Time Complexity


The Big O notation ignores behaviour when n is small, and ignores coefficients (e.g. an algorithm that grows at \(2n\) is still \( O(n) \)).

The following complexities are described from best to worst.

Constant Time

The following algorithm just prints “hello” once, and doesn’t depend on the number of elements (n). It will always run in constant time, and therefore is \( O(1) \).

Note that even though the following algorithm prints out “hello” three times, it still does not depends on n, and runs in constant time. Again, it is still classified as \( O(1) \).

\(O(1)\) complexity is the best algorithm complexity you can achieve. Common software operations that have \(O(1)\) complexity are:

  • Reading an element from an array (or vector).
  • Reading an element from hash table (in the average and best case only)

log(n) Time

Note that whenever we are talking about software algorithms with \(O(log(n))\) complexity, we are really talking about \(O(log_2(n))\) complexity.

Notice the i = i * 2, which makes in run in \( O(log(n)) \) time.

Common software operations that have \(O(log(n))\) complexity are:

  • Reading an element from a binary search tree

Linear Time

Linear time is when an algorithm grows at a rate proportional to the number of elements, \(n\). A simple for loop has \(O(n)\) complexity:

Another example:

Note that even though the above example prints "hello" for every second \(n\) (\(0.5n\)), it is still said to have \(O(n)\) complexity (remember that coefficients are dropped).

nlog(n) Time

\(O(nlog(n))\) complexity can be thought of as a combination of \(O(n)\) and \(O(log(n))\) complexity.

This can be demonstrated by a nested for loop, one having \(O(n)\) complexity and the other \(O(log(n))\) complexity


n^2 Time

\(O(n^2)\) complexity is proportional to the square of the number of elements \(n\). This is a bad form of complexity to have, especially when \(n\) grows large.

Here is another example which has \(O(n^2)\) complexity.

Note that this is just a 2x repetition of a algorithm with \(O(n^2)\) complexity. Repeating an algorithm (i.e. performing it twice) does not change the complexity.

n^3 Time

\(O(n^3)\) complexity is rarely seen in a single software algorithms (but can easily arise from the combination of multiple algorithms to solve a problem).

Naturally, we could keep going forever explaining poorer and poorer complexities ((\n^4\), \(n^5\), e.t.c), but these are hardly educational and rarely seen in real software algorithms.

Posted: July 6th, 2017 at 12:11 pm
Last Updated on: July 6th, 2017 at 12:48 pm