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Reinventing GridBagLayout

Posted by enicholas on April 20, 2006 at 10:51 AM PDT

Java suffers from a layout crisis. It ships with a bunch of poorly-thought-out layout managers, a few (like GridLayout and BorderLayout) that are decent within their limited niche, and... GridBagLayout. Despite a few warts, GridBagLayout is powerful enough to handle almost any layout task -- but it's so ridiculously difficult to use that most programmers avoid it like the plague.

There have been many attempts to replace GridBagLayout, with varying degrees of success (TableLayout, SpringLayout, GroupLayout, and FormLayout, just to name a few) but from what I have seen, most people just drop back to using simpler layouts, like BoxLayout, in nested panels. This is a bad idea. For one thing, it complicates component setup and makes rearranging the UI and controlling resizing behaviors much more difficult. For another, it results in many additional components. A setup that could be done with a single GridBagLayout might take four or more panels with simpler layouts -- and every extra level of nesting is another level that has to be processed during repaints, event handling, and layout, not to mention the unnecessary memory consumption. Memory and performance are already at a premium in Java, so you can ill-afford to create more components than necessary to get the job done.

GridBagLayout isn't fundamentally a bad layout manager -- it's just too hard to use. If it were simpler, I don't think most of the "GridBagLayout replacements" would have a reason to exist, as there is very little that GridBagLayout can't do. While building the JAXX user-interface language, I needed a powerful, easy-to-use layout system, and (perhaps surprisingly) I settled on GridBagLayout.

JAXX offers a Table component which is built on top of GridBagLayout. I briefly mentioned Table in my introduction to JAXX, but didn't go into any details. The goal of the

tag was to offer all of GridBagLayout's power, while removing the tedium and error-prone-ness (error-prone-itude?) that characterizes more typical GridBagLayout usage. Take a look at a simple table:

    <cell><JLabel text='Username:'/></cell>
    <cell><JTextField id='username'/></cell>
    <cell><JLabel text='Password:'/></cell>
    <cell><JPasswordField id='password'/></cell>

    <cell columns='2'>
      <JPanel layout='{new GridLayout(1, 2, 6, 6)}'>
        <JButton text='OK'/>
        <JButton text='Cancel'/>

Here's what it looks like when run:

GridBagLayout isn't perfect, of course -- I needed to use a sub-panel to get the buttons right -- but that was sure better than coding GridBagLayout by hand, wasn't it?

JAXX's Table tag offers a lot more features, like the ability to specify GridBagConstraints attributes on each :

<cell weightx='1' fill='horizontal'><JTextField id='username'/></cell>

You can also specify constraints on a , in which case they apply to each cell in the row (unless overridden). You can even specify default constraints for every cell by putting them on the

tag itself:

<Table insets='3, 3, 3, 3' anchor='northwest'>

Table-level defaults can be overridden on either a per-row or per-cell basis.

I think that JAXX's

tag breathes new life into the much-maligned GridBagLayout, allowing it to flex its power while removing (most of) the cursing that using GridBagLayout typically entails. Eventually JAXX will offer specialized support for other advanced layout managers, like FormLayout, but for the time being GridBagLayout is surprisingly powerful when it isn't hampered by the manual constraints wrangling of days past.

For more information on JAXX, take a look at

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