Indexed arrays

Flash Player 9 and later, Adobe AIR 1.0 and later

Indexed arrays store a series of one or more values organized such that each value can be accessed using an unsigned integer value. The first index is always the number 0, and the index increments by 1 for each subsequent element added to the array. In ActionScript 3.0, two classes are used as indexed arrays: the Array class and the Vector class.

Indexed arrays use an unsigned 32-bit integer for the index number. The maximum size of an indexed array is 2 32 - 1 or 4,294,967,295. An attempt to create an array that is larger than the maximum size results in a run-time error.

To access an individual element of an indexed array, you use the array access ( [] ) operator to specify the index position of the element you wish to access. For example, the following code represents the first element (the element at index 0) in an indexed array named songTitles :


The combination of the array variable name followed by the index in square brackets functions as a single identifier. (In other words, it can be used in any way a variable name can). You can assign a value to an indexed array element by using the name and index on the left side of an assignment statement:

songTitles[1] = "Symphony No. 5 in D minor";

Likewise, you can retrieve the value of an indexed array element by using the name and index on the right side of an assignment statement:

var nextSong:String = songTitles[2];

You can also use a variable in the square brackets rather than providing an explicit value. (The variable must contain a non-negative integer value such as a uint, a positive int, or a positive integer Number instance). This technique is commonly used to “loop over” the elements in an indexed array and perform an operation on some or all the elements. The following code listing demonstrates this technique. The code uses a loop to access each value in an Array object named oddNumbers . It uses the trace() statement to print each value in the form “oddNumber[ index ] = value ”:

var oddNumbers:Array = [1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11]; 
var len:uint = oddNumbers.length; 
for (var i:uint = 0; i < len; i++) 
    trace("oddNumbers[" + i.toString() + "] = " + oddNumbers[i].toString()); 

The Array class

The first type of indexed array is the Array class. An Array instance can hold a value of any data type. The same Array object can hold objects that are of different data types. For example, a single Array instance can have a String value in index 0, a Number instance in index 1, and an XML object in index 2.

The Vector class

Another type of indexed array that’s available in ActionScript 3.0 is the Vector class. A Vector instance is a typed array , which means that all the elements in a Vector instance always have the same data type.

Note: The Vector class is available starting with Flash Player 10 and Adobe AIR 1.5.

When you declare a Vector variable or instantiate a Vector object, you explicitly specify the data type of the objects that the Vector can contain. The specified data type is known as the Vector’s base type . At run time and at compile time (in strict mode), any code that sets the value of a Vector element or retrieves a value from a Vector is checked. If the data type of the object being added or retrieved doesn’t match the Vector’s base type, an error occurs.

In addition to the data type restriction, the Vector class has other restrictions that distinguish it from the Array class:

  • A Vector is a dense array. An Array object may have values in indices 0 and 7 even if it has no values in positions 1 through 6. However, a Vector must have a value (or null ) in each index.

  • A Vector can optionally be fixed-length. This means that the number of elements the Vector contains can’t change.

  • Access to a Vector’s elements is bounds-checked. You can never read a value from an index greater than the final element ( length - 1). You can never set a value with an index more than one beyond the current final index. (In other words, you can only set a value at an existing index or at index [length] .)

As a result of its restrictions, a Vector has three primary benefits over an Array instance whose elements are all instances of a single class:

  • Performance: array element access and iteration are much faster when using a Vector instance than when using an Array instance.

  • Type safety: in strict mode the compiler can identify data type errors. Examples of such errors include assigning a value of the incorrect data type to a Vector or expecting the wrong data type when reading a value from a Vector. At run time, data types are also checked when adding data to or reading data from a Vector object. Note, however, that when you use the push() method or unshift() method to add values to a Vector, the arguments’ data types are not checked at compile time. When using those methods the values are still checked at run time.

  • Reliability: runtime range checking (or fixed-length checking) increases reliability significantly over Arrays.

Aside from the additional restrictions and benefits, the Vector class is very much like the Array class. The properties and methods of a Vector object are similar—for the most part identical—to the properties and methods of an Array. In most situations where you would use an Array in which all the elements have the same data type, a Vector instance is preferable.

Creating arrays

You can use several techniques to create an Array instance or a Vector instance. However, the techniques to create each type of array are somewhat different.

