Reaping the Benefits of the LoaderManager

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With Android 3.0 came the introduction of the LoaderManager class, an abstract class associated with an Activity or Fragment for managing one or more Loader instances. The LoaderManager class is one of my favorite additions to the Android framework for a number of reasons, but mostly because it significantly reduces code complexity and makes your application run a lot smoother. Implementing data loaders with the LoaderManager is simple to implement, and takes care of everything about lifecycle management so are much less error prone.

While applications are free to write their own loaders for loading various types of data, the most common (and simplest) use of the LoaderManager is with a CursorLoader. When done correctly, the CursorLoader class offloads the work of loading data on a thread, and keeps the data persistent during short term activity refresh events, such as an orientation change. In addition to performing the initial query, the CursorLoader registers a ContentObserver with the dataset you requested and calls forceLoad() on itself when the data set changes, and is thus auto-updating. This is extremely convenient for the programmer, as he doesn't have to worry about performing these queries himself. Further, for bigger screens it becomes more important that you query on a separate thread since configuration changes involve recreating the entire view layout, a complex operation that can cause disasters when blocked.

As mentioned earlier, one could implement his or her class to load data on a separate thread using an AsyncTask or even a Thread. The point, however, is that the LoaderManager does this all for you, so it's convenient for the developer, less error prone, and simple to implement. Of course it is possible to use an AsyncTask to keep your application UI thread friendly, but it will involve a lot more code, and implementing your class so that it will retain the loaded Cursor over the twists and turns of the Activity lifecycle won't be simple. The bottom line is that LoaderManager will do this automatically for you, as well as taking care of correctly creating and closing the Cursor based on the Activity lifecycle.

To use LoaderManager with (or without) the CursorLoader in an app targeting pre-Honeycomb devices, you should make use of the classes provided in the Android Support Package, including the FragmentActivity class. A FragmentActivity is just an Activity that has been created for Android compatibility support, and does not require the use of fragments in your application. When transitioning from an Activitys to FragmentActivitys, be extremely careful that you use the getSupportLoaderManager() instead of getLoaderManager(). FragmentActivity extends Activity, thus inheriting all of its methods, and as a result the compiler will not complain if you accidentally mix up these methods, so be very careful!

Leave a comment if you have any questions or criticisms... or just to let me know that you managed to read through this entire post without getting distracted! I'm also open to providing more explicit code samples if anyone asks.

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