Providing Controller Content

Controllers require content to manipulate and there are a number of options for setting this content. It can be done programmatically, through bindings, or automatically in response to actions configured in Interface Builder. This article describes the various methods of setting and modifying a controller’s content.

Setting the Content of a Controller

NSObjectController and its subclasses are initialized with the method initWithContent:, passing a content object or nil if you intend to use the content bindings. You can explicitly set the content of an existing controller using the setContent: method. It is far more common to provide content for controllers by establishing a binding to one of their exposed Controller Content bindings.

NSObjectController exposes a single binding for content called contentObject. You can establish a binding from contentObject to any object that is key-value-coding and key-value-observing compliant for the keys that you intend to have the controller operate on.

The collection controllers expose additional bindings: contentArray, contentSet, and contentArrayForMultipleSelection.

The contentArray binding is bound to an NSArray or an object that implements the appropriate array indexed accessor methods. Similarly the contentSet binding is bound to an NSSet object or an object that implements the appropriate set indexed accessor methods. The indexed accessor patterns are described in Indexed Accessor Patterns for To-Many Properties in the Key-Value Coding Programming Guide.

The contentArrayForMultipleSelection bindings is a special binding that is enabled only after establishing the contentArray or contentSet binding. The contentArrayForMultipleSelection binding is used as a fallback for the content of the controller when the contentArray or contentSet bindings return the multiple values marker. It allows you to use a different object and key path as the collection content in these cases and is often used when implementing a master-detail style interface.

For example, Figure 1 shows a typical master-detail interface. The array controller that provides the list of activities is designated as the master controller and the names of the activities are displayed in the table view on the left. A second array controller is the detail controller and provides the names of members displayed in the table view on the right.

Figure 1  Master-detail interface with and without contentArrayForMultipleSelection

The detail array controller’s contentArray binding is bound to the master array controller object with the key path selection.members. The value binding of the column in the detail table view is bound to the detail array controller’s key path. When a single activity is selected in the master table view, the detail table view displays the names of the to-many members relationship.

However, what happens if the master table view is configured to allow multiple selection? If only the detail array controller’s contentArray is bound, the detail table view is empty. While this is logical, it isn’t necessarily the desired results. A better option might be to display a unique list of the members in the selected activities. This is where the contentArrayForMultipleSelection binding and the key-value coding collection operators come into play.

By establishing a binding from contentArrayForMultipleSelection to the master array controller using the key path selection.@distinctUnionOfArrays.members, the detail table view will be populated with the names of the users in all the selected activities. Because the @distinctUnionOfArrays operator was used, members that are common to both activities do not appear as duplicate names in the detail table view.

Note that when the master array controller has a multiple selection the detail array controller’s add and remove buttons are disabled. The buttons’ enabled bindings are bound to the detail array controller’s canAdd and canRemove methods. The detail array controller automatically knows that it is unable to add and remove items to the composite array and updates the canAdd and canRemove state, causing the buttons to be disabled.

Traversing Tree Content with an NSTreeController

An NSTreeController requires that you describe how it should traverse the tree of objects, by specifying a child key path. This key path can be set programmatically using the NSTreeController method setChildrenKeyPath: or specified in the tree controller’s inspector panel in Interface Builder.

All child objects for the tree must be key-value-coding compliant for the same child key path. If necessary you should implement accessor methods in your model classes, or categories on those classes, that map the child key to the appropriate class-specific method name.

An optional count key path can be specified that, if provided, returns the number of child objects available. The count key path is set programmatically using the setCountKeyPath: method, or in the controller’s inspector panel in Interface Builder. Your model objects are expected to update the value of the count key path in a key-value-observing compliant method.

You can optionally provide a leaf key path that specifies a key in your model object that returns YES if the object is a leaf node, and NO if it is not. Providing this key path prevents the NSTreeController from having to determine if a child object is a leaf node by examining the child object and as a result improve performance. The leaf key path is set programmatically using the setLeafKeyPath: method, or in the controller’s inspector panel in Interface Builder. This key path affects how an NSOutlineView or NSBrowser bound to the tree controller displays disclosure triangles:

Specifying the Class of a Controller’s Content

In order for a controller to create new content objects automatically or in response to the target-action methods, it must know the appropriate class to use.

Controllers can be configured in one of two modes: object mode or entity mode. In object mode the content class is specified by the method setObjectClass: or in the controller inspector panel in Interface Builder. If the controller is configured in entity mode, the class is determined by the name of the entity or by the relationship that the entity defines for the key. The entity name is set using setEntityName: or in the controller inspector panel in Interface Builder.

If the controller is in object mode, the method newObject is used to create new objects. The default implementation simply allocates a new object of the class specified by objectClass or the entityName and sends the object a standard init message with no arguments. If your content objects require more complex initialization, you can subclass the appropriate controller class and override the newObject method.

An NSObjectController expects the content object to be of the class specified by the object class or entity name. When using the NSArrayController and NSTreeController the object class refers to the individual content objects, rather than the collection that holds the objects. In both cases the collections are expected to be key-value-coding compatible with arrays or sets, depending on the binding providing the content for the controller.

You are not restricted to having content of a single object class. You can create and insert objects of any class using one of the programmatic manipulation methods discussed in Programmatically Modifying a Controller’s Contents.

