Most fundamental I/O in Java is based on streams. A stream represents a flow of data, or a channel of communication with (at least conceptually) a writer at one end and a reader at the other. When you are working with the package to perform terminal input and output, reading or writing files, or communicating through sockets in Java, you are using various types of streams. Later in this chapter, we look at the NIO package, which introduces a similar concept called a channel. But for now, let's summarize the available types of streams:



Abstract classes that define the basic functionality for reading or writing an unstructured sequence of bytes. All other byte streams in Java are built on top of the basic InputStream and OutputStream.

Screenshot-1. The package
Java ScreenShot



Abstract classes that define the basic functionality for reading or writing a sequence of character data, with support for Unicode. All other character streams in Java are built on top of Reader and Writer.



"Bridge" classes that convert bytes to characters and vice versa according to a specific character encoding scheme. Remember: in Unicode, a character is not a byte!



Specialized stream filters that add the ability to read and write simple data types, such as numeric primitives and String objects in a universal format.



Specialized stream filters that are capable of writing whole serialized Java objects and reconstructing them.





Specialized stream filters that add buffering for additional efficiency.



Specialized streams that simplify printing text.





"Loopback" streams used that can be used in pairs to move data within an app. Data written into a PipedOutputStream or PipedWriter is read from its corresponding PipedInputStream or PipedReader.





Implementations of InputStream, OutputStream, Reader, and Writer that read from and write to files on the local filesystem.

Streams in Java are one-way streets. The input and output classes represent the ends of a simple stream, as shown in Screenshot-2. For bidirectional conversations, you'll use one of each type of stream.

Screenshot-2. Basic input and output stream functionality
Java ScreenShot

InputStream and OutputStream are abstract classes that define the lowest-level interface for all byte streams. They contain methods for reading or writing an unstructured flow of byte-level data. Because these classes are abstract, you can't create a generic input or output stream. Java implements subclasses of these for activities such as reading from and writing to files and communicating with sockets. Because all byte streams inherit the structure of InputStream or OutputStream, the various kinds of byte streams can be used interchangeably. A method specifying an InputStream as an argument can, of course, accept any subclass of InputStream. Specialized types of streams can also be layered to provide features, such as buffering, filtering, or handling higher-level data types. Reader and Writer are very much like InputStream and OutputStream, except that they deal with characters instead of bytes. As true character streams, these classes correctly handle Unicode characters, which was not always the case with byte streams. Often, a bridge is needed between these character streams and the byte streams of physical devices, such as disks and networks. InputStreamReader and OutputStreamWriter are special classes that use a character-encoding scheme to translate between character and byte streams. This section describes all the interesting stream types with the exception of FileInputStream, FileOutputStream, FileReader, and FileWriter. We postpone the discussion of file streams until the next section, where we cover issues involved with accessing the filesystem in Java.

Terminal I/O

The prototypical example of an InputStream object is the standard input of a Java app. Like stdin in C or cin in C++, this is the source of input to a command-line (non-GUI) program. It is an input stream from the environmentusually a terminal window or possibly the output of another command. The java.lang.System class, a general repository for system-related resources, provides a reference to standard input in the static variable It also provides a standard output stream and a standard input stream in the out and err variables, respectively.[*] The following example shows the correspondence:

[*] Standard error is a stream usually reserved for error-related text messages that should be shown to the user of a command-line app. It is differentiated from the standard output, which often might be redirected to a file or another app and not seen by the user.

 InputStream stdin =;
 OutputStream stdout = System.out;
 OutputStream stderr = System.err;

