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Magic with Merlin: Character sets
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By the numbers
Character set basics
Complete example
About the author
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Conversions and encoding schemes

Level: Introductory

John Zukowski ( sets)
President, JZ Ventures, Inc.
1 October 2002

Column iconThree classes in the java.nio.charset package help convert between character sets when moving legacy applications to the Java platform. John Zukowski walks you through these classes and provides an example that demonstrates the features. Share your thoughts on this article with the author and other readers in the accompanying discussion forum. (You can also click Discuss at the top or bottom of the article to access the forum.)

By the numbers
At the risk of stating the obvious, computers only understand numbers. What's perhaps less obvious, however, is that because they only understand numbers, computers need to use some form of mapping of numerical values to corresponding characters so that they can display text. It is these mappings (or character sets) that permit the computer to understand text. For instance, early desktop computers used ASCII for just such a mapping. When a computer that uses ASCII stores the numbers 72, 101, 108, and 112, it knows to display the word "Help," because in ASCII the number 72 is the value of H, 101 is e, 108 is l, and 112 is p. If, however, that computer was an early IBM mainframe using EBCDIC (rather than ASCII), the word "Help" would have been represented by the numbers 200, 133, 147, and 151.

Character set basics
Moving to the Java language, there are three classes in the java.nio.charset package to help with the mappings: Charset, CharsetEncoder, and CharsetDecoder. These classes work together so that you can take one mapping and convert it to another. In the case of going from another mapping to the Java mapping (Unicode), you use a decoder. Then, if you need to go from the Java mapping (Unicode) to a different mapping (or back to the original), you use an encoder. You can't convert directly between two non-Unicode formats with the java.nio.charset package, but by going through an intermediate Unicode format you can convert between two non-Unicode formats.

Before you can get a decoder or encoder, you need to get the Charset for the specific mapping. For instance, US-ASCII is the name of the mapping for the 7-bit ASCII character set. All you need to do is pass that name into the forName() method of Charset as shown here:

Charset charset = 

Once you have the Charset, just ask for CharsetDecoder and CharsetEncoder:

CharsetDecoder decoder =
CharsetEncoder encoder =  

After you have the decoder and encoder, you can then convert between the different character sets, as shown below:

  ByteBuffer bytes = ...;
  CharBuffer chars = decoder.decode(bytes);
  bytes = encoder.encode(chars);

Of course, if you aren't sure which character sets are available, you need to ask:

SortedMap map = 

You would then use a specific decoder to go from external bytes to internal characters. Then, if you needed to send data out of the Java code, you'd use the encoder to go from internal characters to external bytes. As far as which specific character sets are available, your runtime determines the complete set. Every Java programming implementation, however, must support the following encodings:

  • US-ASCII: 7-bit ASCII
  • ISO-8859-1: ISO Latin alphabet
  • UTF-8: 8-bit UCS Transformation Format
  • UTF-16BE: 16-bit UCS Transformation Format, big-endian byte order
  • UTF-16LE: 16-bit UCS Transformation Format, little-endian byte order
  • UTF-16: 16-bit UCS Transformation Format, byte order identified by marker

Different platforms may then support additional character sets specific to that platform (for instance, on Windows platforms, you'll find a Windows-1252 character set supported). If you need support for other sets, you can create your own. See the CharsetProvider API in the java.nio.charset.spi package.

Complete example
Listing 1 demonstrates the Java character set conversion features by converting the ASCII byte array values for the word "Help" (72, 101, 108, and 112). Unfortunately, there is no EBCDIC encoder by default, so we'll convert the value to a UTF-16LE byte array (which just adds in a "0" byte for the second byte of each character).

import java.nio.*;
import java.nio.charset.*;
import java.util.Arrays;

public class Convert {
  public static void main(String args[]) {
    Charset asciiCharset = Charset.forName("US-ASCII");
    CharsetDecoder decoder = asciiCharset.newDecoder();
    byte help[] = {72, 101, 108, 112};
    ByteBuffer asciiBytes = ByteBuffer.wrap(help);
    CharBuffer helpChars = null;
    try {
      helpChars = decoder.decode(asciiBytes);
    } catch (CharacterCodingException e) {
      System.err.println("Error decoding");
    Charset utfCharset = Charset.forName("UTF-16LE");
    CharsetEncoder encoder = utfCharset.newEncoder();
    ByteBuffer utfBytes = null;
    try {
      utfBytes = encoder.encode(helpChars);
    } catch (CharacterCodingException e) {
      System.err.println("Error encoding");
    byte newHelp[] = utfBytes.array();
    for (int i=0, n=newHelp.length; i<n; i++) {
      System.out.println(i + " :" + newHelp[i]);

Note: Besides manually performing the encoding and decoding, you can also provide a Charset to the java.ioInputStreamReader and java.ioOutputStreamWriter constructors and let them do the conversion for you.


About the author
John Zukowski John Zukowski conducts strategic Java consulting with JZ Ventures, Inc. and serves as the resident guru for a number of jGuru's community-driven Java FAQs. His latest books are Learn Java with JBuilder 6 from Apress and Mastering Java 2: J2SE 1.4 from Sybex. Reach him at with Merlin.

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