For Google Summer of Code I'm working on porting and customizing a Scheme to Plan 9. I'm using my own chibi-scheme as a basis since it's very small with minimal dependencies, and hope to add support for writing 9P servers. But one of the tasks involved is adding Unicode support, and as Chibi has no dependencies I'm free to explore the best possible string representation. This seems an all-too neglected topic, with different programs and libraries using different representations, [1] but no good comprehensive studies. Indeed, it's difficult to compare because once you choose a representation you tie yourself to its implementation and idioms, so any comparison would be between apples and oranges. But I'm hoping Chibi's simplicity will let me implement and compare several representations using the same programs in the same language. [2]

[1]GNOME, Perl and vim use UTF-8 internally, Java and .NET use UTF-16, many existing Schemes use UTF-32.

[2]Disclaimer: I've worked with UTF-8 extensively, and UTF-8 is of course a Plan 9 invention, so I have some prior bias here.

There are really only three string representations worth considering:[3] UTF-8, UTF-16 and UTF-32.[4] These all have various procs and cons. UTF-8 is a variable width encoding using from 1 to 4 bytes per character, which is backwards compatible with 7-bit ASCII. UTF-32 is a fixed-width encoding using 4 bytes per character. UTF-16 is something of a hybrid, using 2 bytes for most characters but sometimes requiring 4 bytes encoded as "surrogate pairs" - it is neither fixed width nor backwards compatible with ASCII, but takes less space than UTF-8 in some cases. If you use either of the variable width encodings, you need to use cursors or pointers, but if you use UTF-32 you can treat the string as an indexable array of characters.[5] We'll look at what these differences mean to your API in a later post; for now we're concerned with the underlying performance of the representations.

[3]For Unicode anyway - there are alternatives such as TRON and CHISE but these are outside the scope of this discussion.

[4]When representing the lowest-level encoding of a consecutive sequence of characters - more sophisticated data-types such as ropes or trees of string can be built on top of these.

[5]So long as characters are code-points - if you want to work at the grapheme level you're back to pointers.

Setting aside UTF-16, UTF-8 vs UTF-32 looks like a classic time/space trade-off. UTF-8 is never larger, and is typically 4x smaller than UTF-32 for English text. So if you have a 4GB corpus of English text (say the English Wikipedia pages) in UTF-8, you'll need 16GB of memory to store that text as UTF-32. On the other hand, for every character access in UTF-8 you need to perform a check to determine the number of bytes in the character and then combine them, which is pretty heavy compared to a simple memory reference. A typical routine to read a character would look like:[6]

[6]Unless otherwise noted, all code posted is covered by a BSD-style license described at - basically you can use the code for whatever you want, just give me credit.

/* read a single well-formed utf8 character  *
/* from p, and advance p to the start of the *
/* next character                            *
int read_utf8_char0(char **pp) {
  char *p = *pp;
  int res = (unsigned char)*p++;
  if (res >= 0xC0) {
    if (res < 0xE0) {           /* 2 bytes *
      res = ((res&63)<<6) + (63&*p++);
    } else if (res < 0xF0) {    /* 3 bytes *
      res = ((res&31)<<6) + (63&*p++);
      res = (res<<6) + (63&*p++);
    } else {                    /* 4 bytes *
      res = ((res&15)<<6) + (63&*p++);
      res = (res<<6) + (63&*p++);
      res = (res<<6) + (63&*p++);
  *pp = p;
  return res;

This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that in many cases you can write string algorithms working just at the byte-level, without decomposing individual characters. For example, it's been shown that counting characters in UTF-8 is fast, and even vectorizable. String search on UTF-8 strings can be done at the byte-level[7], which will thus tend to be faster than UTF-32 simply because there are fewer bytes to search.

[7]This is not true for UTF-16

But at some point you do need to decode the UTF-8 characters, and if this happens in a tight loop it's really going to hurt performance, especially when the branch-prediction fails. Those branches, though, we can do something about. Instead of the conditionals, we can use a lookup table on the first byte to determine the length. We can then combine this with standard branchless programming techniques to produce:

/* first-byte lookup table encoded as an integer *
#define magic 3841982464uL

int read_utf8_char1(char **pp) {
  char *p = *pp;
  int tmp, len, res = (unsigned char)*p++;
  tmp = (res>>7);
  /* tmp is 0 if len is 1, 1 otherwise *
  len = (res>>4)*2;
  len = tmp*(((magic&(3<<len))>>len)+1) + (1-tmp);
  res = ((res<<len)&255)>>len;
  res = (tmp*((res<<6)+(63&*p))) + (1-tmp)*res;
  p += tmp;
  tmp = (len-1)>>1;
  /* tmp is 1 if len is 3,4 0 otherwise *
  res = (tmp*((res<<6)+(63&*p))) + (1-tmp)*res;
  p += tmp;
  tmp = len>>2;
  /* tmp is 1 if len is 4, 0 otherwise *
  res = (tmp*((res<<6)+(63&*p))) + (1-tmp)*res;
  p += tmp;
  *pp = p;
  return res;