Creating an Array instance

You create an Array object by calling the Array() constructor or by using Array literal syntax.

The Array() constructor function can be used in three ways. First, if you call the constructor with no arguments, you get an empty array. You can use the length property of the Array class to verify that the array has no elements. For example, the following code calls the Array() constructor with no arguments:

var names:Array = new Array(); 
trace(names.length); // output: 0

Second, if you use a number as the only parameter to the Array() constructor, an array of that length is created, with each element’s value set to undefined . The argument must be an unsigned integer between the values 0 and 4,294,967,295. For example, the following code calls the Array() constructor with a single numeric argument:

var names:Array = new Array(3); 
trace(names.length); // output: 3 
trace(names[0]); // output: undefined 
trace(names[1]); // output: undefined 
trace(names[2]); // output: undefined

Third, if you call the constructor and pass a list of elements as parameters, an array is created, with elements corresponding to each of the parameters. The following code passes three arguments to the Array() constructor:

var names:Array = new Array("John", "Jane", "David"); 
trace(names.length); // output: 3 
trace(names[0]); // output: John 
trace(names[1]); // output: Jane 
trace(names[2]); // output: David

You can also create arrays with Array literals. An Array literal can be assigned directly to an array variable, as shown in the following example:

var names:Array = ["John", "Jane", "David"];

Creating a Vector instance

You create a Vector instance by calling the Vector.<T>() constructor. You can also create a Vector by calling the Vector.<T>() global function. That function converts a specified object to a Vector instance. In Flash Professional CS5 and later, Flash Builder 4 and later, and Flex 4 and later, you can also create a vector instance by using Vector literal syntax.

Any time you declare a Vector variable (or similarly, a Vector method parameter or method return type) you specify the base type of the Vector variable. You also specify the base type when you create a Vector instance by calling the Vector.<T>() constructor. Put another way, any time you use the term Vector in ActionScript, it is accompanied by a base type.

You specify the Vector’s base type using type parameter syntax. The type parameter immediately follows the word Vector in the code. It consists of a dot ( . ), then the base class name surrounded by angle brackets ( <> ), as shown in this example:

var v:Vector.<String>; 
v = new Vector.<String>();

In the first line of the example, the variable v is declared as a Vector.<String> instance. In other words, it represents an indexed array that can only hold String instances. The second line calls the Vector() constructor to create an instance of the same Vector type (that is, a Vector whose elements are all String objects). It assigns that object to v .

Using the Vector.<T>() constructor

If you use the Vector.<T>() constructor without any arguments, it creates an empty Vector instance. You can test that a Vector is empty by checking its length property. For example, the following code calls the Vector.<T>() constructor with no arguments:

var names:Vector.<String> = new Vector.<String>(); 
trace(names.length); // output: 0

If you know ahead of time how many elements a Vector initially needs, you can pre-define the number of elements in the Vector. To create a Vector with a certain number of elements, pass the number of elements as the first parameter (the length parameter). Because Vector elements can’t be empty, the elements are filled with instances of the base type. If the base type is a reference type that allows null values, the elements all contain null . Otherwise, the elements all contain the default value for the class. For example, a uint variable can’t be null . Consequently, in the following code listing the Vector named ages is created with seven elements, each containing the value 0:

var ages:Vector.<uint> = new Vector.<uint>(7); 
trace(ages); // output: 0,0,0,0,0,0,0 

Finally, using the Vector.<T>() constructor you can also create a fixed-length Vector by passing true for the second parameter (the fixed parameter). In that case the Vector is created with the specified number of elements and the number of elements can’t be changed. Note, however, that you can still change the values of the elements of a fixed-length Vector.

Using the Vector literal syntax constructor

In Flash Professional CS5 and later, Flash Builder 4 and later, and Flex 4 and later, you can pass a list of values to the Vector.<T>() constructor to specify the Vector’s initial values:

// var v:Vector.<T> = new <T>[E0, ..., En-1 ,]; 
// For example: 
var v:Vector.<int> = new <int>[0,1,2,];

The following information applies to this syntax:

  • The trailing comma is optional.

  • Empty items in the array are not supported; a statement such as var v:Vector.<int> = new <int>[0,,2,] throws a compiler error.

