Components and Containers
A Swing GUI consists of two key items: components and containers. However, this distinction is mostly conceptual because all containers are also components. The difference between the two is found in their intended purpose: As the term is commonly used, a component is an independent visual control, such as a push button or slider. A container holds a group of components. Thus, a container is a special type of component that is designed to hold other components. Furthermore, in order for a component to be displayed, it must be held within a container. Thus, all Swing GUIs will have at least one container. Because containers are components, a container can also hold other containers. This enables Swing to define what is called a containment hierarchy, at the top of which must be a top-level container.
Let’s look a bit more closely at components and containers.
In general, Swing components are derived from the JComponent class. (The only exceptions to this are the four top-level containers, described in the next section.) JComponent provides the functionality that is common to all components. For example, JComponent supports the pluggable look and feel. JComponent inherits the AWT classes Container and Component.
Thus, a Swing component is built on and compatible with an AWT component.
All of Swing’s components are represented by classes defined within the package javax.swing. The following table shows the class names for Swing components (including those used as containers).
Notice that all component classes begin with the letter J. For example, the class for a label is JLabel; the class for a push button is JButton; and the class for a scroll bar is JScrollBar.
Swing defines two types of containers. The first are top-level containers: JFrame, JApplet, JWindow, and JDialog. These containers do not inherit JComponent. They do, however, inherit the AWT classes Component and Container. Unlike Swing’s other components, which are lightweight, the top-level containers are heavyweight. This makes the top-level containers a special case in the Swing component library.
As the name implies, a top-level container must be at the top of a containment hierarchy. A top-level container is not contained within any other container. Furthermore, every containment hierarchy must begin with a top-level container. The one most commonly used for applications is JFrame. The one used for applets is JApplet.
The second type of containers supported by Swing are lightweight containers. Lightweight containers do inherit JComponent. An example of a lightweight container is JPanel, which is a general-purpose container. Lightweight containers are often used to organize and manage groups of related components because a lightweight container can be contained within another container. Thus, you can use lightweight containers such as JPanel to create subgroups of related controls that are contained within an outer container.
The Top-Level Container Panes
Each top-level container defines a set of panes. At the top of the hierarchy is an instance of JRootPane. JRootPane is a lightweight container whose purpose is to manage the other panes. It also helps manage the optional menu bar. The panes that comprise the root pane are called the glass pane, the content pane, and the layered pane.
The glass pane is the top-level pane. It sits above and completely covers all other panes. By default, it is a transparent instance of JPanel. The glass pane enables you to manage mouse events that affect the entire container (rather than an individual control) or to paint over any other component, for example. In most cases, you won’t need to use the glass pane directly, but it is there if you need it.
The layered pane is an instance of JLayeredPane. The layered pane allows components to be given a depth value. This value determines which component overlays another. (Thus, the layered pane lets you specify a Z-order for a component, although this is not something that you will usually need to do.) The layered pane holds the content pane and the (optional) menu bar.
Although the glass pane and the layered panes are integral to the operation of a top-level container and serve important purposes, much of what they provide occurs behind the scene. The pane with which your application will interact the most is the content pane, because this is the pane to which you will add visual components. In other words, when you add a component, such as a button, to a top-level container, you will add it to the content pane. By default, the content pane is an opaque instance of JPanel.