Sunday, May 08, 2016

Graphical User Interface Nightmares in Java

Compared to Windows Forms, doing GUI work in Java is painful because you have to deal with a lot more detail. Recently, I was trying to customize tab drawing in JTabbedPane to make the font of the selected tab bold and its background color green. I ended up creating a class (MyTabbedPaneUI) that extends BasicTabbedPaneUI and overrides paintTabBackground().
public class MyFrame extends javax.swing.JFrame {
    public MyFrame() {
        javax.swing.JTabbedPane jtp = new javax.swing.JTabbedPane();
        jtp.setUI(new MyTabbedPaneUI());
        jtp.add("My Tab 1", new javax.swing.JPanel());
        javax.swing.JLabel jl1 = new javax.swing.JLabel(jtp.getTitleAt(0));
        jtp.setTabComponentAt(0, jl1);
        jtp.add("My Tab 2", new javax.swing.JPanel());
        javax.swing.JLabel jl2 = new javax.swing.JLabel(jtp.getTitleAt(1));
        jtp.setTabComponentAt(1, jl2);
    public static void main(String args[]) {
        java.awt.EventQueue.invokeLater(new Runnable() {
            public void run() {
                new MyFrame().setVisible(true);
public class MyTabbedPaneUI extends javax.swing.plaf.basic.BasicTabbedPaneUI {
     * NOTE: Do not perform lengthy operations (e.g. setting font to bold) 
     * inside this paint method because it causes high CPU load and has 
     * side effects like not being able to update java3D drawings.
    protected void paintTabBackground(Graphics g, int tabPlacement, 
                       int tabIndex, int x, int y, int w, int h, 
                       boolean isSelected) {
        for (int i = 0; i < tabPane.getTabCount(); i++) {
            Color bgColor = Color.YELLOW;
            javax.swing.JLabel jl = (javax.swing.JLabel) 
            if (jl != null) {
                if (i != tabIndex) {
                    bgColor = Color.GREEN;
                } else {
            Rectangle rect = rects[i];
            int pad = 2;
            g.fillRect(rect.x+pad, rect.y+pad, rect.width-2*pad,
Setting font to bold (by uncommenting the lines commented as "BAD") in BasicTabbedPaneUI.paintTabBackground causes more than 7x CPU usage:

I have witnessed cases where CPU usage shot up to 100% and my app could not update a java3D drawing on another window. You can imagine that it was not easy to find out why.

Other examples of why Java should be avoided for GUI work:
  • Changing color of a JTable cell is a lot of work.
  • For background color to have any effect, JLabel has to be opaque while JTextArea has to be not opaque (opposite of their defaults)!
  • Due to the unintuitive layout mechanism, what I see on design view is completely different from what I see when I run the application.
  • When I change the layout, sometimes all the components dissappear (their width and height becomes zero).
  • Setting the width/height to "Preferred" sometimes causes the component to shrink to zero size. From what I understand, the layout mechanism is there to ensure proper resizing, i.e. to have a similar look when screen resolutions, font size etc. change. As usual, when trying the solve the most general case, you make it more difficult to solve simple cases.
  • To properly set size of a JFrame or JDialog, calling setPrefferedSize() is not enough, you have to call pack() afterwards.
My layout strategy:
  • Create a frame
  • Add a panel with null layout.
  • Add subpanels to group components
  • Set the layout of subpanels. The layouts I use most often:
    • null
      • Advantage: You can set the location and size of components.
      • Disadvantage: If your form is resizable, components won't resize.
    • GridLayout;
    • BoxLayout

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