  • You can't specify a default length for the Vector instance. Instead, the length is the same as the number of elements in the initialization list.

  • You can't specify whether the Vector instance has a fixed length. Instead, use the fixed property.

  • Data loss or errors can occur if items passed as values don't match the specified type. For example:
    var v:Vector.<int> = new <int>[4.2]; // compiler error when running in strict mode 
    trace(v[0]); //returns 4 when not running in strict mode

Using the Vector.<T>() global function

In addition to the Vector.<T>() and Vector literal syntax constructors, you can also use the Vector.<T>() global function to create a Vector object. The Vector.<T>() global function is a conversion function. When you call the Vector.<T>() global function you specify the base type of the Vector that the method returns. You pass a single indexed array (Array or Vector instance) as an argument. The method then returns a Vector with the specified base type, containing the values in the source array argument. The following code listing shows the syntax for calling the Vector.<T>() global function:

var friends:Vector.<String> = Vector.<String>(["Bob", "Larry", "Sarah"]);

The Vector.<T>() global function performs data type conversion on two levels. First, when an Array instance is passed to the function, a Vector instance is returned. Second, whether the source array is an Array or Vector instance the function attempts to convert the source array’s elements to values of the base type. The conversion uses standard ActionScript data type conversion rules. For example, the following code listing converts the String values in the source Array to integers in the result Vector. The decimal portion of the first value ( "1.5" ) is truncated, and the non-numeric third value ( "Waffles" ) is converted to 0 in the result:

var numbers:Vector.<int> = Vector.<int>(["1.5", "17", "Waffles"]); 
trace(numbers); // output: 1,17,0

If any of the source elements can’t be converted, an error occurs.

When code calls the Vector.<T>() global function, if an element in the source array is an instance of a subclass of the specified base type, the element is added to the result Vector (no error occurs). Using the Vector.<T>() global function is the only way to convert a Vector with base type T to a Vector with a base type that’s a superclass of T .

Inserting array elements

The most basic way to add an element to an indexed array is to use the array access ( [] ) operator. To set the value of an indexed array element, use the Array or Vector object name and index number on the left side of an assignment statement:

songTitles[5] = "Happy Birthday";

If the Array or Vector doesn’t already have an element at that index, the index is created and the value is stored there. If a value exists at that index, the new value replaces the existing one.

An Array object allows you to create an element at any index. However, with a Vector object you can only assign a value to an existing index or to the next available index. The next available index corresponds to the Vector object’s length property. The safest way to add a new element to a Vector object is to use code like this listing:

myVector[myVector.length] = valueToAdd;

Three of the Array and Vector class methods— push() , unshift() , and splice() —allow you to insert elements into an indexed array. The push() method appends one or more elements to the end of an array. In other words, the last element inserted into the array using the push() method will have the highest index number. The unshift() method inserts one or more elements at the beginning of an array, which is always at index number 0. The splice() method will insert any number of items at a specified index in the array.

The following example demonstrates all three methods. An array named planets is created to store the names of the planets in order of proximity to the Sun. First, the push() method is called to add the initial item, Mars . Second, the unshift() method is called to insert the item that belongs at the front of the array, Mercury . Finally, the splice() method is called to insert the items Venus and Earth after Mercury , but before Mars . The first argument sent to splice() , the integer 1, directs the insertion to begin at index 1. The second argument sent to splice() , the integer 0, indicates that no items should be deleted. Finally, the third and fourth arguments sent to splice() , Venus and Earth , are the items to be inserted.

var planets:Array = new Array(); 
planets.push("Mars"); // array contents: Mars 
planets.unshift("Mercury"); // array contents: Mercury,Mars 
planets.splice(1, 0, "Venus", "Earth"); 
trace(planets); // array contents: Mercury,Venus,Earth,Mars

The push() and unshift() methods both return an unsigned integer that represents the length of the modified array. The splice() method returns an empty array when used to insert elements, which may seem strange, but makes more sense in light of the splice() method’s versatility. You can use the splice() method not only to insert elements into an array, but also to remove elements from an array. When used to remove elements, the splice() method returns an array containing the elements removed.

Note: If a Vector object’s fixed property is true , the total number of elements in the Vector can’t change. If you try to add a new element to a fixed-length Vector using the techniques described here, an error occurs.

