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OS X & Cocoa Writings by Andrew C. Stone     ©1995-2003 Andrew C. Stone

Takes All Sorts - Make Your TableViews Autosort!
©2002 Andrew C. Stone All Rights Reserved

One of the coolest pieces of object technology in the Cocoa bag of tricks is the NSTableView, and its daughter, NSOutlineView. The tableView lets you display a list of items with various properties. As in a spreadsheet, it displays rows of information - anything from simple text to graphics or even quicktime movies! Once you learn the fundamentals of the tableView and the outlineView, they'll quickly become some of your favorite user interface objects.

This article will take the NSTableView further, and show you how to add "auto sort" to your tableView, and the objects it represents. It assumes you have read the documentation for NSTableView and its companion class NSTableColumn and perhaps already have an app with an NSTableView of your own. You can try out this sort idea in Apple's Mail. A Mail Box shows a tableView of the list of messages, sender, subject, date, size, etc:

When you click on the title cell of a column, an arrow appears to show direction of the sort, the cell is highlighted, and the messages are sorted on that key. If you click the title cell of that same column again, it toggles the sort to reverse its direction: if it was an ascending sort, now it's a descending sort. Sorting mail by subject is particularly interesting for deleting spam en masse!

When Time Equals Money...

When preparing TimeEqualsMoney 2.0 <> this spring, I decided users would love to be able to sort their time and expense entries on any key, in either direction with a simple click. So I reread the documentation Apple provides on the NSTableView class. I highly recommend actually reading the .h files! It's amazing how much stuff is already anticipated for you! There is a delegate method,
- (void) tableView:(NSTableView*)tv didClickTableColumn:(NSTableColumn *)tableColumn. So, it seemed, I simply had to implement this method in my NSWindowController subclass, which is architecturally a sound choice for the NSTableView delegate. However, the method was simply not being called when I clicked on the column header cell. It turns out, and I noted this heavily in my code, that if neither column reodering nor column selection is selected in Interface Builder's NSTableView inspector, then the method is not called. Turning on column reordering was a simple fix and a desired feature! You can, of course, also call one of these methods programmatically with a parameter of YES:

- (void)setAllowsColumnReordering:(BOOL)flag;
- (void)setAllowsColumnSelection:(BOOL)flag;

Following on the Model-View-Controller pattern that I have discussed in previous articles on Cocoa architecture, I decided to store the sort column, and its direction in my NSDocument subclass, as well as make it responsible for the sorting of its items. This way, you can undo the sort, automatically mark the document as unsaved as well as save the sort between sessions. The user clicks the tableView column header, the window controller then sets the document's sort key, or direction if the key was already set to that column. Then the document tells itself to sort, which tells its NSMutableArray of entries to sort its contents. Finally, the document tells its window controllers to reload the tableView, which updates the interface to display the new sort order:

This tableView lets you click a column header to sort on that key - up or down

Model Behavior

The implementation of the actual sort is trivial: just ask the list to sort itself based on asking its elements to sort using a selector:
[list sortUsingSelector:@selector(compare:)];
During the list's sorting procedure, it repeatedly calls, in this case, compare: on one list item against another.
I like to just reuse the Kit's compare: which is implemented in NSString, NSDate, NSCell, NSValue, etc:

- (NSComparisonResult)compare:(id)other;

The NSComparisonResult has these three values: NSOrderedAscending = -1, NSOrderedSame = 0, NSOrderedDescending = 1. Since so many objects reply to compare:, you might implement it something like this in your data object, given that the sort key is the same string as the column identifiers, and you have various numbers, dates, strings and even booleans:

// the Data MODEL - the document has a list of these entities:

@interface PieceWork : NSObject <NSCopying>
NSCalendarDate *startTime;
NSString *description;
NSTimeInterval timeOnJob;
float _rate;
BOOL paid;
id owner;
- (NSComparisonResult)compare:(id)other;
- (void)setOwner:(id)ownsMe;
- (NSCalendarDate *)startTime;
- (NSTimeInterval)timeOnJob;
- (NSString *)workDescription;
- (float)hoursOnJob;
- (float)rate;
- (BOOL)paid;

@implementation PieceWork

- (NSComparisonResult)compare:(id)other {
BOOL isDescending = [owner sortIsDescending];
NSString *key = [owner sortColumn];

// now determine which one is first based on sort direction:
PieceWork *first = isDescending ? other : self;
if (first == other) other = self;

if ([key isEqualToString:@"TimeOnJob"]) {
return [[NSNumber numberWithFloat:[other timeOnJob]] compare: [NSNumber numberWithFloat:[first timeOnJob]]];
} else if ([key isEqualToString:@"Date"]) {
return [[other startTime] compare: [first startTime]];
} else if ([key isEqualToString:@"Description"]) {
// Very handy macro:
#define IS_NULL(s) (!s || [s isEqualToString:@""])
if (IS_NULL([other workDescription])) return NSOrderedDescending;
if (IS_NULL([first workDescription])) return NSOrderedAscending;
// people prefer upper and lower case mixed, unlike UNIX:
return [[other workDescription] caseInsensitiveCompare:[first workDescription]];
} else if ([key isEqualToString:@"Paid"]) {
return [[NSNumber numberWithBool:[other paid]] compare:[NSNumber numberWithBool:[first paid]]];
return 0;

