UIManagedDocument, Nested Contexts and Notifications

UIManagedDocument is great. It wraps up an entire core data stack into a nice little package. But like most new APIs, there are a few little details that can trip you up if you're not careful.

UIManagedDocument uses a nested managedObjectContext. For the most part this is an implementation detail, and not something you need to worry about. When you need a context, grab the one from your document and everything will be fine (assuming single threaded code of course). But one case where it might trip you up, as it did me, is in code that relies on the NSManagedObjectContextObjectsDidChangeNotification that NSManagedObjectContext provides.

There are two things to keep in mind when using NSManagedObjectContextObjectsDidChangeNotification with UIManagedDocument. For starters, because it uses a nested context, if you do not specify a context when you subscribe to the notification, you will receive two notifications for every event. Once from the document's context, and once from the parent context when the changes are passed along. If you happen to be working with a tableview this can cause lots of fun little internal inconsistency exceptions. The second thing to remember is that UIManagedDocument loads asynchronously. If you call NSNotificationCenter addObserver:selector:name:object: in viewDidLoad, or any where else before your document is ready, and pass in your document's managedObjectContext as the object parameter, that value is going to be nil and you will still get two notifications for the price of one.

The solution is to register your observer within the block passed to either UIManagedDocument saveToUrl:forSaveOperation:completionHandler or UIManagedDocument openWithCompletionHandler:. This way you can be sure your document will return a valid context and your notification handler will only be called once for every event.

Here's a example:

// Here we define the block that will be executed whenever
// our document is ready to use:
void (^OnDocumentDidLoad)(BOOL) = ^(BOOL success) {
    // Load some managed objects, reload your tableview, etc.
    [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] addObserver:self

// Now we check to see if our document exists, is closed, or is
// already open and ready to work with:
if (![[NSFileManager defaultManager] fileExistsAtPath:[self.document.fileURL path]]) {
    [self.document saveToURL:self.document.fileURL
} else if (self.document.documentState == UIDocumentStateClosed) {
    [self.document openWithCompletionHandler:OnDocumentDidLoad];
} else if (self.document.documentState == UIDocumentStateNormal) {


Updated Dec 30, 2011

If you're looking for an introduction to UIManagedDocument, the best I've found so far is in lectures 13 and 14 from Stanford's iPhone and iPad development course. Available for free on iTunes U.

Updated Apr 7, 2012

Replaced references to NSManagedDocument with UIManagedDocument.

"UIManagedDocument, Nested Contexts and Notifications" was originally published on 28 Dec 2011.