Test driving C# 7 features in Visual Studio “15” Preview

About two weeks ago, Microsoft released the first preview of the next version of Visual Studio. You can read about what’s new in the release notes. Some of the new features are really nice (for instance I love the new “lightweight installer”), but the most interesting for me is that it comes with a version of the compiler that includes a few of the features planned for C# 7. Let’s have a closer look at them!

Enabling the new features

The new features are not enabled by default. You can enable them individually with /feature: command line switches, but the easiest way is to enable them all by adding __DEMO__ and __DEMO_EXPERIMENTAL__ to the conditional compilation symbols (in Project properties, Build tab).

Local functions

Most functional languages allow you to declare functions in the body of other functions. It’s now possible to do the same in C# 7! The syntax for declaring a method inside another is pretty much what you would expect:

long Factorial(int n)
    long Fact(int i, long acc)
        return i == 0 ? acc : Fact(i - 1, acc * i);
    return Fact(n, 1);

Here, the Fact method is local to the Factorial method (in case you’re wondering, it’s a tail-recursive implementation of the factorial — which doesn’t make much sense, since C# doesn’t support tail recursion, but it’s just an example).

Of course, it was already possible to simulate local functions with lambda expressions, but there were a few drawbacks:

  • it’s less readable, because you have to declare the delegate type explicitly
  • it’s slower, due to the overhead of creating a delegate instance, and calling the delegate vs. calling the method directly
  • writing recursive lambdas is a bit awkward

Local functions have the following benefits:

  • when a method is only used as a helper for another method, making it local makes the relation more obvious
  • like lambdas, local functions can capture local variables and parameters of their containing method
  • local functions support recursion like any normal method

You can read more about this feature in the Roslyn Github repository.

Ref returns and ref locals

Since the first version of C#, it has always been possible to pass parameters by reference, which is conceptually similar to passing a pointer to a variable in languages like C. Until now, this feature was limited to parameters, but in C# 7 it becomes possible to return values by reference, or to have local variables that refer to the location of another variable. Here’s an example:

static void TestRefReturn()
    var foo = new Foo();
    Console.WriteLine(foo); // 0, 0
    foo.GetByRef("x") = 42;

    ref int y = ref foo.GetByRef("y");
    y = 99;

    Console.WriteLine(foo); // 42, 99

class Foo
    private int x;
    private int y;

    public ref int GetByRef(string name)
        if (name == "x")
            return ref x;
        if (name == "y")
            return ref y;
        throw new ArgumentException(nameof(name));

    public override string ToString() => $"{x},{y}";

Let’s have a closer look at this code.

  • On line 6, it looks like I’m assigning a value to the return of a method; what does this even mean? Well, the GetByRef method returns a field of the Foo class by reference (note the ref int return type of GetByRef). So, if I pass "x" as an argument, it returns the x field by reference. If I assign a value to that, it actually assigns a value to the x field.
  • On line 8, instead of just assigning a value directly to the field returned by GetByRef, I use a ref local variable y. The local variable now shares the same memory location as the foo.y field. So if I assign a value to it, it changes the value of foo.y.

Note that you can also return an array location by reference:

private MyBigStruct[] array = new MyBigStruct[10];
private int current;

public ref MyBigStruct GetCurrentItem()
    return ref array[current];

It’s likely that most C# developers will never actually need this feature; it’s pretty low level, and not the kind of thing you typically need when writing line-of-business applications. However it’s very useful for code whose performance is critical: copying a large structure is expensive, so if we can return it by reference instead, it can be a non-negligible performance benefit.

You can learn more about this feature on Github.

Pattern matching

Pattern matching is a feature very common in functional languages. C# 7 introduces some aspects of pattern matching, in the form of extensions to the is operator. For instance, when testing the type of a variable, it lets you introduce a new variable after the type, so that this variable is assigned with the left-hand side operand of the is, but with the type specified as the right-hand side operand (it will be clearer with an example).

Typically, if you need to test that a value is of type DateTime, then do something with that DateTime, you need to test the type, then cast to that type:

object o = GetValue();
if (o is DateTime)
    var d = (DateTime)o;
    // Do something with d

In C# 7, you can do this instead:

object o = GetValue();
if (o is DateTime d)
    // Do something with d

d is now declared directly as part of the o is DateTime expression.

This feature can also be used in a switch statement:

object v = GetValue();
switch (v)
    case string s:
        Console.WriteLine($"{v} is a string of length {s.Length}");
    case int i:
        Console.WriteLine($"{v} is an {(i % 2 == 0 ? "even" : "odd")} int");
        Console.WriteLine($"{v} is something else");

In this code, each case introduces a variable of the appropriate type, which you can use in the body of the case.

So far I only covered pattern matching against a simple type, but there are also more advanced forms. For instance:

switch (DateTime.Today)
    case DateTime(*, 10, 31):
        Console.WriteLine("Happy Halloween!");
    case DateTime(var year, 7, 4) when year > 1776:
        Console.WriteLine("Happy Independence Day!");
    case DateTime { DayOfWeek is DayOfWeek.Saturday }:
    case DateTime { DayOfWeek is DayOfWeek.Sunday }:
        Console.WriteLine("Have a nice week-end!");

How cool is that!

There’s also another (still experimental) form of pattern matching, using a new match keyword:

object o = GetValue();
string description = o match
        case string s : $"{o} is a string of length {s.Length}"
        case int i : $"{o} is an {(i % 2 == 0 ? "even" : "odd")} int"
        case * : $"{o} is something else"

It’s very similar to a switch, except that it’s an expression, not a statement.

There’s a lot more to pattern matching than what I mentioned here. You can look at the spec on Github for more details.

Binary literals and digit separators

These features were not explicitly mentioned in the VS Preview release notes, but I noticed they were included as well. They were initially planned for C# 6, but didn’t make it in the final release. They’re back in C# 7.

You can now write numeric literal in binary, in addition to decimal an hexadecimal:

int x = 0b11001010;

Very convenient to define bit masks!

To make large numbers more readable, you can also group digits by introducing separators. This can be used for decimal, hexadecimal or binary literals:

int oneBillion = 1_000_000_000;
int foo = 0x7FFF_1234;
int bar = 0b1001_0110_1010_0101;


So, with Visual Studio “15” Preview, you can start experimenting with the new C# 7 features; don’t hesitate to share your feedback on Github! And keep in mind that it’s still pre-release software, lots of things can change before the final release.