Here are the relevant instant variables and methods in the NSDocument subclass:

@interface MyDocument : NSDocument {
NSMutableArray *_workList;
NSString *_sortColumn;
BOOL _sortIsDescending;
. ...
- (void)sort;
- (NSArray *)workList;
- (void)setSortColumn:(NSString *)identifier;
- (NSString *)sortColumn;
- (void)setSortIsDescending:(BOOL)whichWay;
- (BOOL)sortIsDescending;

@implementation MyDocument

- (void)sort:(NSMutableArray *)list {
[list makeObjectsPerformSelector:@selector(setOwner:) withObject:self];
[list sortUsingSelector:@selector(compare:)]; // asks us for how!!

- (void) sort {
if (NOT_NULL(_sortColumn)) {
[self sort:_workList];
[[self windowControllers] makeObjectsPerformSelector:@selector(updateTotalsAndReload)];

- (void)setSortColumn:(NSString *)identifier {
if (![identifier isEqualToString:_sortColumn]) {
[[[self undoManager] prepareWithInvocationTarget:self] setSortColumn:_sortColumn];
[_sortColumn release];
_sortColumn = [identifier copyWithZone:[self zone]];
[[self undoManager] setActionName:NSLocalizedStringFromTable(@"Sort",@"TimeCard",@"title of undo the sort action")];

- (NSString *)sortColumn {
return _sortColumn;

- (void)setSortIsDescending:(BOOL)whichWay {
if (whichWay != _sortIsDescending) {
[[[self undoManager] prepareWithInvocationTarget:self] setSortIsDescending:_sortIsDescending];
_sortIsDescending = whichWay;
[[self undoManager] setActionName:NSLocalizedStringFromTable(@"Sort Direction",@"TimeCard",@"title of undo the sort up or down action")];

- (BOOL)sortIsDescending {
return _sortIsDescending;

- (NSArray *)workList { return _workList; }

- (void)setWorkList:(NSMutableArray *)list {
[[[self undoManager] prepareWithInvocationTarget:self] setWorkList:_workList];
[_workList release];
if (NOT_NULL(_sortColumn)) [self sort:list];
_workList = [list mutableCopyWithZone:[self zone]];
[_workList makeObjectsPerformSelector:@selector(setOwner:) withObject:self];
[[self windowControllers] makeObjectsPerformSelector:@selector(updateTotalsAndReload)];
[[self undoManager] setActionName:NSLocalizedStringFromTable(@"Work Change", @"TimeCard", @"Action name for changing worklist")];

// And don't forget to actually archive and read the sort info
// I highly recommended using human readable XML dictionaries:

- (NSMutableDictionary *)workDocumentDictionary {
NSMutableDictionary *doc = [NSMutableDictionary dictionary];
unsigned i, c = [_workList count];
if (NOT_NULL(_sortColumn)) [doc setObject:_sortColumn forKey:SortNameKey];
if (_sortIsDescending) [doc setObject:@"YES" forKey:SortDescendingKey];
return doc;

- (BOOL)loadDataRepresentation:(NSData *)data ofType:(NSString *)type {
if ([type isEqualToString:DocumentType]) {
NSDictionary *doc = [self workDocumentDictionaryFromData:data];
id obj;
obj = [doc objectForKey:SortNameKey];
if (obj) {
[self setSortColumn:obj];

obj = [doc objectForKey:SortDescendingKey];
if (obj) {
_sortIsDescending = [@"YES" isEqualToString:obj];
return YES;
return NO;


Control Freak

Finally, we come to the meat of the matter in our NSWindowController subclass which is our NSTableView's dataSource as well as delegate.

@interface JobWindowController : NSWindowController
IBOutlet NSTableView *tableView;
NSImage *descendingSortingImage;
NSImage *ascendingSortingImage;

We have work to do in our window initialization method that gets called when the Interface has loaded,
awakeFromNib. We want to get the images that we shall display when a sort is made. Using class-dump as described in my iPhoto Exporter bundle article <>, you might note that there are hidden, private Apple internal API to access the images to indicate ascending or descending sorts! Since one should absolutely never rely on hidden API to not dissolve into the ether in subsequent system releases, always bracket the use of these methods with a "respondsToSelector:" query, and provide backup images of your own:

- (void)awakeFromNib
// private images:
if ([[NSTableView class] respondsToSelector:@selector(_defaultTableHeaderSortImage)])
ascendingSortingImage = [[NSTableView class] _defaultTableHeaderSortImage];
else ascendingSortingImage = [[NSImage imageNamed:@"ascendingSort"] retain];

if ([[NSTableView class] respondsToSelector:@selector(_defaultTableHeaderReverseSortImage)])
descendingSortingImage = [[NSTableView class] _defaultTableHeaderReverseSortImage];
else descendingSortingImage = [[NSImage imageNamed:@"descendingSort"] retain];

If you allow users to move and resize columns, then you definitely want to additionaly call these two methods in awakeFromNib - this will reestablish their preferences and give the system a name to save the column order and sizes.