Retrieving values and removing array elements

The simplest way to retrieve the value of an element from an indexed array is to use the array access ( [] ) operator. To retrieve the value of an indexed array element, use the Array or Vector object name and index number on the right side of an assignment statement:

var myFavoriteSong:String = songTitles[3];

It’s possible to attempt to retrieve a value from an Array or Vector using an index where no element exists. In that case, an Array object returns the value undefined and a Vector throws a RangeError exception.

Three methods of the Array and Vector classes— pop() , shift() , and splice() —allow you to remove elements. The pop() method removes an element from the end of the array. In other words, it removes the element at the highest index number. The shift() method removes an element from the beginning of the array, which means that it always removes the element at index number 0. The splice() method, which can also be used to insert elements, removes an arbitrary number of elements starting at the index number specified by the first argument sent to the method.

The following example uses all three methods to remove elements from an Array instance. An Array named oceans is created to store the names of large bodies of water. Some of the names in the Array are lakes rather than oceans, so they need to be removed.

First, the splice() method is used to remove the items Aral and Superior , and insert the items Atlantic and Indian . The first argument sent to splice() , the integer 2, indicates that the operation should start with the third item in the list, which is at index 2. The second argument, 2, indicates that two items should be removed. The remaining arguments, Atlantic and Indian , are values to be inserted at index 2.

Second, the pop() method is used to remove last element in the array, Huron . And third, the shift() method is used to remove the first item in the array, Victoria .

var oceans:Array = ["Victoria", "Pacific", "Aral", "Superior", "Indian", "Huron"]; 
oceans.splice(2, 2, "Arctic", "Atlantic"); // replaces Aral and Superior 
oceans.pop(); // removes Huron 
oceans.shift(); // removes Victoria 
trace(oceans);// output: Pacific,Arctic,Atlantic,Indian

The pop() and shift() methods both return the item that was removed. For an Array instance, the data type of the return value is Object because arrays can hold values of any data type. For a Vector instance, the data type of the return value is the base type of the Vector. The splice() method returns an Array or Vector containing the values removed. You can change the oceans Array example so that the call to splice() assigns the returned Array to a new Array variable, as shown in the following example:

var lakes:Array = oceans.splice(2, 2, "Arctic", "Atlantic"); 
trace(lakes); // output: Aral,Superior

You may come across code that uses the delete operator on an Array object element. The delete operator sets the value of an Array element to undefined , but it does not remove the element from the Array. For example, the following code uses the delete operator on the third element in the oceans Array, but the length of the Array remains 5:

var oceans:Array = ["Arctic", "Pacific", "Victoria", "Indian", "Atlantic"]; 
delete oceans[2]; 
trace(oceans);// output: Arctic,Pacific,,Indian,Atlantic 
trace(oceans[2]); // output: undefined 
trace(oceans.length); // output: 5

You can truncate an Array or Vector using an array’s length property. If you set the length property of an indexed array to a length that is less than the current length of the array, the array is truncated, removing any elements stored at index numbers higher than the new value of length minus 1. For example, if the oceans array were sorted such that all valid entries were at the beginning of the array, you could use the length property to remove the entries at the end of the array, as shown in the following code:

var oceans:Array = ["Arctic", "Pacific", "Victoria", "Aral", "Superior"]; 
oceans.length = 2; 
trace(oceans); // output: Arctic,Pacific
Note: If a Vector object’s fixed property is true , the total number of elements in the Vector can’t change. If you try to remove an element from or truncate a fixed-length Vector using the techniques described here, an error occurs.

Sorting an array

There are three methods— reverse() , sort() , and sortOn() —that allow you to change the order of an indexed array, either by sorting or reversing the order. All of these methods modify the existing array. The following table summarizes these methods and their behavior for Array and Vector objects:


Array behavior

Vector behavior


Changes the order of the elements so that the last element becomes the first element, the penultimate element becomes the second, and so on

Identical to Array behavior


Allows you to sort the Array’s elements in a variety of predefined ways, such as alphabetical or numeric order. You can also specify a custom sorting algorithm.