This example hides that System.out and System.err aren't really OutputStream objects, but more specialized and useful PrintStream objects. We'll explain these later, but for now we can reference out and err as OutputStream objects because they are a type of OutputStream as well. We can read a single byte at a time from standard input with the InputStream's read( ) method. If you look closely at the API, you'll see that the read( ) method of the base InputStream class is an abstract method. What lies behind is a particular implementation of InputStream that provides the real implementation of the read( ) method:

 try {
 int val = );
 } catch ( IOException e ) {

Although we said that the read( ) method reads a byte value, the return type in the example is int, not byte. That's because the read( ) method of basic input streams in Java use a convention from the C language to indicate the end of a stream with a special value. Byte values are returned (unsigned) as integers in the range 0 to 255 and the special value of integer -1 is used to indicate that end of stream has been reached. You'll need to test for this condition when using the simple read( ) method. You can then cast the value to a byte if needed. The following example reads each byte from an input stream and prints its value:

 int val;
 try {
 while( ( )) != -1 )
 } catch ( IOException e ) { ... }

As we've shown in the examples, the read( ) method can also throw an IOException if there is an error reading from the underlying stream source. Various subclasses of IOException may indicate that a source such as a file or network connection has had an error. Additionally, higher-level streams that read data types more complex than a single byte may throw EOFException, indicating an unexpected or premature end of stream. An overloaded form of read( ) fills a byte array with as much data as possible up to the capacity of the array and returns the number of bytes read:

 byte [] buff = new byte [1024];
 int got = buff );

We can also check the number of bytes available for reading at a given time on an InputStream with the available( ) method. Using that information, we could create an array of exactly the right size:

 int waiting = );
 if ( waiting > 0 ) {
 byte [] data = new byte [ waiting ]; data );

However, the reliability of this technique depends on the ability of the underlying stream implementation to detect how much data can be retrieved. It generally works for files but should not be relied upon for all types of streams. These read( ) methods block until at least some data is read (at least one byte). You must, in general, check the returned value to determine how much data you got and if you need to read more. (We look at nonblocking I/O later in this chapter.) The skip( ) method of InputStream provides a way of jumping over a number of bytes. Depending on the implementation of the stream, skipping bytes may be more efficient than reading them. Finally, the close( ) method shuts down the stream and frees up any associated system resources. It's important for performance to remember to close streams when you are done with them. In some cases, streams may be closed automatically when objects are garbage-collected, but it is not a good idea to rely on this behavior. In Java 5.0, a new flag interface was added to identify all types of stream, channel, and related utility classes that can be closed.

Character Streams

In early versions of Java, some InputStream and OutputStream types included methods for reading and writing strings, but most of them operated by naively assuming that a 16-bit Unicode character was equivalent to an 8-bit byte in the stream. Unfortunately, this works only for Latin-1 (ISO 8859-1) characters and not for the world of other encodings used with different languages. In , we saw that the String class has a byte array constructor and a corresponding getBytes( ) method that each accept character encoding as an argument. In theory, we could use these as tools to transform arrays of bytes to and from Unicode characters so that we could work with byte streams that represent character data in any encoding format. Fortunately, however, we don't have to. The Reader and Writer character stream classes were introduced as streams that handle character data only. When you use these classes, you think only in terms of characters and string data and allow the underlying implementation to handle the conversion of bytes to a specific character encoding. As we'll see, some direct implementations of Reader and Writer exist, for example, for reading and writing files. But more generally, two special classes, InputStreamReader and OutputStreamWriter, bridge the gap between the world of character streams and the world of byte streams. These are, respectively, a Reader and a Writer that can be wrapped around any underlying byte stream to make it a character stream. An encoding scheme is used to convert between possibly multibyte encoded values and Java Unicode characters. An encoding scheme can be specified by name in the constructor of InputStreamReader or OutputStreamWriter. For convenience, the default constructor uses the system's default encoding scheme. For example, let's parse a human-readable string from the standard input into an integer. We'll assume that the bytes coming from use the system's default encoding scheme:

 try {
 InputStreamReader converter = new InputStreamReader( );
 BufferedReader in = new BufferedReader( converter );
 String line = in.readLine( );
 int i = NumberFormat.getInstance( ).parse( line ).intValue( );
 } catch ( IOException e ) {
 } catch ( ParseException pe ) { }

First, we wrap an InputStreamReader around This reader converts the incoming bytes of to characters using the default encoding scheme. Then, we wrap a BufferedReader around the InputStreamReader. BufferedReader adds the readLine( ) method, which we can use to grab a full line of text (up to a platform-specific, line-terminator character combination) into a String. The string is then parsed into an integer using the techniques described in . The important thing to note is that we have taken a byte-oriented input stream,, and safely converted it to a Reader for reading characters. If we wished to use an encoding other than the system default, we could have specified it in the InputStreamReader's constructor like so:

