An omnivorous information addict. Still, graphics, rendering and programming languages are my favorite areas. A non-conformist wannabe.
Posts by Jaewon Jung
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  2. The less the code, the better ( Counting comments... )
  3. Smoothsort vs. Timsort ( Counting comments... )
  4. Generating Uniformly Distributed Points on Sphere ( Counting comments... )
  5. Simulating a Loaded Dice in a Constant Time ( Counting comments... )
  6. All the nuances of static_cast (and others) ( Counting comments... )
  7. Getting the Projected Extent of a Sphere to the Near Plane ( Counting comments... )
  8. Search by a Changelist Description in Perforce ( Counting comments... )
  9. GUI Test Automation using SIKULI ( Counting comments... )
  10. Sudoku Solver in Haskell ( Counting comments... )
Technology/ Code /

I recently found out an interesting sorting algorithm called Smoothsort, originally created by the legendary Dijkstra. Again, my favorite algorithm guy, Keith Schwarz has a detailed explanation about it here[2] with his C++ implementation[4]. Another sorting algorithm I met recently through my twitter stream is Timsort, which is known to be used in Python(>=2.3) and Java SE 7. Interestingly, both are supposedly faster when part of the sequence is already sorted. These two seemed to me holygrails among comparion sorts. Naturally a thought came to me to study these and benchmark with STL sorting algorithms.


As you can see here[1], this algorithm shows a wonderful asymptotic performance. O(nlogn) worst-case time complexity and O(1) space usage! Except not being a stable sorter, it looked almost like a silver-bullet sort. But, the algorithm is definitely a tough kind to understand. It took some time to wrap my head around it even with Keith's kind explanation. As Keith explains, it can be viewed as a variant of heap sort with a special heap called Leonardo heap, which again is based on something called Leonardo number, a close cousin of the well-known Fibonacci number. Anyway please refer to Keith's explanation for the ins and outs of this algorithm.


In contrast to the Smoothsort, which is mathematically sound and deep in theories (as Keith mentions, it's hard for one(at least, for Keith and me) to imagine how Dijkstra originally came up with it), Timsort is rather a product of observations of real-word data and clever tricks to exploit common patterns found in them. Compared to Smoothsort, Timsort has a worse space usage of O(n), but it has a benefit of being a stable-sorter. Unfortunately, this algorithm is also far from simple. In my opinion, the best way to come to a good understanding of this is to read this and this[5] in that order. The latter is the original explanation of the creator, Tim Peters. In a nutshell, Timsort is a adaptive combination of merge sort and insertion sort. I cound find a decent C++ implemenation of it here[7].


Now, fun time. To see how these new kids stand their grounds against battle-tested standard sorting algorithms in STL, I adopted some benchmark code from the Timsort implementation above and modified a little. You can find the main code here.

Without furthur ado, here is the result:

Data std::sort std::stable_sort Smoothsort Smoorthsort(raw bit) Timsort
Randomized(int) 978 970 4871 2529 1576
Randomized(double) 1068 1117 5069 2785 1677
Reversed(int) 213 753 3729 1821 19
Reversed(double) 224 858 3776 1741 23
Sorted(int) 167 349 1005 449 13
Sorted(double) 179 358 986 453 17
Partially sorted #0(int) 961 989 4699 2516 1478
Partially sorted #0(double) 1049 1098 5272 2774 1594
Partially sorted #1(int) 713 828 4798 2435 634
Partially sorted #1(double) 761 903 5077 2630 732
  • Data size: 100,000
  • Data type: int or double
  • Unit: miliseconds
  • Partially sorted #0: each subarray of size 10 in 100,000 sequence is sorted
  • Partially sorted #1: each subarray of size 1000 in 100,000 sequence is sorted
  • The original implementation of Keith's uses std:bitset. 'Smoothsort(raw bit)' is an modified one that uses raw bit operations instead
  • Test hardware: Intel Core i7 920 / 6GB RAM

As you can see, both Timsort and Smoothsort didn't cut the mustard. Smoothsort is worse than STL sorts in all cases(even with std:bitset replaced with raw bit operations). Timsort shows a trade-off. In random or almost random sequences, not as good as STL ones, but in partially sorted sequences like 'Reversed', 'Sorted' and 'Partially sorted #1', it shows impressive speed-up. Admittedly, apart from replacing an obvious culprit like std::bitset, I didn't try any thorough optimization for each. So if you can see/suggest any optimization opportunities for both I missed, please leave a comment.


I was somewhat impressed with STL sorters at this point and found out I hadn't known much about their internal implementions except the foggiest idea that it would be a variant of quick sort. So I digged into the source(STL in VS2012 RC, specifically). As you know, there are two, one which doesn't maintain the relative order of records with equal keys(unstable) and the other which keeps it(stable).

std::sort is basically a quick sort with a median of medians algorithm to decide a partition pivot. Once the sequence becomes small enough(< 32), it switches to an insertion sort. Or if the recursion becomes too deep(> 1.5log2(N)), then it switches to a heap sort.

std::stable_sort is not a quick sort. It's a sort(pun intended) of a merge sort. First, it insertion-sorts each chunk of size 32 and merge them hierarchically. Initially, it tries to get a temp storage of the half size of the original sequence and use it when merging. If the allocation fails, then it tries a smaller size, but this means more recursions and merges, so slower, of course. In the sense that it is a combo of merge sort and insertion sort, one can say it's similiar to Timsort in essence, although the latter has much more complex tricks up its sleeve.

Codes for std::sort/std::stable_sort are relatively easy to follow(especially in comparison with understanding Smoothsort or Timsort), so I strongly recommend to take stock of them, if you haven't done before.


  • Asymptotic performance is not a whole story at all. The constant factor matters (an obvious thing, but still worth repeating)
  • Timsort can be a viable alternative when data are not so random
  • Smoothsort, though mathematically clever, doesn't cut the mustard
  • std::sort/std::stable_sort is pretty good in most of the cases
  • For small data, insertion sort is very good. So it's a good strategy to mix it with other algorithms to devise a good hybrid sorting algorithm



(This article has also been posted to my personal blog.)