated strings. Think of a PChar as being a pointer to a null-terminated string or to the array that represents one. For more on null-terminated strings go see: "String types in Delphi".

Pointers to Records

When we define a record or other data type, it's a common practice to also to define a pointer to that type. This makes it easy to manipulate instances of the type without copying large blocks of memory.

The ability to have pointers to records (and arrays) makes it much more easier to set up complicated data structures as linked lists and trees.

 type
   pNextItem = ^TLinkedListItem
   TLinkedListItem = record
     sName : String;
     iValue : Integer;
     NextItem : pNextItem;
 end; 
The idea behind linked lists is to give us the possibility to store the address to the next linked item in a list inside a NextItem record field. For more on data structures consider the book: "The Tomes of Delphi: Algorithms and Data Structures".

Pointers to records can also be used when storing custom data for every tree view item, for example.

Procedural and Method Pointers

Another important pointer concept in Delphi are procedure and method pointers. Pointers that point to the address of a procedure or function are called procedural pointers. Method pointers are similar to procedure pointers. However, instead of pointing to stand-alone procedures, they must point to class methods. Method pointer is a pointer that contains information about the name of the method that is being invoked as well as the object that is being invoked. To see some function pointer in action go see: "Dynamic World of Packages". Here's how to solve: "Incompatible type: 'method pointer and regular procedure".

Pointers and Windows API

The most common use for pointers, in Delphi, is interfacing to C and C++ code, which includes accessing the Windows API. Windows API functions use a number of data types that may be unfamiliar to the Delphi programmer. Most of the parameters in calling API functions are pointers to some data type. As stated above, we use null-terminated strings in Delphi when calling Windows API functions. In many cases when an API call returns a value in a buffer or a pointer to a data structure, these buffers and data structures must be allocated by the application before the API call is made. For example, take a look at the SHBrowseForFolder Windows API function.

Pointer and Memory Allocation

The real power of pointers comes from the ability to set aside memory while the program is executing. I would not like to bother you with heaps and memory programming, for now the next piece of code should be enough to prove that working with pointers is not so hard as it may seem.

The following code is used to change the text (caption) of the control with the Handle provided.

 procedure GetTextFromHandle(hWND: THandle) ;
 var pText : PChar; //a pointer to char (see above)
     TextLen : integer;
 begin
  {get the length of the text}
  TextLen:=GetWindowTextLength(hWND) ;
 
  {alocate memory}
  GetMem(pText,TextLen) ; // takes a pointer
 
  {get the control's text}
  GetWindowText(hWND, pText, TextLen + 1) ;
 
  {display the text}
  ShowMessage(String(pText))
 
  {free the memory}
  FreeMem(pText) ;
 end; 

That's all for now.

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