• Sort
Heapsort is a comparison-based sorting algorithm to create a sorted array (or list), and is part of the selection sort family. Although somewhat slower in practice on most machines than a well-implemented quicksort, it has the advantage of a more favorable worst-case O(n log n) runtime. Heapsort is an in-place algorithm, but it is not a stable sort.


The heapsort algorithm can be divided into two parts.

In the first step, a heap is built out of the data.

In the second step, a sorted array is created by repeatedly removing the largest element from the heap, and inserting it into the array. The heap is reconstructed after each removal. Once all objects have been removed from the heap, we have a sorted array. The direction of the sorted elements can be varied by choosing a min-heap or max-heap in step one.

Heapsort can be performed in place. The array can be split into two parts, the sorted array and the heap. The storage of heaps as arrays is diagrammed here. The heap's invariant is preserved after each extraction, so the only cost is that of extraction.


  • The most important variation to the simple variant is an improvement by R. W. Floyd that, in practice, gives about a 25% speed improvement by using only one comparison in each siftup run, which must be followed by a siftdown for the original child. Moreover, it is more elegant to formulate. Heapsort's natural way of indexing works on indices from 1 up to the number of items. Therefore the start address of the data should be shifted such that this logic can be implemented avoiding unnecessary +/- 1 offsets in the coded algorithm. The worst-case number of comparisons during the Floyd's heap-construction phase of Heapsort is known to be equal to 2N − 2s2(N) − e2(N), where s2(N) is the sum of all digits of the binary representation of N and e2(N) is the exponent of 2 in the prime factorization of N.
  • Ternary heapsort uses a ternary heap instead of a binary heap; that is, each element in the heap has three children. It is more complicated to program, but does a constant number of times fewer swap and comparison operations. This is because each step in the shift operation of a ternary heap requires three comparisons and one swap, whereas in a binary heap two comparisons and one swap are required. The ternary heap does two steps in less time than the binary heap requires for three steps, which multiplies the index by a factor of 9 instead of the factor 8 of three binary steps. Ternary heapsort is about 12% faster than the simple variant of binary heapsort.
  • The smoothsort algorithm is a variation of heapsort developed by Edsger Dijkstra in 1981. Like heapsort, smoothsort's upper bound is O(n log n). The advantage of smoothsort is that it comes closer to O(n) time if the input is already sorted to some degree, whereas heapsort averages O(n log n) regardless of the initial sorted state. Due to its complexity, smoothsort is rarely used.
  • Levcopoulos and Petersson describe a variation of heapsort based on a Cartesian tree that does not add an element to the heap until smaller values on both sides of it have already been included in the sorted output. As they show, this modification can allow the algorithm to sort more quickly than O(n log n) for inputs that are already nearly sorted.

Comparison with other sorts 

Heapsort primarily competes with quicksort, another very efficient general purpose nearly-in-place comparison-based sort algorithm.

Quicksort is typically somewhat faster due to some factors, but the worst-case running time for quicksort is O(n2), which is unacceptable for large data sets and can be deliberately triggered given enough knowledge of the implementation, creating a security risk. See quicksort for a detailed discussion of this problem and possible solutions.

Thus, because of the O(n log n) upper bound on heapsort's running time and constant upper bound on its auxiliary storage, embedded systems with real-time constraints or systems concerned with security often use heapsort.

Heapsort also competes with merge sort, which has the same time bounds. Merge sort requires Ω(n) auxiliary space, but heapsort requires only a constant amount. Heapsort typically runs faster in practice on machines with small or slow data caches. On the other hand, merge sort has several advantages over heapsort:

  • Merge sort on arrays has considerably better data cache performance, often outperforming heapsort on modern desktop computers because merge sort frequently accesses contiguous memory locations (good locality of reference); heapsort references are spread throughout the heap.
  • Heapsort is not a stable sort; merge sort is stable.
  • Merge sort parallelizes well and can achieve close to linear speedup with a trivial implementation; heapsort is not an obvious candidate for a parallel algorithm.
  • Merge sort can be adapted to operate on linked lists with O(1) extra space. Heapsort can be adapted to operate on doubly linked lists with only O(1) extra space overhead.
  • Merge sort is used in external sorting; heapsort is not. Locality of reference is the issue.

Introsort is an interesting alternative to heapsort that combines quicksort and heapsort to retain advantages of both: worst case speed of heapsort and average speed of quicksort.