Forgotten Xcode Debugger Tricks

If you’re a pro iOS programmer, you may be a master at using the debugger. I, however, am not quite there yet.

I recently realized I’m very inefficient at debugging. So I decided to revisit Paul Hegarty’s lecture on the debugging. I’m glad I did because I relearned a couple tricks I had forgotten about debugging in Xcode.

Trick #1 – Immediately Break On All Thrown Exceptions

Instead of having all your uncaught exceptions get tossed up the stack to main, tell the debugger to break once they are thrown. This will help you debug your code much faster since you will know right where the exceptions are thrown in your code. To set this up, do the following:

  1. Go to the Breakpoint navigator in Navigators pane on the left (Cmd + 6)
  2. Click the little plus sign (+) button at the very bottom left
  3. Select “Add Exception Breakpoint…”
  4. Keep the defaults and click “Done”.
Xcode Debugger Break On All Exceptions

Trick #2 – Conditional Breakpoints

This is awesome for those methods that get called over and over again and you want to set a breakpoint to check the value of some variable (e.g. make sure it’s not equal to 0 or nil) but you don’t want your app to break…every…single…time. To enable conditional breakpoints follow these steps:

  1. Set a breakpoint
  2. Right click (or two finger tap) over the breakpoint
  3. Select “Edit breakpoint”
  4. Enter in a value (e.g. result == 0)
Xcode Debugger Conditional Breakpoint

Trick #3 – Access Variables Using the Debugger CLI

Sometimes it’s nice to see the value of a variable without hovering over it. From the debugger console, you can type something like print [self myVariable] to see the value of myVariable. However, this only shows the most information, like the value of the pointer (which if it’s 0x0 then it’s nil).

Another alternative is to do something like po [self myVariable], which basically calls the description method on the the object so it will print it’s description (“po” stands for “print object”). If myVariable is an array, you will see the contents of the array. This becomes quite useful if you get into the habit of coding description methods for your classes because then you can enter po self in the debugger and get all the information you need on the current instance of your class.


As you can imagine, there are a lot of other useful things you can do with simple modifications of these three tricks (i.e. adding actions to tricks 1 & 2, ignoring breaks on trick 2, exploring the other commands that can be used in the debugger CLI, etc.).

Lesson learned: Don’t be inefficient with your debugging. Explore the available tools.

Compare Files Line-by-Line (or Image-to-Image)

Two of my favorite tools for line-by-line text comparison are diff and FileMerge. One reason why I like them so much is because they are lightweight alternatives for word processors like Microsoft Word, which you wouldn’t be inclined to open for coding (that’s one of my primary uses).

diff is a simple CLI-based tool accessible on most *nix systems. The basic format is diff <options> <file1> <file2>. It comes with a lot of powerful options too. To list a few:

  • Ignore tab expansion, blank lines, and other white space
  • Ignore case
  • Ignore matching lines
  • Side-by-side output
  • Compare files in directories
  • Recurse through subdirectories
  • Reporting identical files or simply whether or not differences exist

FileMerge is as simple as it gets for file comparison with a GUI. FileMerge comes with any installation of Xcode so it’s basically free. However, you’ll have to download the whole Xcode package (~1 GB) to get it unless you can find it floating around on the net alone.

FileMerge Screenshot

FileMerge allows you to select the changes you want to keep through a menu at the bottom-right that designates the favored document. By default, the right (as opposed to left) document is selected. Below the two separate documents is the final output that will result from the merge. FileMerge also allows you to edit/add content in this section before merging and saving.

As I was writing this post, I got a referral from Russ to a cross-platform comparison tool called Perforce. The cool thing about Perforce (besides being platform agnostic) is it compares not only files and folders, but images too. Not to mention it’s FREE. I only briefly read about it and watched some sample videos on the site, but it’s pretty powerful. It also can be used in parallel with Git. Read about it here.

After the recommendation to checkout Perforce, I started doing some more research and stumbled upon a couple other tools. First off, free code editor TextWrangler (Mac) includes file comparison. Diffmerge seems like a really cool alternative. It’s also free, available on multiple pllatforms and includes merging of 3 files and integration with Windows Explorer. Kaleidoscope is another option, though you’ll have to pay ~$40. It includes many of the same features as Perforce.

What do you use when you need to compare files? Have any recommendations?