What are weak references? How it can be used to avoid memory leaks?

By | June 1, 2017

Weak reference objects, which do not prevent their referents from being made finalizable, finalized, and then reclaimed. Weak references are most often used to implement canonicalizing mappings.

Suppose that the garbage collector determines at a certain point in time that an object is weakly reachable. At that time it will atomically clear all weak references to that object and all weak references to any other weakly-reachable objects from which that object is reachable through a chain of strong and soft references. At the same time it will declare all of the formerly weakly-reachable objects to be finalizable. At the same time or at some later time it will enqueue those newly-cleared weak references that are registered with reference queues.

Basically it is not the best practice to use WeakReference in every place you can. Using a WeakReference to fix a memory leak indicates a lack of modeling or architecture.

Lets see how it works

This is a simple example of using WeakReference in Android for loading images

class BitmapWorkerTask extends AsyncTask<Integer, Void, Bitmap> {
    private final WeakReference<ImageView> imageViewReference;
    private int data = 0;

    public BitmapWorkerTask(ImageView imageView) {
        // Use a WeakReference to ensure the ImageView can be garbage collected
        imageViewReference = new WeakReference<ImageView>(imageView);

    // Decode image in background.
    protected Bitmap doInBackground(Integer... params) {
        data = params[0];
        return decodeSampledBitmapFromResource(getResources(), data, 100, 100));

    // Once complete, see if ImageView is still around and set bitmap.
    protected void onPostExecute(Bitmap bitmap) {
        if (imageViewReference != null && bitmap != null) {
            final ImageView imageView = imageViewReference.get();
            if (imageView != null) {

imageViewReference.get() will return the original imageView. It will start to return “null” when the imageview is garbage collected.

The WeakReference to the ImageView ensures that the AsyncTask does not prevent the ImageView and anything it references from being garbage collected. There’s no guarantee the ImageView is still around when the task finishes, so you must also check the reference in onPostExecute(). The ImageView may no longer exist, if for example, the user navigates away from the activity or if a configuration change happens before the task finishes.

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