Acording to the Tiobe index, both Java and C++ are among the top five most popular programming languages in the world. Naturally, both seem like great options for someone who plans to begin learning to code. The trouble is, how do you choose? In this comprehensive Java vs. C++ comparison, we will be discussing the distinctions and similarities between these languages.
Where it started: the first steps
Most of the differences among programming languages are there due to their different purposes. As we compare the origin stories of Java vs. C++, we will see their creators have indeed set off with different goals.
In 1979, while working with the Simula language, Bjarne Stroustrup noticed its object-oriented programming principles prove very useful in software development. To explain it simply, this means the system treats each and every component as a separate object, instead of focusing on procedures. However, Simula fell short on the performance speed, and Stroustrup decided to work on a completely new language. He took the fast and functional C language, supplemented it with the object-oriented programming, and called his creation C with Classes. The team changed it to C++ in 1983, ++ representing the increment operator. The most recent version is C++17, introduced in 2017.
By the beginning of the 1990s, C++ was extremely popular among programmers. No wonder: it was fast, efficient, and general-purpose. However, there was one issue: just like with C, C++ was not platform-neutral. This meant a program written using one piece of hardware will not work on the other, and the same goes for software. As the number of electronic devices grew, this became an issue. Software was no longer a thing for computers only. Music players, mobile phones, remote controls and a bunch of other things needed it too.
Therefore, in 1991, a team at Sun Microsystems started working on Java (which was called Oak at the time). Its main principle was WORA – Write Once, Run Anywhere, which made it perfect for embedded systems. The creators took the already well-known C-style syntax and based a new language on it. Just like C++, it had to be object-oriented and fast-performing, but easily portable and platform-neutral, as well as guarantee security and robustness. The final product became popular rather quickly and the major web browsers offered support for Java applets as well. Currently, the newest version is Java SE 13, presented in September of 2020.
Java vs. C++: what they share
As Java has been strongly influenced by C++, it’s only natural these languages share a lot of similarities, syntax being the most obvious. Both of them have been based on the same C language, and the team of Java chose to do it deliberately so the syntax of the new language seemed familiar to developers who were mostly working with C++ at the time. You will notice a lot of keywords are actually the same (public, private, static, break, continue, char, etc.), as well as some operator groups (arithmetic and relational).
Both Java and C++ support very similar primitive types. There are small inconsistencies (such as the same type being called boolean in Java and bool in C++), but that’s about it. Even the comments are written in the same way – you either start with two forward slashes (//) or use a single slash with an asterisk (start with /* and end with */).
There is no distinction in typing when we compare Java vs. C++ as well: both of them are statically-typed. Coding in languages like this, the developer has to declare every variable name explicitly, which means binding it to a certain data type. Unlike in a dynamically-typed language, if an object of a different type gets assigned as its value, the system throws a type exception. They are both usually compiled as well, which means you have to use a compiler, as opposed to an interpreter. A compiler converts the source code you have written in either Java or C++ to machine-readable instructions. The machine can then execute them.
While C++ was the leader of the object-oriented programming principle, both Java and C++ support it. However, there is one distinction we must note when discussing Java vs. C++. While it’s not often used, C++ has the advantage of supporting procedural programming as well. This model of programming is based on procedure calls. The system structures each statement into functions, also known as procedures. This makes C++ a multi-paradigm programming language.
Distinctions you can’t miss
You already know the main difference between C++ and Java is the fact that Java is platform-neutral, and C++ is not. In addition to this, there are a lot of smaller, yet significant unique points to each language.
When comparing the syntax of Java vs. C++, you will soon notice only the latter supports pointers. To put it simply, a pointer is a type of variable, which holds an address to another variable as its value. They are convenient to use when coding, but you need to manage them carefully: failing to do so can lead to memory leaks. This is why C++ sometimes falls short in terms of security where Java does not.
Unlike C++, Java supports threads natively. Think of a thread of a process so lightweight, the system can execute a few of them simultaneously. In such a case, the central processing unit (CPU) needs fewer cycles, and the system runs more efficiently. The Java team called this process multithreading, and C++ has no such functionality. However, Java allows a class or an object to inherit features from one parent only, while C++ supports multiple inheritance.
Another major difference between C++ and Java is the way it handles memory control. In C++, you allocate and deallocate memory manually, using special functions. Java has a garbage collection feature, which means the system takes care of it automatically. However, as we compare Java vs. C++ on this feature, it’s hard to say which way is better. While automatic is always easier, there are cases in which a developer might prefer to have the control in their own hands – more on those later.
Practical use gets the final say
For most developers, the reason to choose one programming language over the other is its usage field. Both Java and C++ are general-purpose languages, but while the former is more commonly used for applications, C++ developers focus on system programming. As you already know, Java also has a slight edge due to the WORA principle. The portability of the code allows for more implementation possibilities.
Almost three decades after its creation, Java is still the basic language for embedded systems. You can find them everywhere, from the tiny SIM cards in our mobile phones to the modern smart home systems. However, it’s not the only sphere you can use it in. Java is also a smarter choice for aspiring mobile developers: it’s used in all Android software, and by the end of 2020, Android dominates the market completely with over 85 percent of smartphones globally. Java is also fine for desktop and web applications. Due to being powerful enough to handle significant amounts of data, it is a popular choice in sectors of e-commerce, finance, and science.
You can use C++ for desktop, mobile and web applications as well. The difference is, C++ is often considered better for projects that work with the hardware directly, as it allows you to control the resources better. Such projects include web browsers, database management systems, compilers, and even operating systems.
Another strength of C++ lies in game development. It is used in the Unreal Engine, which holds the official title of the Most Successful Videogame Engine since 2014. Coding in C++, you can make anything from basic race games to complex and visually compelling MMORPGs. It is technically possible to write games in Java, too – Minecraft is a great example of that. However, as we compare Java vs. C++, the latter holds the advantage of not having the garbage collection feature. While it’s convenient for some systems, it basically robs you of direct memory control, which is crucial for writing games.
Java vs. C++: what will you choose?
There can never be one clear winner in the Java vs. C++ battle: it all depends on the needs and goals of the developer. However, we hope our extensive comparison has helped you decide which way is better for you personally. If not, why not check out our online courses? BitDegree has a great simple option for beginners that will help you get familiar with object-oriented programming – start with basics, and watch how the field of possibilities grows!