Android AsyncTasks during a screen rotation, Part I

February 14, 2011

During development of the Android Recipe Distiller app, I ran into a subtle issue around the usage of the AsyncTask class.  It ended up being a little trickier than I thought it would be to perform the relatively mundane task of bringing up a progress dialog and making a webservice call in the background. This first part goes over some of the suggested solutions and the next post will go over what I ended up implementing.

My initial implementation started with the AsyncTask as an inner class of the Activity.  A progress dialog was created in onPreExecute, the web service call made in doInBackground, and then the dialog was dismissed in onPostExecute. This was all well and good until you tried rotating the screen at which point the app would crash.

Basically, the issue is that once you call execute() on the AsyncTask, the thread performing the long running operation will continue doing its thing regardless of the state of the Activity that spawned it.  When the screen is rotated, the Activity is destroyed and a new instance is created.  The problem is that any currently running AsyncTasks will now be operating against the destroyed Activity instance and Very Bad Things will ensue.

There are a number of threads at StackOverflow going over this issue.  Here is one of them:

In the Shelves application, within the onSaveInstanceState method, there is a check to see if there are any currently running AsyncTasks.  If so, it is cancelled and its current state is saved to the bundle.  In onRestoreInstanceState, if the AsyncTask state exists in the bundle, a new AsyncTask instance is created for the new Activity and it is immediately executed.

(Note: This has been edited for brevity)

protected void onSaveInstanceState(Bundle outState) {
    final AddTask task = mAddTask;
    if (task != null && task.getStatus() != UserTask.Status.FINISHED) {
        final String bookId = task.getBookId();

        if (bookId != null) {
            outState.putBoolean(STATE_ADD_IN_PROGRESS, true);
            outState.putString(STATE_ADD_BOOK, bookId);

        mAddTask = null;

protected void onRestoreInstanceState(Bundle savedInstanceState) {
    if (savedInstanceState.getBoolean(STATE_ADD_IN_PROGRESS)) {
        final String id = savedInstanceState.getString(STATE_ADD_BOOK);
        if (!BooksManager.bookExists(getContentResolver(), id)) {
            mAddTask = (AddTask) new AddTask().execute(id);

This feels somewhat unsatisfactory since it seems rather inefficient to potentially repeat the same expensive network call just because the device was rotated in the middle of the operation.

This thread outlines another approach that leverages the onRetainNonConfigurationInstance callback.  In a nutshell:

  • AsyncTasks are made static inner classes so they do not retain the implicit reference to the parent Activity.  Instead, an Activity reference is explicitly passed to the task.
  • When the Activity is being destroyed as part of a screen orientation change, the AsyncTask’s Activity reference is nulled out.  The AsyncTask callback methods that run in the UI thread perform a null check on the Activity before trying to make any UI changes.
  • When the new Activity gets created, the new instance is passed to the AsyncTask.

Taking a quick glance at the code should make this clear.

While this solution seems fine for the screen rotation case, I don’t think it will work correctly in the following situation:

  1. AsyncTask started inside of Activity A
  2. Phone call comes in and a new Activity is brought to the foreground.
  3. Android decides to destroy Activity A

In this situation I don’t believe the onRetainNonConfigurationInstance method will ever be called if I understand the Activity lifecycle correctly. Anytime another Activity comes to the foreground, it is possible that Android will kill the previous Activity in certain low-memory situations.

The nice thing about this approach however is that it provides a way to hand off the AsyncTask instance from the Activity being destroyed to the new one that gets created after the screen rotation.  This way, the expensive operation only needs to happen once.  With the above scenario however, there isn’t any way for the newly created Activity to get a reference to the previously spawned AsyncTask.

Part II will go over the workaround for this that I cobbled together.