Z-order: The difference between lightweight and heavyweight components

Swing components are referred to as lightweights while AWT components are referred to as heavyweights. The difference between lightweight and heavyweight components is z-order: the notion of depth or layering. Each heavyweight component occupies its own z-order layer. All lightweight components are contained inside heavyweight components and maintain their own layering scheme defined by Swing. When we place a heavyweight inside another heavyweight container it will, by definition, overlap all lightweights in that container.

What this ultimately means is that we should avoid using both heavyweight and lightweight components in the same container whenever possible. This does not mean that we can never mix AWT and Swing components successfully. It just means we have to be careful and know which situations are safe and which are not. Since we probably won’t be able to completely eliminate the use of heavyweight components anytime soon, we have to find ways to make the two technologies work together in an acceptable way.

The most important rule to follow is that we should never place heavyweight components inside lightweight containers that commonly support overlapping children. Some examples of these containers are JInternalFrame, JScrollPane, JLayeredPane, and JDesktopPane. Secondly, if we use a popup menu in a container holding a heavyweight component, we need to force that popup to be heavyweight. To control this for a specific JPopupMenu instance we can use its setLightWeightPopupEnabled() method.

Note: For JMenus (which use JPopupMenus to display their contents) we first have to use the getPopupMenu() method to retrieve the associated popup menu. Once retrieved we can then call setLightWeightPopupEnabled(false) on that popup to enforce heavyweight functionality. This needs to be done with each JMenu in our application, including menus contained within menus, etc.

Alternatively we can call JPopupMenu’s static setDefaultLightWeightPopupEnabled() method, and pass it a value of false to force all popups in a Java session to be heavyweight. Note that this will only affect popup menus created after this call is made. It is therefore a good idea to call this method early within initialization.

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