 InputStreamReader reader = new InputStreamReader(, "UTF-8" );

For each character read from the reader, the InputStreamReader reads one or more bytes and performs the necessary conversion to Unicode. In , we use an InputStreamReader and a Writer in our simple web server example, where we must use a character encoding specified by the HTTP protocol. We also return to the topic of character encodings when we discuss the java.nio.charset API, which allows you to query for and use encoders and decoders explicitly on buffers of characters and bytes. Both InputStreamReader and OutputStreamWriter can accept a Charset codec object as well as a character encoding name.

Stream Wrappers

What if we want to do more than read and write a sequence of bytes or characters? We can use a "filter" stream, which is a type of InputStream, OutputStream, Reader, or Writer that wraps another stream and adds new features. A filter stream takes the target stream as an argument in its constructor and delegates calls to it after doing some additional processing of its own. For example, you could construct a BufferedInputStream to wrap the system standard input:

 InputStream bufferedIn = new BufferedInputStream( );

The BufferedInputStream is a type of filter stream that reads ahead and buffers a certain amount of data. (We'll talk more about it later in this chapter.) The BufferedInputStream wraps an additional layer of functionality around the underlying stream. Screenshot-3 shows this arrangement for a DataInputStream, which is a type of stream that can read higher-level data types, such as Java primitives and strings.

Screenshot-3. Layered streams
Java ScreenShot

As you can see from the previous code snippet, the BufferedInputStream filter is a type of InputStream. Because filter streams are themselves subclasses of the basic stream types, they can be used as arguments to the construction of other filter streams. This allows filter streams to be layered on top of one another to provide different combinations of features. For example, we could first wrap our with a BufferedInputStream and then wrap the BufferedInputStream with a DataInputStream for reading special data types. Java provides base classes for creating new types of filter streams: FilterInputStream, FilterOutputStream, FilterReader, and FilterWriter. These superclasses provide the basic machinery for a "no op" filter (a filter that doesn't do anything) by delegating all their method calls to their underlying stream. Real filter streams subclass these and override various methods to add their additional processing. We'll make an example filter stream later in this chapter.

Data streams

DataInputStream and DataOutputStream are filter streams that let you read or write strings and primitive data types comprised of more than a single byte. DataInputStream and DataOutputStream implement the DataInput and DataOutput interfaces, respectively. These interfaces define methods for reading or writing strings and all of the Java primitive types, including numbers and Boolean values. DataOutputStream encodes these values in a machine-independent manner and then writes them to its underlying byte stream. DataInputStream does the converse. You can construct a DataInputStream from an InputStream and then use a method such as readDouble( ) to read a primitive data type:

 DataInputStream dis = new DataInputStream( );
 double d = dis.readDouble( );

This example wraps the standard input stream in a DataInputStream and uses it to read a double value. readDouble( ) reads bytes from the stream and constructs a double from them. The DataInputStream methods expect the bytes of numeric data types to be in network byte order, a standard that specifies that the high-order bytes are sent first (also known as "big endian," as we discuss later). The DataOutputStream class provides write methods that correspond to the read methods in DataInputStream. For example, writeInt( ) writes an integer in binary format to the underlying output stream. The readUTF( ) and writeUTF( ) methods of DataInputStream and DataOutputStream read and write a Java String of Unicode characters using the UTF-8 "transformation format." UTF-8 is an ASCII-compatible encoding of Unicode characters commonly used for the transmission and storage of Unicode text. Not all encodings are guaranteed to preserve all Unicode characters, but UTF-8 does. You can also use UTF-8 with Reader and Writer streams by specifying it as the encoding name.

