What Is the Time Complexity of Arrays.sort() and Collections.sort()

The interviewer asking the time complexity of Java's sorting algorithms stumped me. Top companies expect engineers to understand sorting and its use cases.

Written by Gregory Gaines
4 min read
Clock with a time complexity
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Table of Contents

Knowing time complexities are crucial for every software engineer, especially those who want to work at the top tech companies. The time complexity of sorting algorithms is especially important since their the basis for many other algorithms. This article explores the time complexity of Arrays.sort and Collections.sort, so you won't be surprised during your interview like I was.

Same Logic Under the Hood

Collections.sort works on Lists whilst Arrays.sort works on arrays. Inspecting the source reveals that Collections.sort converts the passed List into an array. After the conversion, Arrays.sort is called on the newly allocated array.

1default void sort(Comparator << ? super E > c) { 2 // Convert list into array 3 Object[] a = this.toArray(); 4 // Call Arrays.sort on newly allocated array 5 Arrays.sort(a, (Comparator) c); 6 ListIterator < E > i = this.listIterator(); 7 for (Object e: a) { 8; 9 i.set((E) e); 10 } 11}

Time Complexity

As of Java 8, Arrays.sort uses two sorting algorithms. One is a modification of Quicksort named dual-pivot quicksort, the other an adaptation of MergeSort named Timsort. Both have a time complexity of O(n log n), where n is the total number of items in the array.

With a Comparator

The time complexity including the comparator is O(n * (log n) * c), where c is the time complexity of the comparator. By default, Arrays.sort uses a comparator following the natural ordering of the content for an O(1) time complexity. Programmer-defined comparators with little computational work also resolve to an O(1) time complexity.

Let's say you define a comparator that had to search through files for a time complexity of O(f), where f is the number of files. The time complexity for sorting results to O(n * (log n) * (O(f) + O(f)) or O(n * (log n) * O(f)), accounting for the O(f) algorithm that runs on each comparison.

Which Algorithm is Used

The parameter type decides the chosen sorting algorithm. Take note of Arrays.sorts method signatures below.

1public static void sort(int[] a) { 2 DualPivotQuicksort.sort(a, 0, a.length - 1, null, 0, 0); 3} 4 5public static void sort(char[] a) { 6 DualPivotQuicksort.sort(a, 0, a.length - 1, null, 0, 0); 7} 8 9public static void sort(float[] a) { 10 DualPivotQuicksort.sort(a, 0, a.length - 1, null, 0, 0); 11}
1public static void sort(T[] a, Comparator<? super T> c) { 2 if (c == null) { 3 sort(a); 4 } else { 5 if (LegacyMergeSort.userRequested) 6 legacyMergeSort(a, c); 7 else 8 TimSort.sort(a, 0, a.length, c, null, 0, 0); 9 } 10}

We learn that Quicksort accepts primitive data types while Timsort accepts generics. The reason being Timsort is a stable sorting algorithm while Quicksort isn't. A stable sorting algorithm means if two items of equal value sit next to each other, they will maintain the same order after sorting.

When dealing with primitive data types, two integers swapping positions doesn't matter since they are essentially equal and you can't notice a difference. On the other hand, when sorting objects, equal objects unnecessarily swapping positions can cause harmful effects. Not to mention objects can contain distinct properties which can identify when a swap is made.


  • Arrays.sort works an array and Collections.sort works on Lists.

  • Collections.sort converts Lists into arrays then calls Arrays.sort.

  • Arrays.sort has two different sorting algorithms. Quicksort, a non-stable algorithm, and Timsort, a stable algorithm. Both share a time complexity of O(n log n), where n is the total number of items in the array.

  • Including the comparator is O(n * (log n) * c, where c is the time complexity of the comparator.

  • Arrays.sort determines which sorting algorithm to use based on the type of parameter. Quicksort for primitive data types and Timsort for objects.

  • A stable sorting algorithm means items of equal value stay in the same order after sorting.

About the Author

I'm Gregory Gaines, a simple software engineer @Google who's trying to write good articles. If you want more content, follow me on Twitter at @GregoryAGaines.

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Thanks for reading!

About the author.

I'm Gregory Gaines, a software engineer that loves blogging, studying computer science, and reverse engineering.

I'm currently employed at Google; all opinions are my own.

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