Why does an empty tableView check the number of sections but a non-empty one does not?

I have set up a demo application with a simple UITableViewController with no contents, but an 'Add' button in the toolbar. This launches a modal view controller which is again empty other than a 'cancel' button. The cancel button just tells its delegate (the UITableViewController) to dismiss the modal.

I then added an NSLog statement in the UITableViewController's numberOfSectionsInTableView method.

Ordinarily, when the table view controller loads I see two calls to numberOfSectionsInTableView. When I open and dismiss the modal (which returns to the UITableViewController) I see no further calls to numberOfSectionsInTableView.

However, if I return 0 from numberOfSectionsInTableView, in addition to the two calls on display, I also see an additional numberOfSections call when the modal is dismissed.

This only happens when numberOfSectionsInTableView returns 0, and I have added no additional code to my project besides that mentioned. This is easily verifiable by setting up a couple of controllers as I've described and modifying the result from numberOfSectionsInTableView.

My questions:

  • Why is the UITableView calling numberOfSectionsInTableView on return from a modal view?
  • Why is it only doing this if numberOfSectionsInTableView returns 0?
  • In addition to numberOfSectionsInTableView, the UITableViewController is also calling cellForRowAtIndex: when the modal is dismissed. In fact, it is attempting to display the new contents of its dataSource. How am I meant to manually animate a row insertion if the first row added is going to already be updated automatically? Shouldn't it be left to me to make sure that my UITableView is consistent with its dataSource?
  • What property is the UITableViewController checking to know that there is one or more sections (and therefore ask my delegate how many sections)? It can't be numberOfSectionsInTableView itself, since I would see it called whenever I return from the modal, not only when numberOfSections = 0.


From UITableViewController docs:

When the table view is about to appear the first time it’s loaded, the table-view controller reloads the table view’s data... The UITableViewController class implements this in the superclass method viewWillAppear:

If you watch in the debugger, the second call upon app launch is from UITableViewController's viewWillAppear: implementation - specifically the part referred to above, where tableView is sent the reloadData message.

Now, the first call to numberOfSectionsInTableView: on launch is also from UITableViewController's implementation of viewWillAppear: but not directly from that implementation's call to -[UITableView reloadData]. I'm not sure what the first call is all about.

But, to your question, the call to numberOfSectionsInTableView: that happens when dismissing the modal has exactly the same call stack as the second call from applicationDidFinishLaunching:withOptions:. My hypothesis then is that UITableView interprets having zero sections as being in a state where it has not loaded at all. That does make some sense actually. I'd consider an "empty" table view to be one without any rows, but one without any sections seems almost "uninitialized" to me. Furthermore the UITableViewDataSource documentation implies UITableView has by default one section. Returning zero from this method would be inconsistent with that assumption of the docs as well.

Now, to your concern about animation - if you give the table an empty section to work with, you will be able to have full control over inserting the first row with whatever animation you'd like, and not be locked in to when you need to reload.

I think the moral of the story is, don't return zero sections unless you really, really need to for some reason. The title of your post refers to this table view being "empty" as well but I think it's clear the framework finds zero sections to not be empty but unloaded.

Hope this helps! And thanks for posting the sample project for me to play around with.

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