Automatically Prepares Content

NSObjectController and its classes provide support for automatically creating content for a controller when it is loaded from a nib file. This is typically configured in the controller inspector in Interface Builder by enabling the “Automatically Prepares Content” option. When this option is enabled, the controller creates and populates the content object or content collection when the controller is loaded from a nib file by calling the controller’s prepareContent method.

For example, when an NSObjectController that has an object class of NSMutableDictionary is loaded from a nib and automatically prepares content is selected, the content of the object controller will be set to a newly instantiated, empty NSMutableDictionary instance.

Similarly, if an NSArrayController that has an object class of Activity is loaded, the content is set to a newly instantiated NSMutableArray containing a single instance of Activity. NSTreeController acts the same way.

If the controller that is loaded is in entity mode, then the data corresponding to the entity name is fetched and is filtered using the controller’s configured filter predicate.

Programmatically Modifying a Controller’s Contents

When you modify a controller’s content object the only restriction is that you must do it in a key-value-observing compliant manner so that the controller is informed of the changes. NSObjectController and its subclasses provide a number of methods that allow you to modify the contents of a controller programmatically.

NSObjectController offers the addObject: and removeObject: methods. When used with an NSObjectController, they are synonymous with the setContent: method, passing the parameter object or nil respectively.

The addObject: and removeObject: methods have somewhat different behavior for NSArrayController. In this case their behavior is the same as NSArray's addObject: and removeObject: methods. Unlike NSArray’s implementations, these methods inform the array controller of the changes so that they can be reflected in the user interface.

NSArrayController extends the basic add and remove functionality with the following methods:

- (void)addObjects:(NSArray *)objects;
- (void)removeObjects:(NSArray *)objects;
- (void)removeObjectsAtArrangedObjectIndexes:(NSIndexSet *)indexes;
- (void)removeObjectAtArrangedObjectIndex:(unsigned int)index;
- (void)insertObjects:(NSArray *)objects atArrangedObjectIndexes:(NSIndexSet *)indexes;
- (void)insertObject:(id)object atArrangedObjectIndex:(unsigned int)index;

The addObjects: and removeObjects: methods add or remove the objects passed as parameters from the collection. The method removeObjectsAtArrangedObjectIndexes: method iterates through the passed indexes, removing each object from the collection. The method removeObjectAtArrangedObjectIndex: removes the single object at the specified index.

The insertObjects:atArrangedObjectIndexes: iterates through the array of objects passed as the first parameter, inserting each object into the arranged collection at the corresponding index in the NSIndexSet. Similarly, the insertObject:atArrangedObjectIndex: method inserts the single object specified as the first parameter into the collection at the specified index.

NSTreeController provides four additional methods that operate in a similar fashion, but use NSIndexPaths to specify the location in the collection rather than simple indexes:

-(void)removeObjectsAtArrangedObjectIndexPaths:(NSArray *)indexPaths;
-(void)removeObjectAtArrangedObjectIndexPath:(NSIndexPath *)indexPath;
-(void)insertObject:(id)object atArrangedObjectIndexPath:(NSIndexPath *)indexPath;
-(void)insertObjects:(NSArray *)objects atArrangedObjectIndexPaths:(NSArray *)indexPath;

Modifying Controller Content by Target-Action

In addition to the programmatic add, insert, and remove methods, the controller classes implement several target-action methods for modifying the controller’s content. These methods are typically configured as the actions for buttons in Interface Builder.

NSObjectController provides the following target-action methods:

- (void)add:(id)sender;
- (void)remove:(id)sender;

The add: method creates a new content object using the controller’s newObject method and sets it as the content object of the controller if there is currently no content. The remove: method sets the content object to nil.

NSArrayController overrides NSObjectController’s add: and remove: methods and adds the following method:

- (void)insert:(id)sender;

With an array controller add: creates a new object using the controller’s newObject method and appends it to the controller’s content collection. The remove: method removes the currently selected objects in the array controller from the collection. The insert: method creates a new object using the controller’s newObject method, and inserts it after the current selection.

When the controller is in entity mode the remove semantics are dependent on the configuration of the binding and on the entities definition of the relationship. A remove may result in the current selection being removed from a relationship or being removed from the object graph entirely.

NSTreeController adds the following methods:

- (void)addChild:(id)sender;
- (void)insertChild:(id)sender;

The addChild: method creates and inserts a new object at the end of the tree controller’s collection. The insertChild: method inserts a new child object relative to the current selection.

Again, the semantics are slightly different if the controller is in entity mode. The add: and insert: actions use the newObject method to create the object that is added to the collection. In object mode the addChild:, and insertChild: create objects of the class specified by objectClass, but do not use the newObject method to do so. In entity mode or if the parent object is a managed object subclass, the entity defines the class of object created for and newObject is never called.

In order to enable and disable the target-action buttons as appropriate, the object controller classes provide several methods that return Boolean values indicating which actions are currently possible, taking into account the controller’s current selection and configuration.

- (BOOL)canAdd;
- (BOOL)canRemove;
- (BOOL)isEditable;
- (BOOL)canInsert;
- (BOOL)canAddChild;
- (BOOL)canInsertChild;

The enabled binding of controls are typically bound to the controller using one of these methods. As the controller’s selection changes the values returned by these methods are updated and the bound user interface items are automatically enabled or disabled as appropriate.

De-coupling a Controller from its Content Bindings

In order to programmatically de-couple a controller from a content object that is bound to contentObject, contentArray or contentSet, you must break the binding connection and set the controller’s content to nil.

    [theController unbind:@"contentArray"];
    [theController setContent:nil];