Sorts the elements according to the custom sorting algorithm that you specify


Allows you to sort objects that have one or more common properties, specifying the property or properties to use as the sort keys

Not available in the Vector class

The reverse() method

The reverse() method takes no parameters and does not return a value, but allows you to toggle the order of your array from its current state to the reverse order. The following example reverses the order of the oceans listed in the oceans array:

var oceans:Array = ["Arctic", "Atlantic", "Indian", "Pacific"]; 
trace(oceans); // output: Pacific,Indian,Atlantic,Arctic

Basic sorting with the sort() method (Array class only)

For an Array instance, the sort() method rearranges the elements in an array using the default sort order . The default sort order has the following characteristics:

  • The sort is case-sensitive, which means that uppercase characters precede lowercase characters. For example, the letter D precedes the letter b.

  • The sort is ascending, which means that lower character codes (such as A) precede higher character codes (such as B).

  • The sort places identical values adjacent to each other but in no particular order.

  • The sort is string-based, which means that elements are converted to strings before they are compared (for example, 10 precedes 3 because the string "1" has a lower character code than the string "3" has).

You may find that you need to sort your Array without regard to case, or in descending order, or perhaps your array contains numbers that you want to sort numerically instead of alphabetically. The Array class’s sort() method has an options parameter that allows you to alter each characteristic of the default sort order. The options are defined by a set of static constants in the Array class, as shown in the following list:

  • Array.CASEINSENSITIVE : This option makes the sort disregard case. For example, the lowercase letter b precedes the uppercase letter D.

  • Array.DESCENDING: This reverses the default ascending sort. For example, the letter B precedes the letter A.

  • Array.UNIQUESORT: This causes the sort to abort if two identical values are found.

  • Array.NUMERIC: This causes numerical sorting, so that 3 precedes 10.

The following example highlights some of these options. An Array named poets is created that is sorted using several different options.

var poets:Array = ["Blake", "cummings", "Angelou", "Dante"]; 
poets.sort(); // default sort 
trace(poets); // output: Angelou,Blake,Dante,cummings 
trace(poets); // output: Angelou,Blake,cummings,Dante 
trace(poets); // output: cummings,Dante,Blake,Angelou 
poets.sort(Array.DESCENDING | Array.CASEINSENSITIVE); // use two options 
trace(poets); // output: Dante,cummings,Blake,Angelou

Custom sorting with the sort() method (Array and Vector classes)

In addition to the basic sorting that’s available for an Array object, you can also define a custom sorting rule. This technique is the only form of the sort() method that is available for the Vector class. To define a custom sort, you write a custom sort function and pass it as an argument to the sort() method.

For example, if you have a list of names in which each list element contains a person’s full name, but you want to sort the list by last name, you must use a custom sort function to parse each element and use the last name in the sort function. The following code shows how this can be done with a custom function that is used as a parameter to the Array.sort() method:

var names:Array = new Array("John Q. Smith", "Jane Doe", "Mike Jones"); 
function orderLastName(a, b):int 
    var lastName:RegExp = /\b\S+$/; 
    var name1 = a.match(lastName); 
    var name2 = b.match(lastName); 
    if (name1 < name2) 
        return -1; 
    else if (name1 > name2) 
        return 1; 
        return 0; 
trace(names); // output: John Q. Smith,Jane Doe,Mike Jones 
trace(names); // output: Jane Doe,Mike Jones,John Q. Smith

The custom sort function orderLastName() uses a regular expression to extract the last name from each element to use for the comparison operation. The function identifier orderLastName is used as the sole parameter when calling the sort() method on the names array. The sort function accepts two parameters, a and b , because it works on two array elements at a time. The sort function’s return value indicates how the elements should be sorted:

  • A return value of -1 indicates that the first parameter, a , precedes the second parameter, b .

  • A return value of 1 indicates that the second parameter, b , precedes the first, a .

  • A return value of 0 indicates that the elements have equal sorting precedence.

The sortOn() method (Array class only)

The sortOn() method is designed for Array objects with elements that contain objects. These objects are expected to have at least one common property that can be used as the sort key. The use of the sortOn() method for arrays of any other type yields unexpected results.

Note: The Vector class does not include a sortOn() method. This method is only available for Array objects.

