Library: Qt

Qt is a massive library (or set of libraries) for low-level C++, GUIs, networking, multimedia, Unicode, string translation, etc. It also includes QML, a new language that simplifies GUI development. Qt supports mobile app development (Android, IOS, etc.) as well. Furthermore, it has a cool IDE, Qt Creator with a built-in help system, debugger, and drag-and-drop GUI designer. Best of all, the GUIs and other code work the same on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X, and they even look “native” on each platform.

These notes will explore some of the fundamental features of Qt. There is extensive documentation for Qt in the Qt Creator IDE as well as their website.

Meta-object compiler

Qt originated in a time (1991) when C++ compilers were immature. In order to use advanced features in C++ code, the Qt library includes a program called moc (meta-object compiler) which transforms Qt-style C++ into real C++. It is executed before the C++ compiler looks at the code. By using moc, we can use advanced features like signals and slots (described below), reflection, and “dynamic object properties” (which we won’t get into).

You can use moc in a Makefile in the way described on this page. But simpler is to use the qmake program provided with Qt. Check out the qmake documentation for details about how to write a .pro file (project file) instead of a Makefile. (Note: qmake generates a Makefile from your .pro file.)

Quick overview of some features

Qt has new implementations of STL-style containers. As mentioned above, Qt originated in the early days of C++, when STL containers were subpar. In any event, the Qt containers are possibly faster and more consistent than STL containers. This page has a good overview of Qt containers.


Signals and slots

A core concept in Qt is “signals and slots.” This is how objects communicate with each other. Signals and slots are used extensively in GUI applications: clicking a button generates a signal, which is picked up by a slot in some other class.

We’ll look at a simple example, borrowed from Qt’s own tutorial. To use signals and slots, your class needs to inherit from QObject (possibly among others), and needs the Q_OBJECT macro at the top of the class definition. This is noticed by moc, which generates the necessary C++ code to deal with signals and slots.

Here is counter.h:

// counter.h
#ifndef COUNTER_H
#define COUNTER_H

#include <QObject>

class Counter : public QObject

    Counter() { m_value = 0; }
    int value() const { return m_value; }

public slots:
    void setValue(int value);

    void valueChanged(int newValue);

    int m_value;

#endif // COUNTER_H

Here is counter.cpp:

// counter.cpp
#include "counter.h"

void Counter::setValue(int value)
    if (value != m_value) {
        m_value = value;
        emit valueChanged(value);

Here is the main file:

#include <iostream>
#include "counter.h"
using namespace std;

int main()
    Counter a, b;
    QObject::connect(&a, SIGNAL(valueChanged(int)),
                     &b, SLOT(setValue(int)));
    a.setValue(12);     // a.value() == 12, b.value() == 12
    cout << "a = " << a.value() << ", b = " << b.value() << endl;
    b.setValue(48);     // a.value() == 12, b.value() == 48
    cout << "a = " << a.value() << ", b = " << b.value() << endl;
    return 0;

Boost also has signals/slots support. See their tutorial, and this StackOverflow post.

Simple GUI

Let’s take a quick look at the default GUI application template. Here is main.cpp:

#include "mainwindow.h"
#include <QApplication>

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
    QApplication a(argc, argv);
    MainWindow w;
    return a.exec();

The QApplication line establishes a global pointer qApp (which you don’t ever need to use) that manages the GUI application. It also parses command line arguments. The QApplication object should be created before any GUI objects are created.

MainWindow is a class defined in mainwindow.h:


#include <QMainWindow>

namespace Ui {
class MainWindow;

class MainWindow : public QMainWindow

    explicit MainWindow(QWidget *parent = 0);

    Ui::MainWindow *ui;

#endif // MAINWINDOW_H

Here is mainwindow.cpp:

#include "mainwindow.h"
#include "ui_mainwindow.h"

MainWindow::MainWindow(QWidget *parent) :
    ui(new Ui::MainWindow)

    delete ui;

All the MainWindow class accomplishes is to set up the GUI layout defined in mainwindow.ui. However, this MainWindow class would be expanded to respond to mouse clicks, key presses, etc. in the future in order to make the GUI actually do something. Signals and slots would be used for that purpose.

The mainwindow.ui file is XML:

<ui version="4.0">
 <widget class="QMainWindow" name="MainWindow" >
  <property name="geometry" >
  <property name="windowTitle" >
  <widget class="QMenuBar" name="menuBar" />
  <widget class="QToolBar" name="mainToolBar" />
  <widget class="QWidget" name="centralWidget" />
  <widget class="QStatusBar" name="statusBar" />
 <layoutDefault spacing="6" margin="11" />

But you probably don’t want to edit that directly. Use Qt Creator’s built in GUI form editor:

Qt Creator form editor

We’ll add a button, and create a signal/slot connection. First, we need to make the slot. Go to the mainwindow.h file and add this slot:

public slots:
    void doit();

We want a slot with no arguments because the clicked() signal has no arguments. Slots (and signals) are always void methods. Slots have access qualifiers (public, private, protected) because you might want to restrict how other classes execute your methods (a slot is basically a class method). On the other hand, signals have no access protection since the class itself emits signals.

In mainwindow.cpp, define what the doit() function does:

void MainWindow::doit()
    qDebug("hello world!"); // print a console message

Now, in the MainWindow constructor, connect the signal and slot:

MainWindow::MainWindow(QWidget *parent) :
    ui(new Ui::MainWindow)
    connect(ui->pushButton, SIGNAL(clicked()), this, SLOT(doit()));

Now run the application.

CSCI 221 material by Joshua Eckroth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Source code for this website available at GitHub.