Writings on tech, music and life by Konstantin Gredeskoul, aka 'kig'

C++ Newbie Tour: Getting Started with C++ on Mac OSX

C++ — A Newbie Tour

First I'll start with a confession: I started learning C++ somewhat recently, which may be puzzling if you know me well because I've been building my career in software engineering for well over twenty five years.

Well, despite having hands-on skils in C, Java, Ruby, Perl, even BASH, — I have somehow skipped C++. But then, as soon as I decided to play with hardware like Arduino it became clear that I wanted to take advantage of the Object Oriented techniques and Design Patterns that I acquired over the years and apply them to my Arduino code!

By that time I was very surprised to find that the vast majority of the existing Arduino projects and libraries were written rather badly, in C. The best ones are written in a mixture of C++ and Assembly. But, it turns out that you can have your cake and eat it too — meaning, you can apply OO principles to Arduino programming.

In this post we'll explore some of the things that a beginner C++ programmers (but not general beginner programmers) might find useful in getting quickly up to speed. We will look at which compilers support newer C++ standards C++11 and C++14 and the difference between linker and compiler, as well as dynamic vs static library. Finally, we'll offer a C++ project template you can use in your own projects.

For the record, you absolutely can build an Arduino library or a sketch using C++, as long is does not need to link with any standard C++ libraries (or, if they do — you have plenty of flash on your chip — thanks Teensy!).

So with this I kick off an official "C++ Newbie Tour" set of blog posts, with which I hope to share some of the important things I've been learning as I am going through this process, and in particular figure out something that those of us who've been using Rails for too many goddamn years :) are used to having nicely laid out projects, with clearly named folders for where things should go, and a magical dependency loader.

Getting Started with C++ on a Mac OSX

While I am on a Mac with Mac OS-X Sierra, and Xcode Developer tools, I much prefer to use JetBrains IDEs for programming in almost any language. I tend to resort to Atom for when I want to peek at a project, and open it quickly, but for actual development I am a big IDE fan. Using RubyMine I can out-code (in ruby) and out-refactor almost any VI user out there :) Feel free to challenge me!

So the components I will be using in my C++ learning quest are:

  • JetBrains CLion IDE is the IDE I will use for writing C++ code.
  • GoogleTest C++ Unit Test Library is a fantastic library we'll rely on
  • Because Clion supports only two build systems, we will use one of them — CMake. CMake is meant to be a much simpler Makefile generator, and is clearly gaining traction in the community.
  • We'll also use gcc compiler, of which I have two versions installed: one comes from HomeBrew, and one comes built in by Apple.

A Shortcut To Get Started Quickly

Before we go too far, I would like to bring your attention on the Github Project I maintain called cmake-project-template – this is a great starting point for any bare-bones C/C++ project that builds:

  • A static library
  • A binary that links with that library
  • And a test binary that runs the tests using Google Test framework.

So if you need a good starting point for your projects, head over there, fork it, rename it, and off you go.

Exploring C++ Compilers on a Mac

Let's assume you ran brew install gcc and it worked. It most likely installed gcc into /usr/local/bin because other /usr folders are not writeable since some version of OS-X.

In my BASH init files, while defining the PATH variable, I place /usr/local/bin before the standard system paths such as /usr/bin, bin, etc. Since Apple does not allow /usr/bin to be writeable, that's the only option when you want to override the older system binary.

Given that my PATH is "/usr/local/bin:/usr/bin:/bin:/usr/local/sbin:/usr/sbin:/sbin" etc, I can install GCC using HomeBrew, and default to it anytime I type gcc:

❯ gcc --version
gcc (Homebrew GCC 6.3.0_1) 6.3.0
Copyright (C) 2016 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
This is free software; see the source for copying conditions.  There is NO

That was the HomeBrew version.

And here is Apple's:

❯ /usr/bin/gcc --version
Configured with: --prefix=/Applications/ --with-gxx-include-dir=/usr/include/c++/4.2.1
Apple LLVM version 8.1.0 (clang-802.0.42)
Target: x86_64-apple-darwin16.5.0
Thread model: posix
InstalledDir: /Applications/

Now, if you do not have the Brew GCC installed, you should probably rectify this situation as quickly as possible. You see, the built-in compiler, on a 2017 machine with the latest OS-X, still does not appear to fully support C++11 and C++14 feature set.

How do I know this? Let's find out.

C++ vs C++11 vs C++14

Many things have changed in C++ since it was, just C++. So it's kind of important to know what your compiler supports before using a feature that will require rewrite if you are stuck on the older compiler.