Although it looks longer, this actually compiles to fewer instructions than the version with conditionals. The length decoding by itself is a handy routine that can be used elsewhere, but in this case we can save ourselves a register and a few instructions by only checking the length a bit at a time:

/* without directly computing length *
int read_utf8_char2(char **pp) {
  char *p = *pp;
  int bit, ch;
  ch = (unsigned char)*p++;    /* read the first byte         *
  bit = ch>>7;                 /* bit==1 if non-ASCII         *
  ch -= bit*192;               /* clear top 2 bits            *
  ch <<= (6*bit);              /* if non-ASCII: shift 6 bits, *
  ch += (63&*p)*bit;           /*     add in the next byte,   *
  p += bit;                    /*     and inc the pointer     *
  bit *= ((ch&2048)>>11);      /* bit==1 if len is 3 or 4     *
  ch &= 2047;                  /* clear top bit for len >= 2  *
  ch <<= (6*bit);              /* if len==3-4: shift 6 bits,  *
  ch += (63&*p)*bit;           /*     add in the next byte,   *
  p += bit;                    /*     and inc the pointer     *
  bit *= ((ch&65536)>>16);     /* bit==1 if len is 4          *
  ch &= 65535;                 /* clear top bit for len >= 3  *
  ch <<= (6*bit);              /* if len is 4: shift 6 bits,  *
  ch += (63&*p)*bit;           /*     add in the next byte,   *
  p += bit;                    /*     and inc the pointer     *
  ch &= 2097151;               /* clear top bit for len==4    *
  *pp = p;
  return ch;

A detailed desconstruction of these functions is left as an excercise for the reader - the point is not to discuss bit-twiddling hacks, but to provide the most efficient routines possible for future comparison. So to continue, the basic UTF-16 decoder looks like:

/* read and test for surrogate pairs *
int read_utf16_char0 (unsigned short **pp) {
  int ch = *(*pp)++;
  if ((ch >= 0xD800) && (ch <= 0xDBFF))
    ch = ((ch - 0xD800) << 10) + (*(*pp)++ - 0xDC00) + 0x10000;
  return ch;

We're not using wchar_t here because it's unspecified whether that's 2 or 4 bytes (it's 4 for GNU libc). Using similar bit-twiddling hacks as above, we can make this branchless as well:

/* the first surrogate word begins with 11011 *
int read_utf16_char1 (unsigned short **pp) {
  int x, ch = *(*pp)++;
  x = (ch >> 11) == 27;
  ch = ch*(1-x) + (((ch - 0xD800) << 10) + (**pp - 0xDC00) + 0x10000)*x;
  (*pp) += x;
  return ch;

And finally, for comparison is the UTF-32 "decoder":

int read_utf32_char0 (unsigned int **pp) {
  return *(*pp)++;

In practice, the UTF-32 decoder is always going to be inlined as two instructions. The others are still all small enough that we can inline them anywhere performance is needed.

And now for the part that everyone's been waiting for, the benchmark! How do these decoders measure up to each other? Or more specifically, how much slower are the alternatives to UTF-32 at processing strings a character at a time? We're going to skew the benchmark in the favor of UTF-32 as much as possible, because this is where it shines most. So the test is to basically use these to implement strlen() - use the decoders to iterate over the characters one at a time, doing nothing but incrementing a counter.

The tests were run on two sets of data - The Hound of the Baskervilles from Project Gutenberg, and a sampling from EDICT with the English stripped out, resulting in mostly 3 byte characters. Each file was loaded into memory, and then "counted" 10,000 times. The program was compiled with gcc -03 letting it inline the functions. The results are as follows, with times given in seconds.


To be honest, this really surprised me. I was too clever for my own good, and the branchless versions turned out much slower than the conditional versions. I did expect branch prediction to make the conditional versions faster for ASCII, but I thought they would become slower for text with mixed byte lengths.[8] It turns out all the extra operations were just too expensive.

[8]None of the data was outside the BMP, so we didn't really test the branching on UTF-16, but this is realistic since in practice surrogates are fairly rare.

The other thing to observe is that, when comparing the "good" versions of the functions, there really isn't all that much difference either way. UTF-8 is roughly just as fast as UTF-32 for mostly ASCII text, varying up to at most 5 times slower for mixed text. UTF-16 is about 2-3 times slower than UTF-32 in either case, and is actually slower than UTF-8 for ASCII. And this is for a noop loop - in practice, the decoding cost will be dwarfed by whatever you're actually doing with the character. So for next time, we'll look at some higher-level algorithms that actually do something.