Buffered streams

The BufferedInputStream, BufferedOutputStream, BufferedReader, and BufferedWriter classes add a data buffer of a specified size to the stream path. A buffer can increase efficiency by reducing the number of physical read or write operations that correspond to read( ) or write( ) method calls. You create a buffered stream with an appropriate input or output stream and a buffer size. (You can also wrap another stream around a buffered stream so that it benefits from the buffering.) Here's a simple buffered input stream called bis:

 BufferedInputStream bis =
 new BufferedInputStream(myInputStream, 4096);
 ... );

In this example, we specify a buffer size of 4096 bytes. If we leave off the size of the buffer in the constructor, a reasonably sized one is chosen for us. On our first call to read( ), bis TRies to fill the entire 4096-byte buffer with data, if it's available. Thereafter, calls to read( ) retrieve data from the buffer, which is refilled as necessary. A BufferedOutputStream works in a similar way. Calls to write( ) store the data in a buffer; data is actually written only when the buffer fills up. You can also use the flush( ) method to wring out the contents of a BufferedOutputStream at any time. The flush( ) method is actually a method of the OutputStream class itself. It's important because it allows you to be sure that all data in any underlying streams and filter streams has been sent (before, for example, you wait for a response). Some input streams such as BufferedInputStream support the ability to mark a location in the data and later reset the stream to that position. The mark( ) method sets the return point in the stream. It takes an integer value that specifies the number of bytes that can be read before the stream gives up and forgets about the mark. The reset( ) method returns the stream to the marked point; any data read after the call to mark( ) is read again. This functionality could be useful when you are reading the stream in a parser. You may occasionally fail to parse a structure and so must try something else. In this situation, you can have your parser generate an error (a homemade ParseException) and then reset the stream to the point before it began parsing the structure:

 BufferedInputStream input;
 try {
 return( parseDataStructure( input ) );
 catch ( ParseException e ) {
 input.reset( );

The BufferedReader and BufferedWriter classes work just like their byte-based counterparts but operate on characters instead of bytes.

PrintWriter and PrintStream

Another useful wrapper stream is This class provides a suite of overloaded print( ) methods that turn their arguments into strings and push them out the stream. A complementary set of println( ) convenience methods appends a newline to the end of the strings. Java 5.0 added new printf( ) (and identical format( )) methods that allow you to write printf-style formatted output to the stream. PrintWriter is an unusual character stream because it can wrap either an OutputStream or another Writer. PrintWriter is the more capable big brother of the older PrintStream byte stream. The System.out and System.err streams are PrintStream objects; you have already seen such streams strewn throughout this tutorial:

 System.out.print("Hello, world...\n");
 System.out.println("Hello, world...");
 System.out.println("The answer is %d", 17 );
 System.out.println( 3.14 );

PrintWriter and PrintStream have a strange, overlapping history. Early versions of Java did not have the Reader and Writer classes and streams such as PrintStream, which must of necessity convert bytes to characters; those versions simply made assumptions about the character encoding. As of Java 1.1, the PrintStream class was salvaged by having it translate characters to bytes using the system's default encoding scheme. For all new development, however, use a PrintWriter instead of a PrintStream. Because a PrintWriter can wrap an OutputStream, the two classes are more or less interchangeable. When you create a PrintWriter object, you can pass an additional Boolean value to the constructor, specifying whether it should "auto-flush." If this value is true, the PrintWriter automatically performs a flush( ) on the underlying OutputStream or Writer each time it sends a newline:

 boolean autoFlush = true;
 PrintWriter p = new PrintWriter( myOutputStream, autoFlush );

When this technique is used with a buffered output stream, it corresponds to the behavior of terminals that send data line by line. The other big advantage that print streams have over regular character streams is that they shield you from exceptions thrown by the underlying streams. Unlike methods in other stream classes, the methods of PrintWriter and PrintStream do not throw IOExceptions. Instead they provide a method to explicitly check for errors on your own basis. This makes life a lot easier for printing text, which is a very common operation. You can check for errors with the checkError( ) method:

 System.out.println( reallyLongString );
 if ( System.out.checkError( ) ) // uh oh


Normally, our apps are directly involved with one side of a given stream at a time. PipedInputStream and PipedOutputStream (or PipedReader and PipedWriter), however, let us create two sides of a stream and connect them, as shown in Screenshot-4. This can be used to provide a stream of communication between threads, for example, or as a loopback for testing. Most often it's used as a crutch to interface a stream-oriented API to a non-stream-oriented API.

