Unresponsive Controls

Sorry about the unreasonable delay between this post and the last post in this series. Interestingly readers that have been following the series have already jumped ahead to see that not all is fine even if you follow the guidance provided. ‘Arne’ makes a comment on the last post that he is having some problems even when he follows the guidance especially when loading a lot of images. Some of the team I work with are currently working with graphing/charting products that are great with tens and hundreds of rows of data but create an unresponsive UI when pushed to use thousands of rows of data (eg +5 years of daily stock info).

So if we are following the rules what can we do? Well let us look at a concrete problem first and for consistency let’s stay with the PhotoAlbum project. For a quick refresher, we have a “ViewModel” with a property Images that is of type ObservableCollection. The XAML snippet that displays the Images looks like this:

<ListBox ItemsSource="{Binding Images}"
      <Border Background="AliceBlue"
        <Image Source="{Binding}"
               ToolTip="{Binding}" />
      <WrapPanel IsItemsHost="True" />

Now in theory there is nothing wrong with this XAML. From a declarative programming point of view, I think it is well written (Ed: Cause I wrote it!) as it describes what we want (Items in the ListBox to be wrapped horizontally, displayed as Images within a border.

The problem with this declarative code is what most people fear with declarative code: what is actually happening under the hood? Before we trek too far, if I run the code (see example 6_UnresponsiveImages in the code example) I can select folders with small amount of small images just fine. The application runs ok. The current code becomes a problem when I point it to folders with large images. This is compounded when there are lots of those large images or when I am running on a slower/older computer.

We will quickly go off track to consider the likelihood of the large image slow computer problem. Digital cameras currently are getting cheaper and the quality is going up. Mid range cameras range between 8-12 megapixel and can have in excess of 8GB of memory.  Phones now are coming out with 5-8 megapixel cameras. If you come back and read this 12months from now, I guess you will laugh at the small sizes I refer to. Next consider the average user’s computer. Rightly or wrongly, the release of vista saw very few new features that users felt they needed. Many people still run Win XP and do so on old hardware. Pentium 4 chips are still pervasive in many homes and offices. Loading a gig of 10 megapixel images in our current app does prove to be a performance problem.

We actually have 2 problems here:

  1. loading of the image in it’s full resolution
  2. loading the image on the UI thread

We will only discuss issue 2 because technically this series is about responsive UIs, not performance (similar but not the same problem). So to get to the bottom of why our UI is laggy even though we have

  • loaded our Images on a different thread,
  • updated the UI using the dispatcher
  • and written nice XAML

we should understand a little bit about the Image control. The Image control has a Source property. Most often this source property is given a string or Uri, however some may have noticed that it actually is of type ImageSource. Through the magic of TypeConverters our strings and URI are converted to an appropriate sub class of ImageSource, most likely BitmapFrame. From having a quick browse over the code implemented around the ImageSource, BitmapSource, BitmapFrame & BitmapDecoder, I can only deduct that the only code executed off the UI thread is the downloading of the image where the source is a URI with http or https protocol. One may then argue that “well if it came from the file system wouldn’t that be so fast that it could be done on the UI thread”. One may argue that, but that is not the whole argument. Once the file has been read from disk it still must be decoded and then resized. While this generally is fast and would normally take less than 1 second, we should remember back to some magic number I made up that was 250ms-330ms (1/4 to 1/3 of a second) is the max the UI thread can hang for before it is very clear to the user. Now if I load just 8 images that each take 330ms-500ms to load from disk, decode and then resize this will create an awful user experience for the ender user as the progress bar stutters and images appear and the mouse is jerky.

To reproduce the problems discussed in this post you will want to get some hi-res images and load up the example code that can be found here. Try out the 6th example and point the source folder of the pop up widow to your folder with the hi-res images.

Next post we will look at the issues we will face with solving the problem of Images that kill the responsiveness of our UI. We will discuss fun things like decoders, freezables and maybe the parallel extensions that will become part of .NET 4.0

Previous – Responsive WPF User Interfaces Part 5 – Testing multi-threaded WPF code

Next – Responsive WPF User Interfaces Part 7 – Responsive Controls

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Working version of the code can be found here