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Developing for Windows Phone and Xbox Live : General Performance

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9/10/2011 4:27:24 PM
The intent is to warn people about the potential problems that can arise from attempting to prematurely optimize your code. Optimizing code that is already “fast enough” just makes the code harder to read and maintain, or worse yet, it can introduce new bugs and regressions into the code. Performance is important, but just like anything else, you shouldn’t try to fix it, unless you know what you’re off to fix and why.

One of the important aspects of getting great performance out of your applications (and games) is an understanding of what various portions of your code cost. For example, do you know what the following code snippet might cost?

MediaPlayer.Play(Song.FromUri("mysong.wma", new Uri("http://www.someplace.com")));

If you guessed quite a lot, you’d be correct! Although it is a single line of code, there are a whole lot of things going on here. There are two orphaned objects (the UriSong) that will eventually be collected by the garbage collector. There is FromUri method that (with the code used here) attempts to connect to the Internet to try to download music. What if you were on a phone with no connectivity? What if your latency was so high, it took 5 seconds to even start the download? Does the method download the entire file before attempting to play or does it try to stream? Does the method return instantly or block until sometime in the future when it has a valid song object? You should have a basic idea of the performance (or cost) of a method before calling it. and the

Cost can mean a number of different things. Perhaps a method allocates an extraordinary amount of memory; this would certainly add to its cost, potentially in a variety of ways. For example, it can cause the garbage collector to collect more frequently or it can push data out of the cache. A method can simply be computationally expensive, because it’s a complex physics engine handling millions of objects. You can have a method that is fast in most cases, but sometimes it needs to wait for data and blocks execution until it has it.

One easy-to-hit performance problem in early versions of the managed runtimes was what is called boxing. In .NET, anything can be used as an object, which is a reference type. Before we move on to boxing, what exactly is a reference type?

At the most basic level, a reference type is a type that you do not access the value of directly, but through a reference (hence, the name). This means that the object is allocated on the heap, and the garbage collector collects it later when it no longer has any references. Because reference types are referred to by reference, assigning two variables to the same reference means each variable has the same data. For example, imagine a class with a method SetInteger that sets an integer and GetInteger that returns the value of that integer, which is shown in this code snippet:

MyClass firstRef = new MyClass();
MyClass secondRef = firstRef;
int x = secondRef.GetInteger();

This produces a value of 3 for the variable x. This is because each variable refers to the same reference, so modifying one naturally modifies the other. If a type isn’t a reference type, then it is considered a value type. Most integer primitives (and structs) are value types, and they are quite different than reference types because assigning one value type to another does a full copy rather than make the variables share the same reference. For example, in the previous example, if you were using integers directly (which are value types) rather than reference types, you would get a different result:

int firstInt = 5;
int secondInt = firstInt;
secondInt = 3;
firstInt = 7;
int x = secondInt;
int y = firstInt;

At the end of this snippet x is 3, and y is 7. Unlike reference types, changing one doesn’t change the other. A common misconception of value types is that they are always on the stack. If they are declared as a local variable, then this is normally true, but they are not always on the stack. For example, an array of value types is a reference type, and each individual value type is on the heap. Similarly, if a value type is a member of a class, it is stored on the heap, too.

Value types that are local variables can sometimes be performance wins, though, as they are allocated on the stack, and hence, they are not going to be garbage collected later. However, they can also be a performance hit if you don’t know what you’re doing with them. For example, if you have a large value type (such as the Matrix structure), and you declare six of them as local variables so they are on the stack, but then pass all six into a method, this may be a performance hit even though they are on the stack! Because assigning a value type creates a deep copy, you allocate 12 of the structures in total (six for your original local variables and six for the method parameters), plus (and more importantly) you copy all the data for each of those structures into the parameters (the Matrix structure is 64 bytes, so that is copying 384 bytes just to call that method). Again, this is more affirmation that you should have a rough idea of the cost of your methods.

So, now we come back to boxing. Although this class of performance behavior is much less prominent than before, it can still be hit. The act of boxing is essentially taking a value type on the stack, and using it as an object type (which is a reference type). Doing this allocates a new reference type and stores the data of the value type inside it. The potential pitfall here is that all of those new objects need to be collected, and this causes the garbage collector to kick in sooner. With the advent of generics, the majority of common cases where people accidently box something are gone, but not all of them.

Who Takes Out the Garbage?

By far, the most common cause of unexpected performance problems is related to the garbage collector. For the most part, modern day garbage collectors are good at what they do, so before we get into potential performance issues, let’s first take a look at what a garbage collector actually does.

In the .NET runtime, objects are created on the managed heap, which is in essence a large block of memory. The runtime keeps track of this memory and remembers where the start of the memory block is. When you allocate new objects, it is almost free because all the runtime needs to do is move its pointer at the top of the heap down, as seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Basic memory allocation in the managed runtime

As you allocate more and more objects, some go out of scope, some stay in scope, and that allocation pointer just keeps moving down the block of memory. Eventually, the system decides to check to see if you are still using all the memory you allocated. It does that by starting at the beginning of the memory block and examining all of the objects that have been created. If it finds an object that is orphaned, it marks that object, and then it continues on.