Screenshot-4. Piped streams
Java ScreenShot

To create a byte-stream pipe, we use both a PipedInputStream and a PipedOutputStream. We can simply choose a side and then construct the other side using the first as an argument:

 PipedInputStream pin = new PipedInputStream( );
 PipedOutputStream pout = new PipedOutputStream( pin );


 PipedOutputStream pout = new PipedOutputStream( );
 PipedInputStream pin = new PipedInputStream( pout );

In each of these examples, the effect is to produce an input stream, pin, and an output stream, pout, that are connected. Data written to pout can then be read by pin. It is also possible to create the PipedInputStream and the PipedOutputStream separately and then connect them with the connect( ) method. We can do exactly the same thing in the character-based world, using PipedReader and PipedWriter in place of PipedInputStream and PipedOutputStream. Once the two ends of the pipe are connected, use the two streams as you would other input and output streams. You can use read( ) to read data from the PipedInputStream (or PipedReader) and write( ) to write data to the PipedOutputStream (or PipedWriter). If the internal buffer of the pipe fills up, the writer blocks and waits until space is available. Conversely, if the pipe is empty, the reader blocks and waits until some data is available. One advantage to using piped streams is that they provide stream functionality in our code without compelling us to build new, specialized streams. For example, we can use pipes to create a simple logging or "console" facility for our app. We can send messages to the logging facility through an ordinary PrintWriter, and then it can do whatever processing or buffering is required before sending the messages off to their ultimate destination. Because we are dealing with string messages, we use the character-based PipedReader and PipedWriter classes. The following example shows the skeleton of our logging facility:

 class LoggerDaemon extends Thread {
 PipedReader in = new PipedReader( );
 LoggerDaemon( ) {
 start( );
 public void run( ) {
 BufferedReader bin = new BufferedReader( in );
 String s;
 try {
 while ( (s = bin.readLine( ))
 != null ) {
 // process line of data
 } catch (IOException e ) { }
 PrintWriter getWriter( ) throws IOException {
 return new PrintWriter( new PipedWriter( in ) );
 class myapp {
 public static void main ( String [] args ) throws IOException {
 PrintWriter out = new LoggerDaemon( ).getWriter( );
 out.println("app starting...");
 // ...
 out.println("Warning: does not compute!");
 // ...

LoggerDaemon reads strings from its end of the pipe, the PipedReader named in. LoggerDaemon also provides a method, getWriter( ), which returns a PipedWriter that is connected to its input stream. To begin sending messages, we create a new LoggerDaemon and fetch the output stream. In order to read strings with the readLine( ) method, LoggerDaemon wraps a BufferedReader around its PipedReader. For convenience, it also presents its output pipe as a PrintWriter rather than a simple Writer. One advantage of implementing LoggerDaemon with pipes is that we can log messages as easily as we write text to a terminal or any other stream. In other words, we can use all our normal tools and techniques (including printf( )). Another advantage is that the processing happens in another thread, so we can go about our business while any processing takes place.

Streams from Strings and Back

StringReader is another useful stream class; it essentially wraps stream functionality around a String. Here's how to use a StringReader:

 String data = "There once was a man from Nantucket...";
 StringReader sr = new StringReader( data );
 char T = (char) );
 char h = (char) );
 char e = (char) );

Note that you will still have to catch IOExceptions thrown by some of the StringReader's methods. The StringReader class is useful when you want to read data in a String as if it were coming from a stream, such as a file, pipe, or socket. Suppose you create a parser that expects to read from a stream, but you want to provide an alternative method that also parses a big string. You can easily add one using StringReader. Turning things around, the StringWriter class lets us write to a character buffer via an output stream. The internal buffer grows as necessary to accommodate the data. When we are done, we can fetch the contents of the buffer as a String. In the following example, we create a StringWriter and wrap it in a PrintWriter for convenience:

