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Null safety: frequently asked questions

This page collects some common questions we’ve heard about null safety based on the experience of migrating Google internal code.

What runtime changes should I be aware of for users of migrated code?

Most of the effects of migration do not immediately affect users of migrated code:

  • Static null safety checks for users first apply when they migrate their code.
  • Full null safety checks happen when all the code is migrated and sound mode is turned on.

Two exceptions to be aware of are:

  • The ! operator is a runtime null check in all modes, for all users. So, when migrating, ensure that you only add ! where it’s an error for all users to pass a null.
  • Runtime checks associated with the late keyword apply in all modes, for all users. Only mark a field late if you are sure it is always initialized before it is used.

What if a value is only null in tests?

If a value is only ever null in tests, the code can be improved by marking it non-nullable and making the tests pass non-null values.

How does @required compare to the new required keyword?

The @required annotation marks named arguments that must be passed; if not, the analyzer reports a hint.

With null safety, a named argument with a non-nullable type must either have a default or be marked with the new required keyword. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense for it to be non-nullable, because it would default to null when not passed.

When null safe code is called from legacy code the required keyword is treated exactly like the @required annotation: failure to supply the argument will cause an analyzer hint.

When null safe code is called from null safe code, failing to supply a required argument is an error.

What does this mean for migration? Be careful if adding required where there was no @required before. Any callers not passing the newly-required argument will no longer compile. Instead, you could add a default or make the argument type nullable.

How should I migrate non-nullable fields that should be final, but aren’t?

Some computations can be moved to the static initializer. Instead of:

// Initalized without values
ListQueue _context;
Float32List _buffer;
dynamic _readObject;

Vec2D(Map<String, dynamic> object) {
  _buffer = Float32List.fromList([0.0, 0.0]);
  _readObject = object['container'];
  _context = ListQueue<dynamic>();
}

you can do:

// Initalized with values
final ListQueue _context = ListQueue<dynamic>();
final Float32List _buffer = Float32List.fromList([0.0, 0.0]);
final dynamic _readObject;

Vec2D(Map<String, dynamic> object) : _readObject = object['container'];

However, if a field is initialized by doing computation in the constructor, then it can’t be final. With null safety, you’ll find this also makes it harder for it to be non-nullable; if it’s initialized too late, then it’s null until it’s initialized, and must be nullable. Fortunately, you have options:

  • Turn the constructor into a factory, then make it delegate to an actual constructor that initializes all the fields directly. A common name for such a private constructor is just an underscore: _. Then, the field can be final and non-nullable. This refactoring can be done before the migration to null safety.
  • Or, mark the field late final. This enforces that it’s initialized exactly once. It must be initialized before it can be read.

How should I migrate a built_value class?

Getters that were annotated @nullable should instead have nullable types; then remove all @nullable annotations. For example:

@nullable
int get count;

becomes

int? get count; //  Variable initialized with ?

Getters that were not marked @nullable should not have nullable types, even if the migration tool suggests them. Add ! hints as needed then rerun the analysis.

How should I migrate a factory that can return null?

Prefer factories that do not return null. We have seen code that meant to throw an exception due to invalid input but instead ended up returning null.

Instead of:

factory StreamReader(dynamic data) {
  StreamReader reader;
  if (data is ByteData) {
    reader = BlockReader(data);
  } else if (data is Map) {
    reader = JSONBlockReader(data);
  }
  return reader;
}

Do:

factory StreamReader(dynamic data) {
  if (data is ByteData) {
    // Move the readIndex forward for the binary reader.
    return BlockReader(data);
  } else if (data is Map) {
    return JSONBlockReader(data);
  } else {
    throw ArgumentError('Unexpected type for data');
  }
}

If the intent of the factory was indeed to return null, then you can turn it into a static method so it is allowed to return null.

How should I migrate an assert(x != null) that now shows as unnecessary?

The assert will be unnecessary when everything is fully migrated, but for now it is needed if you actually want to keep the check. Options:

  • Decide that the assert is not really necessary, and remove it. This is a change in behavior when asserts are enabled.
  • Decide that the assert can be checked always, and turn it into ArgumentError.checkNotNull. This is a change in behavior when asserts are not enabled.
  • Keep the behavior exactly as is: add // ignore: unnecessary_null_comparison to bypass the warning.

How should I migrate a runtime null check that now shows as unnecessary?

An explicit runtime null check, for example if (arg == null) throw ArgumentError(...), will be flagged as an unnecessary comparison if you make arg non-nullable.

But, the check is still needed if the program is a mixed-version one. Until everything is fully migrated and the code switches to running with sound null safety, it will be possible for arg to be null.

The simplest way to preserve behavior is change the check into ArgumentError.checkNotNull.

The same applies to some runtime type checks. If arg has static type String, then if (arg is! String) is actually checking whether arg is null. It might look like migrating to null safety means arg can never be null, but it could be null in unsound null safety. So, to preserve behavior, the null check should remain.

The Iterable.firstWhere method no longer accepts orElse: () => null.

Import package:collection and use the extension method firstWhereOrNull instead of firstWhere.

How do I deal with attributes that have setters?

Unlike the late final suggestion above, these attributes cannot be marked as final. Often, settable attributes also do not have initial values since they are expected to be set sometime later.

In such cases, you have two options:

  • Set it to an initial value. Often times, the omission of an initial value is by mistake rather than deliberate.
  • If you are sure that the attribute needs to be set before accessed, mark it as late.

    WARNING: The late keyword adds a runtime check. If any user calls get before set they’ll get an error at runtime.

How do I signal that the return value from a Map is non-nullable?

The lookup operator on Map ([]) by default returns a nullable type. There’s no way to signal to the language that the value is guaranteed to be there.

In this case, you should use the bang operator (!) to cast the value back to V:

if (blockTypes.containsKey(key)) {
  return blockTypes[key]!; // blockTypes[key] is non-nullable
} else {
  throw ArgumentError('Could not read block type.');
}

Why is the generic type on my List/Map nullable?

It is typically a code smell to end up with nullable code like this:

List?<Foo?> fooList; // fooList can contain null values

This implies fooList might contain null values. This might happen if you are initializing the list with length and filling it in via a loop.

If you are simply initializing the list with the same value, you should instead use the filled constructor.

_jellyPoints = List<Vec2D>(jellyMax + 1);
for (var i = 0; i <= jellyMax; i++) {
  _jellyPoints[i] = Vec2D(); // List initalized with the same value
}
_jellyPoints = List<Vec2D>.filled(jellyMax + 1, Vec2D()); // List initialized with filled constructor

If you are setting the elements of the list via an index, you should instead use the add function to build the list. That is less error-prone and more readable.

What happened to the default List constructor?

You may encounter this error:

The default 'List' constructor isn't available when null safety is enabled. #default_list_constructor

The default list constructor fills the list with null, which is a problem.

Change it to List.filled(length, default) instead.

I’m using package:ffi and get a failure with Dart_CObject_kUnsupported when I migrate. What happened?

Lists sent via ffi can only be List<dynamic>, not List<Object> or List<Object?>. If you didn’t change a list type explicitly in your migration, a type might still have changed because of changes to type inference that happen when you enable null safety.

The fix is to explicitly create such lists as List<dynamic>.

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