C++ vs. Java: Choose Your Fighter

by | Jan 18, 2023 | Tech

Whether you’re a developer looking to expand your programming literacy or a recruiter writing a job post or prepping for an interview, understanding the differences between C++ and Java is important. Read on to learn more about what makes these programming languages unique, when you might use one over the other, and more. Let’s dive in.

What is C++?

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C++ is a high-level, object-oriented programming language for general purpose programming created by Danish computer scientist Bjarne Stroustrup in the mid-1980s. Since its inception, C++ has become one of the most popular programming languages in the world.

Some examples of software systems and applications built using C++ include:

  • Popular internet browsers Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox
  • Graphic design software applications like Adobe Illustrator
  • Database management software MySQL
  • Multiple video game engines, including Unreal Engine from Epic Games

Many software engineers choose C++ for its speed. A compiled language, C++ source code must be compiled into machine code before it can be executed. This combined with low memory overhead makes C++ the programming language of choice for many video game developers.

What is Java?

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Java is also a high-level, object-oriented programming language for general purpose programming, although it’s typically used for higher-level programming than C++. Java was created by James Gosling at Sun Microsystems (since acquired by Oracle) in 1995, designing it with the principle “write once, run anywhere” (WORA) top of mind.

Java is built for portability, meaning code written in this language should run similarly no matter where it’s executed. Java’s portability is achieved through something called Java bytecode.

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Just like C++, Java must be compiled before it can be executed. However, Java is compiled into Java bytecode, not machine code. This means Java code requires an interpreter—a virtual machine (VM) that lets the host CPU execute the code. Java bytecode makes Java a highly compatible programming language with a variety of hardware and operating systems, but bytecode combined with large memory requirements also makes Java notoriously slow.

Some real-world applications of Java include:

  • Android mobile app development
  • The Maestro Mars Rover controller, which controlled NASA’s Spirit Mars Exploration Rover
  • The Apache Hadoop framework
  • The popular PC video game Minecraft

When should you use C++ vs. Java?

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C++ and Java have a lot in common. They’re both high-level, object-oriented languages for general purpose programming, and they both enjoy a wide variety of use cases.

That being said, there are times when you’ll want to use one over the other.

When to use C++

C++ gives engineers more control over hardware—system resources and memory. This language works best when you need more granular control over computer hardware, since it more closely resembles machine code than Java does.

Compiled C++ code is also executable by the host CPU, making it ideal for use cases where speed is a priority. This is one of the reasons why it’s been called the video game language, although it also works well for building graphical user interfaces (GUIs).

When to use Java

When you don’t need as much control over computer hardware, Java might be the better option—especially when you need to execute the code on a variety of different platforms. Likewise, Java is a good choice when speed isn’t a top priority.

You can think of it like this: Java is better used as a general-use programming language while C++ is good when you need more granular control. The two languages are similar, but Java is generally considered to be easier to learn. This combined with its high portability makes it a more popular language among software developers—an important consideration when building a development team for your project.

Pros and cons of C++ and Java

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C++ and Java are powerful, secure programming languages that you can use for a variety of applications. That being said, no programming language is perfect.

C++ pros and cons

A pros and cons table for C++.
Pros Cons
Pro Granular control over computer hardware Con Must be compiled for each system where it will run
Pro Makes for fast execution Con No garbage collection; memory has to be managed manually
Pro Supports object-oriented programming Con Manual object management
Pro Widely used in a number of popular software systems Cons Compatible with a number of different high-level programming languages
Pro ISO standardized Con No commenting and documentation support
Pro Works great for video game development Con Sometimes considered overly complex

Java pros and cons

A pros and cons table for Java.
Pros Cons
Pro Highly portable Con Doesn't allow for as much granular hardware control
Pro Includes garbage collection for automatic memory management Con Memory-intensive
Pro Supports commenting and documentation Con Not very compatible with other high-level programming languages
Pro Supports object-level programming Cons Relatively slow execution
Pro Automatic object management Con Not ISO standardized
Pro More widely known among software engineers than C++

Where to learn C++ and Java

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Many software engineers learn C++ or Java (or both) in coding bootcamps or in college or university computer science programs. But thanks to the internet and the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs), it’s fairly easy for anyone to learn these languages.

If a formal learning environment is more your thing, check out the program and course catalogs at your local university or community college. BestColleges also maintains a list of the best coding bootcamps, so be sure to check there if you’re looking for something faster and more affordable than a traditional four-year degree.

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For online learning, check out learn-to-code sites like W3Schools, freeCodeCamp, and CodeAcademy. You can usually start learning on these sites for free with the option to pay for an official certification. Certification fees are drastically lower than the cost of attending a software bootcamp or university.

MOOC sites like Coursera, Udemy, and edX also offer courses in C++ and Java with the option to earn a certification for a nominal fee.

There’s a big wide world out there

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C++ and Java are two of the most important programming languages you can learn as a software engineer. You probably don’t need to learn both, so carefully consider your career goals before committing to one or the other.

If you’re looking for other programming languages to learn, check out in-demand languages like Python, PHP, and TypeScript.

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About Forrest Brown
Forrest Brown is the Content Manager at NerdRabbit. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two cats.

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