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Efficient Coding of Loops

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Sometimes making some very minor changes to the way that we write our code can make a big difference to how quickly our code actually runs. One area where a minor code change can make a big difference to execution times is where we have a for loop that is processing an array. Where the array is of elements on the web page (such as radio buttons) the change has the biggest effect but it is still worth applying this change even where the array is internal to the Javascript code.

The conventional way of coding a for loop to process an array lis like this:

for (var i = 0; i < myArray.length; i++) {...

The problem with this is that evaluating the length of the array using myArray.length takes time and the way that we have coded the loop means that this evaluation has to be performed every time around the loop. If the array contains 1000 elements then the length of the array will be evaluated 1001 times. If we were looking at radio buttons and had myForm.myButtons.length then it will take even longer to evaluate since the appropriate group of buttons within the specified form must first be located before the length can be evaluated each time around the loop.

Obviously we don't expect the length of the array to change while we are processing it so all of these recalculations of the length are just adding unnecessarily to the processing time. (Of course if you have code inside the loop that adds or removes array entries then the array size can change between iterations and so we can't change the code that tests for it)

What we can do to correct this for a loop where the size is fixed is to evaluate the length once at the start of the loop and save it in a variable. We can then test the variable to decide when to terminate the loop. This is much faster than evaluating the array length each time particularly when the array contains more than just a few entries or is part of the web page.

The code to do this is:

for (var i = 0, var j = myArray.length; i < j; i++) {...

So now we only evaluate the size of the array once and test our loop counter against the variable that holds that value each time around the loop. This extra variable can be accessed much faster than evaluating the size of the array and so our code will run much faster than before. We just have one extra variable in our script.

Often it doesn't matter what order we process the array in as long as all of the entries in the array get processed. Where this is the case we can make our code slightly faster by doing away with the extra variable that we just added and processing the array in reverse order.

The final code that processes our array in the most efficient way possible is:

for (var i = myArray.length-1; i > -1; i--) {...

This code still only evaluates the size of the array once at the start but instead of comparing the loop counter with a variable we compare it with a constant. Since a constant is even more effective to access than a variable and since we have one fewer assignment statement than before our third version of the code is now slightly more efficient than the second version and vastly more efficient than the first.

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