Our test file will be called c++ver.cpp, and it's contents will look like this below. It simply uses a macro __cplusplus to determine the version, and prints it out:

#include <iostream>
int main(){
  #if __cplusplus == 201402L
    std::cout << "C++14" << std::endl;
  #elif __cplusplus==201103L
    std::cout << "C++11" << std::endl;
    std::cout << "C++" << std::endl;
  return 0;

Now, let's compile it and run it using both:

# First, let's use the default Apple's compiler installed with Dev Tools:
$ /usr/bin/g++ c++ver.cpp -o default-c++compiler
$ ./default-c++compiler

# Now, let's use gcc-6 compiler installed with Brew.
$ /usr/local/bin/g++-6 c++ver.cpp -o gcc6-c++compiler
$ ./gcc6-c++compiler

OK, so we know know what each supports. But, what about the size of the binary generated?

$ ls -al *c++*
-rwxr-x---  1 kig  staff  15788 May 12 17:59 default-c++compiler
-rwxr-x---  1 kig  staff   9180 May 12 17:59 gcc6-c++compiler

The newer compiler produced a binary of half the size!

And what if we add -O3 to optimize it?

$ ls -al *c++*
-rwxr-x---  1 kig  staff  10676 May 12 18:13 default-c++compiler
-rwxr-x---  1 kig  staff   9056 May 12 18:13 gcc6-c++compiler

Huh, so the build-in compiler got squashed quite a bit! While gcc6 pretty much stayed at nearly the same tiny byte size.

As a fun experiment, if we replace std::cout with printf, and instead of importing <iostream> — a C++ library, we could import a C library <stdio>?

The code now looks like this:

#include <stdio.h>
int main(){
#if __cplusplus==201402L
#elif __cplusplus==201103L
  return 0;

Compiles the same way, and hey - look at that!

-rwxr-x---  1 kig  staff  8432 May 12 18:17 default-c++compiler
-rwxr-x---  1 kig  staff  8432 May 12 18:17 gcc6-c++compiler

The files are now IDENTICAL sized (but they are not actually binary-identical, I checked).


What we learned here is that Apple's built-in gcc does not seem to support C++11 and C++14 standards, although it's possible I would need to pass some flags to it to enable it — not sure.

But if you install gcc with HomeBrew - you can use latest C++ features, and not only that, but your resulting binary will be smaller.

Not to mention, why make project OS-X specific when it can be platform independent right?

Build Targets

So targets are what you actually wanna build with your code. It can be one of three things:

  1. an executable binary
  2. a static library
  3. a shared library

Compiling Things...

The output of the G++ compiler is typically an object file. In C they just had a .o extension, in C++ they made it something else, I can't remember. The point is that the overall process is quite similar between C and C++ going from source to object file:

  • C/C++ pre-processor runs
  • compiler parses the file for syntax errors
  • compiler searches for all the headers included in your file
  • and once all symbols have been found, it spits out an object file.

Linking Things...

Next step is the Linker. The Linker comes in, all super-duper cool, and says — "Hey, y'all! You are all a bunch of boring compiled objects, and I am going to assemble you into something interesting, meaningful, otherwise you are just bunch of lonely algorithms at your own goddamn funeral"!

He's a bit of an emotional wreck, that linker.

So the Linker then combines one or more object files, links it with existing libraries, and turns the result into either an executable binary that you can typically run as ./a.out unless you specified it's name with -o badass-tool. But it can also produce a static or dynamic library that other programmers can import and use.

Static vs Dynamic (Shared) Libraries

  • Static libraries are literally embedded into the final binary, and so the binary will work whether or not the system has that library installed. That's a nice advantage, but the downside is that the binary will be much larger.

  • Dynamic libraries (also called "shared libraries") are not embedded into the final binary - instead a reference to an external file is embedded. When you run that binary, the shared linkage code embedded into it by the linker will search LD_LIBRARY_PATH for each shared library mentioned, and will fail if one or more are not found. The upside is having a small binary, but the downside is — the binary won't work unless dynamic library was found when the binary is run.

In fact, in the first example, we used the function std::cout << "value" to print to STDOUT. That function is pre-compiled for us, and lives in the standard C++ library. Similarly, printf lives in libc! The basic standard C library that exists on every UNIX system because literally everything with a tiny exception of uses functions from standard library. And therefore must be linked with it.

Summary of Compiler / Linker Difference

So, in a nutshell, compiler turns our little C++ classes and declarations into object files with symbol tables, while linker joins them all up, in the right order, to have a single binary where all all the symbols (like method calls) are resolved. When you execute a binary, and you are missing a dependency, you will get an appropriate error.

What's Next?

In the subsequent series of posts we'll go through the next steps:

  • Header files versus source files
  • Build systems based on make
  • Leveraging cmake to help with make
  • Using GoogleTest Library for unit tests
  • And putting it all together in a project.

Thanks for reading!

And once again, I suggest you check out cmake-project-template – it's great starting point for any bare-bones C/C++ project.

And, if you got here because you want to build Arduino software in C++, I suggest you check out **Arli — the Arduino library manager and project generator. To get started with it — run this:

$ gem install arli
$ arli -h
$ arli generate TimeMachine