# MATLAB Behavior: for 34

Posted by **Loren Shure**,

Conventional wisdom for programming MATLAB used to be that using `for` loops automatically forced a program to suffer from poor performance. Since MATLAB R13 (version 6.5), MATLAB has taken advantage
of some innovations that accelerate many `for` loops so the code has performance on par with either vectorized code or code written in a lower level language such as C
or Fortran. Obviously, details matter here. One thing that most people, even at MathWorks (!) don't appreciate is that the
`for` loop has richer behavior than simply looping over single elements at a time. An informal hallway survey near my office found
that even among experienced MATLAB programmers, far fewer than 50% knew about this behavior. Time to come clean.

### Contents

### Exploring the Behavior of 'for'

The MATLAB `for` statement is both more powerful and more subtle than many people realize because of the way it lets you iterate directly
over an array rather than making use of explicit indices or subscripts. Here's an example that displays the logarithms of
the positive numbers in a row vector:

x = [1 pi -17 1.3 289 -exp(1) -42]; for pnum = x(x > 0) disp('Iterating') log(pnum) end

Iterating ans = 0 Iterating ans = 1.1447298858494 Iterating ans = 0.262364264467491 Iterating ans = 5.66642668811243

This code is streamlined in comparison to the following, which uses an explicit index `ind`, with equivalent results (except for the details on the output that I added here).

pnums = x(x > 0); for ind = 1:numel(pnums) disp(['Iterating... Value #',int2str(ind)]) log(pnums(ind)) end

Iterating... Value #1 ans = 0 Iterating... Value #2 ans = 1.1447298858494 Iterating... Value #3 ans = 0.262364264467491 Iterating... Value #4 ans = 5.66642668811243

### Behavior of for

To use `for` as in the first example, you need to understand that `for` loops do not iterate over the first dimension of an array, but only over dimensions 2 to the maximum array dimension. See
this by transposing the input vector (turning it into a column).

xt = x.' for pnum = xt(xt > 0) disp('Iterating') log(pnum) end

xt = 1 3.14159265358979 -17 1.3 289 -2.71828182845905 -42 Iterating ans = 0 1.1447298858494 0.262364264467491 5.66642668811243

We see one iteration, with `pnum` taking on the `4-by-1` value `[1 pi 1.3 289]'`. In contrast, the version with the explicit index works the same way whatever the shape of x.

### More Examples

This iterates over s.

for s = [1,-2,8,pi,17], disp('Iterating'), disp(s), end

Iterating 1 Iterating -2 Iterating 8 Iterating 3.14159265358979 Iterating 17

This doesn't iterate, but processes the entire column as one entity.

for s = [1,-2,8,pi,17]', disp('Iterating'), disp(s), end

Iterating 1 -2 8 3.14159265358979 17

### What about Higher Dimensions?

This iterates over the 2nd and 3rd dimensions of A.

A = (1:12); A = reshape(A,[2 2 3])

A(:,:,1) = 1 3 2 4 A(:,:,2) = 5 7 6 8 A(:,:,3) = 9 11 10 12

for k = A, disp('iterating'), disp(k), end

iterating 1 2 iterating 3 4 iterating 5 6 iterating 7 8 iterating 9 10 iterating 11 12

The documentation makes it clear that `for` does not iterate over the first dimension. `for` *does* iterate over all of the dimensions of A except for the first (row) dimension. You can predict the number of iterations evaluating
this.

`numel(A,1,':')`

ans = 6

Returning to the first example, `numel(x(x >= 0),1,':')` evaluates to 4 when `x` is a row vector and `1` when x is a column vector.

### Possible Uses

Why use this version of `for`? Suppose you have a large dataset and the vectorized calculations can't take full advantage of functions such as `bsxfun`. You may have a case where the memory tradeoff for vectorization is too high. But you don't want to make function calls
for each array element since the function call overhead can get high as well. A possibly good compromise is to essentially
process the data in chunks, perhaps by 'virtual' columns. That way the function call overhead is more limited as is the memory.
To get the best outcome for this approach, you should preallocate the output array and assign into it with proper indexing
as you loop.

### What Do You Use?

Did you know about this `for` behavior? Do you ever take advantage of it? What strategies do you use for trading off memory use and function call overhead?
Let me know here.

Get the MATLAB code

Published with MATLAB® 7.9

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**Category:**- Less Used Functionality,
- Vectorization

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