All of the points made here about the garbage collector are at a high level. Many resources are available to learn more about the garbage collector if you want more in depth detail.

An object is orphaned when it has no outstanding references to it anywhere in the application. For example, in this code snippet, the object o is orphaned as soon as the method returns and is available to be collected:

public void SomeMethod()
object o = new object();

However, in this snippet, the object o is not orphaned when the method ends because the class itself still holds a reference to it:

public class SomeClass
object o;
public void SomeMethod()
o = new object();

If the class becomes orphaned, then the object contained in it does, too (provided it doesn’t have other outstanding references).

After the garbage collector has gone through the entire memory block finding orphaned objects, it goes and compacts the memory block. This means it goes through that memory block and moves things around until it has a single, big contiguous memory block again, destroying objects that have no references.

The Windows desktop runtime is actually even a little smarter than that. It has what is called a generational garbage collector. When an object is first created, it assumes it will be short lived, and it will be created in what is called generation zero, for the short lived objects. When a certain threshold is hit, the runtime decides to do a collection, and it looks only through the generation zero objects, marks the ones that are orphaned, and then collects them. However, anything that is in generation zero that is not orphaned gets promoted to the next generation (generation one). If another threshold is met, a generation one collection occurs, and things not orphaned get promoted to generation two, which is the end of the line for the objects. A generation two collection is the one that walks the entire memory block.

As you can imagine, examining every object you create, and then compacting the memory after a collection is time-consuming, particularly if you have a large number of objects. Because the generation two collection is the one that looks at all objects, it is the worst performing collection of the group.

However, the compact framework runtime that runs on the Xbox and Windows Phone 7 does not have a generational garbage collector. Every collection on those platforms looks at every object. If the garbage collector runs all the time, your game sees noticeable slowdowns.


The garbage collector has a set of heuristics that determine when it should start a collection, but they are not configurable, and you cannot predict when it will happen.

I’m sure the question then is, “Well, how do I avoid that?” The answer is easy; don’t create garbage! Now, obviously you can’t run your entire game without creating objects. You just need to make sure that you don’t create objects all the time during performance-critical sections of your game (such as during game play). For example, if you create a new state object every frame to set the device state, you will have collections during game play.

Normally though, it’s the unexpected allocations that cause the collections, more proof that you want to have an idea of what methods cost. As an example, did you know that using foreach on a collection can potentially create garbage? This is what foreach breaks down into:

IEnumerator e = collection.GetEnumerator();
while (e.MoveNext())
var obj = e.Current;
// Your code

That first line creates an object. If that object is not a value type, that object is created on the heap and produces garbage. Most collection types in the runtimes do not create garbage during a foreach loop, but the fact that it can is often a surprise to people.


Another area where you can see an improvement in performance (particularly on Xbox) is in multithreading. Now, this doesn’t mean you should add multithreading everywhere because poor use of multithreading can actually make performance worse.

If you have portions of your code that are computationally expensive and don’t require them to be done at a certain point in time (for example, you aren’t waiting on the results), using another thread can be a big win for you. Creating a thread and starting one can take a bit of time, though, so if think you need multiple threads, you should create them all at startup to not have to pay that cost at runtime.

Another thing to keep in mind when using multiple threads on Xbox is what core they run on. The Xbox has three physical cores each with two hardware threads, which means it can run six threads simultaneously. However, unlike on Windows, you must explicitly tell it which thread you want to run on. You do this with the SetProcessorAffinity method as you see in the following snippet:

Thread worker = new Thread(new ThreadStart(() =>


You need to set the processor affinity as the first line in your thread method; you cannot set it before the thread has started nor can you call it on any thread other than the one on which it executes.

Although the Xbox has a total of six hardware threads you can use, two of them are reserved by the XNA runtime (thread zero and thread two). You should use the other four hardware threads to spread your calculations across each of the hardware threads.

One thing you want to avoid in a multithreaded game is waiting on one of your worker threads to continue the game. If your game is paused to wait for another thread, you potentially don’t gain any performance.

Let’s imagine a scenario that has characteristics such as this. Your Update method tells a worker thread to perform a task that takes 1ms, while the rest of the code in the Update method also takes 1ms to complete. However, it needs the rest of the data from the worker thread, so it needs to wait for that thread to finish, which after the overhead, the thread can take more than the 1ms you attempted to save, and you would take less time by doing all the work in your Update method.

Conversely, imagine your Update method takes 7ms to complete, and the worker thread takes 8ms to complete. Sure, your Update method would end up waiting a millisecond or two waiting on the data, but that’s much faster than the 15ms it would have had to wait if it was all done in the Update call.

Other -----------------
- Windows Phone 7 : Media Management - Taking a Photo from Your Phone Camera
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