The following example revises the poets Array so that each element is an object instead of a string. Each object holds both the poet’s last name and year of birth.

var poets:Array = new Array(); 
poets.push({name:"Angelou", born:"1928"}); 
poets.push({name:"Blake", born:"1757"}); 
poets.push({name:"cummings", born:"1894"}); 
poets.push({name:"Dante", born:"1265"}); 
poets.push({name:"Wang", born:"701"});

You can use the sortOn() method to sort the Array by the born property. The sortOn() method defines two parameters, fieldName and options . The fieldName argument must be specified as a string. In the following example, sortOn() is called with two arguments, " born" and Array.NUMERIC . The Array.NUMERIC argument is used to ensure that the sort is done numerically instead of alphabetically. This is a good practice even when all the numbers have the same number of digits because it ensures that the sort will continue to behave as expected if a number with fewer or more digits is later added to the array.

poets.sortOn("born", Array.NUMERIC); 
for (var i:int = 0; i < poets.length; ++i) 
    trace(poets[i].name, poets[i].born); 
/* output: 
Wang 701 
Dante 1265 
Blake 1757 
cummings 1894 
Angelou 1928 

Sorting without modifying the original array (Array class only)

Generally, the sort() and sortOn() methods modify an Array. If you wish to sort an Array without modifying the existing array, pass the Array.RETURNINDEXEDARRAY constant as part of the options parameter. This option directs the methods to return a new Array that reflects the sort and to leave the original Array unmodified. The Array returned by the methods is a simple Array of index numbers that reflects the new sort order and does not contain any elements from the original Array. For example, to sort the poets Array by birth year without modifying the Array, include the Array.RETURNINDEXEDARRAY constant as part of the argument passed for the options parameter.

The following example stores the returned index information in an Array named indices and uses the indices array in conjunction with the unmodified poets array to output the poets in order of birth year:

var indices:Array; 
indices = poets.sortOn("born", Array.NUMERIC | Array.RETURNINDEXEDARRAY); 
for (var i:int = 0; i < indices.length; ++i) 
    var index:int = indices[i]; 
    trace(poets[index].name, poets[index].born); 
/* output: 
Wang 701 
Dante 1265 
Blake 1757 
cummings 1894 
Angelou 1928 

Querying an array

Four methods of the Array and Vector classes— concat() , join() , slice() , and toString() —all query the array for information, but do not modify the array. The concat() and slice() methods both return new arrays, while the join() and toString() methods both return strings. The concat() method takes a new array or list of elements as arguments and combines it with the existing array to create a new array. The slice() method has two parameters, aptly named startIndex and an endIndex , and returns a new array containing a copy of the elements “sliced” from the existing array. The slice begins with the element at startIndex and ends with the element just before endIndex . That bears repeating: the element at endIndex is not included in the return value.

The following example uses concat() and slice() to create new arrays using elements of other arrays:

var array1:Array = ["alpha", "beta"]; 
var array2:Array = array1.concat("gamma", "delta"); 
trace(array2); // output: alpha,beta,gamma,delta 
var array3:Array = array1.concat(array2); 
trace(array3); // output: alpha,beta,alpha,beta,gamma,delta 
var array4:Array = array3.slice(2,5); 
trace(array4); // output: alpha,beta,gamma

You can use the join() and toString() methods to query the array and return its contents as a string. If no parameters are used for the join() method, the two methods behave identically—they return a string containing a comma-delimited list of all elements in the array. The join() method, unlike the toString() method, accepts a parameter named delimiter , which allows you to choose the symbol to use as a separator between each element in the returned string.

The following example creates an Array called rivers and calls both join() and toString() to return the values in the Array as a string. The toString() method is used to return comma-separated values ( riverCSV ), while the join() method is used to return values separated by the + character.

var rivers:Array = ["Nile", "Amazon", "Yangtze", "Mississippi"]; 
var riverCSV:String = rivers.toString(); 
trace(riverCSV); // output: Nile,Amazon,Yangtze,Mississippi 
var riverPSV:String = rivers.join("+"); 
trace(riverPSV); // output: Nile+Amazon+Yangtze+Mississippi

One issue to be aware of with the join() method is that any nested Array or Vector instances are always returned with comma-separated values, no matter what separator you specify for the main array elements, as the following example shows:

var nested:Array = ["b","c","d"]; 
var letters:Array = ["a",nested,"e"];  
var joined:String = letters.join("+"); 
trace(joined); // output: a+b,c,d+e

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