 StringWriter buffer = new StringWriter( );
 PrintWriter out = new PrintWriter( buffer );
 out.println("A moose once bit my sister.");
 out.println("No, really!");
 String results = buffer.toString( );

First, we print a few lines to the output stream to give it some data and then retrieve the results as a string with the toString( ) method. Alternately, we could get the results as a StringBuffer object using the getBuffer( ) method. The StringWriter class is useful if you want to capture the output of something that normally sends output to a stream, such as a file or the console. A PrintWriter wrapped around a StringWriter is a viable alternative to using a StringBuffer to construct large strings piece by piece. The ByteArrrayInputStream and ByteArrayOutputStream work with bytes in the same way the previous examples worked with characters. You can write byte data to a ByteArrayOutputStream and retrieve it later with the toByteArray( ) method. Conversely, you can construct a ByteArrayInputStream from a byte array as StringReader does with a String. For example, if we want to see exactly what our DataOutputStream is writing when we tell it to encode a particular value, we could capture it with a byte array output stream:

 ByteArrayOutputStream bao = new ByteArrayOutputStream( );
 DataOutputStream dao = new DataOutputStream( bao );
 dao.writeInt( 16777216 );
 dao.flush( );
 byte [] bytes = bao.toByteArray( );
 for( byte b : bytes )
 System.out.println( b ); // 1, 0, 0, 0

The rot13InputStream Class

Before we leave streams, let's try making one of our own. We mentioned earlier that specialized stream wrappers are built on top of the FilterInputStream and FilterOutputStream classes. It's quite easy to create our own subclass of FilterInputStream that can be wrapped around other streams to add new functionality. The following example, rot13InputStream, performs a rot13 (rotate by 13 letters) operation on the bytes that it reads. rot13 is a trivial obfuscation algorithm that shifts alphabetic characters to make them not quite human-readable (it simply passes over nonalphabetic characters without modifying them). rot13 is cute because it's symmetric; to "un-rot13" some text you simply rot13 it again. We use the rot13InputStream class in the "Content and Protocol Handlers" section of the expanded material on the CD that comes with this tutorial (view CD content online at We've placed the class in the package to facilitate reuse. Here's our rot13InputStream class:

 public class rot13InputStream extends FilterInputStream {
 public rot13InputStream ( InputStream i ) {
 super( i );
 public int read( ) throws IOException {
 return rot13( ) );
 // should override additional read( ) methods
 private int rot13 ( int c ) {
 if ( (c >= 'A') && (c <= 'Z') )
 if ( (c >= 'a') && (c <= 'z') )
 return c;

The FilterInputStream needs to be initialized with an InputStream; this is the stream to be filtered. We provide an appropriate constructor for the rot13InputStream class and invoke the parent constructor with a call to super( ). FilterInputStream contains a protected instance variable, in, in which it stores a reference to the specified InputStream, making it available to the rest of our class. The primary feature of a FilterInputStream is that it delegates its input tasks to the underlying InputStream. For instance, a call to FilterInputStream's read( ) method simply turns around and calls the read( ) method of the underlying InputStream to fetch a byte. The filtering happens when we do our extra work on the data as it passes through. In our example, the read( ) method fetches a byte from the underlying InputStream, in, and then performs the rot13 shift on the byte before returning it. The rot13( ) method shifts alphabetic characters while simply passing over all other values, including the end-of-stream value (-1). Our subclass is now a rot13 filter. read( ) is the only InputStream method that FilterInputStream overrides. All other normal functionality of an InputStream, such as skip( ) and available( ), is unmodified, so calls to these methods are answered by the underlying InputStream. Strictly speaking, rot13InputStream works only on an ASCII byte stream since the underlying algorithm is based on the Roman alphabet. A more generalized character-scrambling algorithm would have to be based on FilterReader to handle 16-bit Unicode classes correctly. (Anyone want to try rot32768?) We should also note that we have not fully implemented our filter: we should also override the version of read( ) that takes a byte array and range specifiers, perhaps delegating it to our own read. Unless we do so, a reader using that method would get the raw stream.