[tableView setAutosaveTableColumns:YES];
[tableView setAutosaveName:@"WorkTable"];

So, now we're ready to implement the delegate method which gets called when the column title cell is clicked. The one fine point is that we want to make a note of which item was selected before the sort, so we can reselect it after the sort (its row number may have changed after the sort). We ask the tableView if it already has an image in that column, thus indicating that we need to toggle the direction, otherwise, we'll set the new sort key. The actual work of setting up the tableView's header hilighting is done in updateTableHeaderToMatchCurrentSort. This is factored into a separate method so we can also call it when loading a document to restore last saved sort state.

// BIG COCOA NOTE: if column reordering or column selection is not on
// then this doesn't get called!!

- (void) tableView:(NSTableView*)tv didClickTableColumn:(NSTableColumn *)tableColumn {
NSImage *sortOrderImage = [tv indicatorImageInTableColumn:tableColumn];
NSString *columnKey = [tableColumn identifier];
MyDocument *doc = [self document];
PieceWork *work = [self selectedWork];
// If the user clicked the column which already has the sort indicator
// then just flip the sort order.

if (sortOrderImage || columnKey == [doc sortColumn]) {
[doc setSortIsDescending:![doc sortIsDescending]];
} else {
[doc setSortColumn:columnKey];
[self updateTableHeaderToMatchCurrentSort];
// now do it - doc calls us back when done
[doc sort];
// but reselect the one previously selected:
if (work) [self selectWork:work];

This method updates the state of the NSTableColumn by first clearing all cells, and then setting the correct image and hilighting on the column to sort by, if any:

- (void)updateTableHeaderToMatchCurrentSort {
BOOL isDescending = [[self document] sortIsDescending];
NSString *key = [[self document] sortColumn];
NSArray *a = [tableView tableColumns];
NSTableColumn *column = [tableView tableColumnWithIdentifier:key];
unsigned i = [a count];

while (i-- > 0) [tableView setIndicatorImage:nil inTableColumn:[a objectAtIndex:i]];

if (NOT_NULL(key)) {
[tableView setIndicatorImage:(isDescending ? ascendingSortingImage:descendingSortingImage) inTableColumn:column];

[tableView setHighlightedTableColumn:column];
} else [tableView setHighlightedTableColumn:nil];

And our helper functions to make the code neat and compact:

- (NSArray *)workList {
return [[self document] workList];

- (void)updateTotalsAndReload {
// other ui:
// [self updateTotals];
[tableView reloadData];

- (PieceWork *)selectedWork {
NSArray *workList = [self workList];
int row = [tableView selectedRow];
if (row > -1 && row < [workList count]) return [workList objectAtIndex:row];
return nil;

- (void)selectWork:(PieceWork *)work {
NSArray *a = [self workList];
unsigned i = [a indexOfObject:work];
if (i != NSNotFound) [self selectRow:i];

Devil in the Details

So, now we got sorting working, what sort of problems might we run into? Let's say a user edits the field of an entry in the sorted column. Upon finishing editing, they may have changed the relative order of that entry, requiring a new sort, and a reloading of the tableView again! We can check if we have the sorted column when the data gets set in - tableView:setObjectValue:forTableColumn:row:

- (void)tableView:(NSTableView *)tv setObjectValue:(id)object forTableColumn:(NSTableColumn *)tc row:(int)row;
NSArray *workList = [self workList];
NSString *ident = [tc identifier];
if (tv == tableView) {
PieceWork *work = [workList objectAtIndex:row];
if ([ident isEqual:@"Description"]) {
[work setWorkDescription:object];
[self sortIfSortedOn:ident work:work];
} else if ....

Isn't the devil in the details? Because the tableView will want to "select next" after setObjectValue: is called, the wrong row might be selected if the sort changed the currently selected item's row. By calling this method, we'll first end editing on the tableView so any inadvertent select next is foiled. Note the delay of 0.0 seconds which means to schedule the call of the method after the current event loop finishes:

- (void)afterSort:(PieceWork *)work {
[[self window] makeFirstResponder:[self window]];
[self selectWork:work];

- (void)sortIfSortedOn:(NSString *)ident work:(PieceWork *)work {
if ([[[self document] sortColumn] isEqualToString:ident]) {
int oldPosition
[[self window] makeFirstResponder:[self window]];
[[self document] sort];
[self performSelector:@selector(afterSort:) withObject:work afterDelay:0.0];
} else [self updateTotalsAndReload];


Sorting is something users expect tableViews to do now - and with a little effort, all of your tableViews can sort themselves!

Andrew Stone,, is Chief Chef at Stone Design,, has this to say about Cocoa and Stone Studio with all due respect to Gary Snyder's Turtle Island, "It's objects all the way down" .

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