unique_ptr in Visual C++ 2010

Warning! Some information on this page is older than 5 years now. I keep it for reference, but it probably doesn't reflect my current knowledge and beliefs.

Apr 2012

Sure C++ doesn't have garbage collector, but the way of freeing memory and other resources recommended for this language is RAII idiom - creating classes (like smart pointers) that free pointed object in destructor. Standard library of old C++ provided only auto_ptr class for this, which had many flaws. Some programmers have been writing their own smart pointer classes or using these from Boost library - like scoped_ptr and shared_ptr.

The new C++11 standard (called C++0x before release) defines new smart pointers, similar to these from Boost. They are called unique_ptr and shared_ptr, they exist in std namespace and require #include <memory>. Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 / Visual C++ Express 2010 already implement parts of this new standard. Language features like r-value reference and move semantics make these smart pointers more powerful than before.

shared_ptr is for shared ownership and uses reference counting, so it's not needed very often in my opinion. More often we are dealing with a situation where there is one, clearly stated owner of a dynamically allocated object, like a local variable in some scope or a class member. So let's take a look at how unique_ptr can be used for this:

std::unique_ptr<MyClass> ptr1(new MyClass());
// ptr1 will automatically call destructor and free the object when going out of scope.

std::unique_ptr<MyClass> ptr2; // ptr2 is NULL
ptr2.reset(new MyClass(1)); // Object is created and passed to smart pointer.
ptr2->m_Number = 2; // Object can be dereferenced like with normal pointer.
ptr2.reset(new MyClass(3)); // New object is given to the pointer. First one is destroyed.
ptr2.reset(); // Second object is destroyed. ptr2 is now NULL.

unique_ptr can be used for arrays:

std::unique_ptr<MyClass[]> arrPtr(new MyClass[6]); // Smart pointer to array.
arrPtr[2].m_Number = 10; // Indexing array like with normal pointer.
// arrPtr will free the array with delete[] when going out of scope.

unique_ptr cannot be copied, but thanks to r-value references and move semantics introduced in C++11 it can be moved, so it can also be passed as parameter and returned by value, like this:

typedef std::unique_ptr<MyClass> MyClassPtr;

MyClassPtr ProducePtr() {
    MyClassPtr ptr = MyClassPtr(new MyClass());
    ptr->m_Number = 123;
    return ptr;

void ConsumePtr(MyClassPtr ptr) {
    printf("The number was %d\n", ptr->m_Number);


MyClassPtr ptr = ProducePtr();
ptr->m_Number = 456;

Unlike old scoped_ptr from Boost, unique_ptr from C++11 can be used inside STL containers, e.g. std::vector. Reallocation that happens inside vector will not corrupt it.

std::vector<MyClassPtr> vec;
vec.push_back(MyClassPtr(new MyClass(1)));
vec.emplace_back(new MyClass(2)); // A new, better way of adding elements.

for(auto it = std::begin(vec); it != std::end(vec); ++it)
    printf("%d\n", (*it)->m_Number);

And now the most interesting part - custom deleters! unique_ptr can be used to store any resources because you can provide it with your own code that will be used to free that resource. For example, you can print something to console before deleting object :) Deleter can be a functor passed as second template parameter:

struct MyDeleter {
    void operator()(int* ptr) const {
        printf("Deleting int!\n");
        delete ptr;

std::unique_ptr<int, MyDeleter> ptr1(new int(1));

Deleter can also hold some state. This way you can associate additional information with the pointer, like a memory pool that the pointer object comes from. Now the sizeof(ptr3) will be 8 because it must hold deleter data next to the pointer.

class MyComplexDeleter {
    MyComplexDeleter(int memoryPool) : m_MemoryPool(memoryPool) {
    void operator()(int* ptr) const {
        printf("Deleting from memory pool %d\n", m_MemoryPool);
        delete ptr;
    int m_MemoryPool;

MyComplexDeleter deleterForPool20(20);
std::unique_ptr<int, MyComplexDeleter> ptr3(new int(3), deleterForPool20);

Deleter can also be a normal function, like fclose:

std::unique_ptr<FILE, int(*)(FILE*)> filePtr(
    fopen("Readme.txt", "rb"),

unique_ptr<int> will contain value of type int*. What if we want to store a resource using unique_ptr that is not a pointer but some handle or identifier, so this automatically added * is undesirable? It turns out that the type of stored value can be changed by defining "pointer" type inside deleter.

struct CloseHandleDeleter {
    typedef HANDLE pointer;
    void operator()(HANDLE handle) const { CloseHandle(handle); }

std::unique_ptr<HANDLE, CloseHandleDeleter> file(CreateFile(
// The first template parameter of unique_ptr seem to not have any menaing in this case.

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