Python List vs. Array – when to use?

Python Programming

Question or problem about Python programming:

If you are creating a 1d array, you can implement it as a List, or else use the ‘array’ module in the standard library. I have always used Lists for 1d arrays.

What is the reason or circumstance where I would want to use the array module instead?

Is it for performance and memory optimization, or am I missing something obvious?

How to solve the problem:

Solution 1:

Basically, Python lists are very flexible and can hold completely heterogeneous, arbitrary data, and they can be appended to very efficiently, in amortized constant time. If you need to shrink and grow your list time-efficiently and without hassle, they are the way to go. But they use a lot more space than C arrays, in part because each item in the list requires the construction of an individual Python object, even for data that could be represented with simple C types (e.g. float or uint64_t).

The array.array type, on the other hand, is just a thin wrapper on C arrays. It can hold only homogeneous data (that is to say, all of the same type) and so it uses only sizeof(one object) * length bytes of memory. Mostly, you should use it when you need to expose a C array to an extension or a system call (for example, ioctl or fctnl).

array.array is also a reasonable way to represent a mutable string in Python 2.x (array('B', bytes)). However, Python 2.6+ and 3.x offer a mutable byte string as bytearray.

However, if you want to do math on a homogeneous array of numeric data, then you’re much better off using NumPy, which can automatically vectorize operations on complex multi-dimensional arrays.

To make a long story short: array.array is useful when you need a homogeneous C array of data for reasons other than doing math.

Solution 2:

For almost all cases the normal list is the right choice. The arrays module is more like a thin wrapper over C arrays, which give you kind of strongly typed containers (see docs), with access to more C-like types such as signed/unsigned short or double, which are not part of the built-in types. I’d say use the arrays module only if you really need it, in all other cases stick with lists.

Solution 3:

The array module is kind of one of those things that you probably don’t have a need for if you don’t know why you would use it (and take note that I’m not trying to say that in a condescending manner!). Most of the time, the array module is used to interface with C code. To give you a more direct answer to your question about performance:

Arrays are more efficient than lists for some uses. If you need to allocate an array that you KNOW will not change, then arrays can be faster and use less memory. GvR has an optimization anecdote in which the array module comes out to be the winner (long read, but worth it).

On the other hand, part of the reason why lists eat up more memory than arrays is because python will allocate a few extra elements when all allocated elements get used. This means that appending items to lists is faster. So if you plan on adding items, a list is the way to go.

TL;DR I’d only use an array if you had an exceptional optimization need or you need to interface with C code (and can’t use pyrex).

Solution 4:

It’s a trade off !

pros of each one :

  • flexible
  • can be heterogeneous
array (ex: numpy array)
  • array of uniform values
  • homogeneous
  • compact (in size)
  • efficient (functionality and speed)
  • convenient

Solution 5:

My understanding is that arrays are stored more efficiently (i.e. as contiguous blocks of memory vs. pointers to Python objects), but I am not aware of any performance benefit. Additionally, with arrays you must store primitives of the same type, whereas lists can store anything.

Hope this helps!