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V Sai Harsha
V Sai Harsha

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Big O Notation - A Comprehensive Guide

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What is Big O Notation?

Big O notation is a mathematical way to express how a function behaves as its input approaches a specific value or infinity. It's part of a family of notations, including Bachmann–Landau notation, used to describe such behaviors. It was invented by German Mathematician Paul Bachmann.

In Summary, Big O Notation is just an algebraic expression which describes your code.


Chart of Big O Notation

Why Big O Notation?

Big O notation is a mathematical tool that helps us measure the efficiency of algorithms in computer science. It tells us how the running time or the memory usage of an algorithm changes as the input size grows. For example, an algorithm that has a linear running time, such as finding the maximum element in an array, can be expressed as O(n), where n is the size of the input. This means that the algorithm takes n steps to complete, and if we double the input size, we also double the running time.

Big O notation is important for computer scientists because it allows them to compare different algorithms and choose the best one for a given problem. It also helps them design algorithms that can handle large and complex inputs without compromising performance or scalability. By using Big O notation, computer scientists can abstract away the details of the hardware and programming language, and focus on the essential features of the algorithm.

O(1) - Constant Time Complexity

O(1) represents constant time complexity. O(1) is characterized by the following key attributes:

  1. Constant Time: An algorithm or operation is said to have O(1) time complexity if its execution time or resource usage remains constant, regardless of the size or input of the data it processes. In other words, the time it takes to perform the operation does not depend on the size of the input.

  2. Predictable Performance: Algorithms with O(1) complexity are highly predictable and consistent. Whether you're working with a small dataset or a large one, the time it takes to complete the operation is the same.

  3. Fast Execution: O(1) operations are extremely efficient and fast because they require a fixed, usually very small, amount of time to complete. These operations are ideal for scenarios where speed and efficiency are critical.

  4. Examples: Common examples of operations with O(1) complexity include accessing an element in an array by its index, looking up a value in a hash table (assuming minimal collisions), or performing basic arithmetic operations like addition or subtraction.

  5. Independent of Input Size: O(1) operations do not scale with input size, which makes them particularly useful for tasks that involve a single action or accessing specific elements within a data structure.

  6. Not Affected by Constants: Big O notation, including O(1), disregards constant factors and lower-order terms. This means that an algorithm with O(1) complexity is still considered O(1) even if it has a small constant overhead because the constant factors are not significant when analyzing the algorithm's scalability.

  7. Optimal Complexity: O(1) represents the best possible time complexity, as it implies that the algorithm's performance is not affected by the size of the input data. It's the most efficient time complexity one can achieve for an algorithm.

O(log n) - Logarithmic Time Complexity

O(log n) represents logarithmic time complexity, which is one of the most efficient complexities in algorithm analysis.

Here are the key characteristics of O(log n):

  1. Logarithmic Growth: O(log n) indicates that the running time of an algorithm grows logarithmically with the size of the input (n). This means that as the input size increases, the time taken by the algorithm increases, but it does so at a much slower rate compared to linear or polynomial time complexities.

  2. Efficient Scaling: Logarithmic time complexity is highly efficient, especially for large inputs. This makes it suitable for tasks that involve searching, sorting, or dividing the input into smaller portions.

  3. Example Algorithms: Algorithms with O(log n) complexity are often found in binary search algorithms. In a binary search, the input data is repeatedly divided into halves, significantly reducing the search space with each iteration. This results in a time complexity of O(log n) because the number of iterations required grows logarithmically with the size of the input.

  4. Performance: Logarithmic time algorithms are highly performant, making them suitable for applications where efficiency is critical. They are commonly used in data structures like balanced binary search trees (e.g., AVL trees) and certain divide-and-conquer algorithms.

  5. Scalability: O(log n) is efficient even for large datasets. As the input size grows, the increase in time required is minimal compared to algorithms with higher complexities like O(n) or O(n^2).

  6. Graphical Representation: When you plot the performance of an O(log n) algorithm on a graph with input size on the x-axis and time on the y-axis, you will see a curve that rises slowly as the input size increases, indicating the logarithmic growth.

O(n log n) - Quasilinear Time Complexity

This complexity class signifies that the algorithm's execution time increases in a near-linear fashion with the input size but with a logarithmic factor.

Characteristics of O(n log n) complexity:

  1. Intermediate Growth: Algorithms with O(n log n) complexity fall between linear (O(n)) and quadratic (O(n^2)) complexities in terms of growth rate. This means they are more efficient than quadratic algorithms but less efficient than linear ones.

  2. Common Algorithms: O(n log n) complexity is often encountered in sorting and searching algorithms. Prominent examples include Merge Sort, Quick Sort, and some binary tree operations.

  3. Divide and Conquer: Many algorithms that achieve O(n log n) complexity use a divide-and-conquer approach. They break the problem into smaller subproblems, solve them recursively, and then combine the results efficiently.

  4. Efficiency: Algorithms with O(n log n) complexity are considered quite efficient and are often used for large datasets when compared to quadratic algorithms, which become impractical as the input size grows.

  5. Examples: When sorting a list of items, algorithms with O(n log n) complexity, like Merge Sort, typically perform much better than algorithms with O(n^2) complexity, such as Bubble Sort or Insertion Sort, for larger datasets.

  6. Non-linear Growth: The logarithmic factor in O(n log n) means that as the input size grows, the increase in execution time is much slower than linear growth (O(n)), making these algorithms suitable for handling substantial amounts of data efficiently.

O(n) - Linear Time Complexity

O(n) represents a class of time complexity that is linear with respect to the size of the input data. In other words, it signifies that the time required for an algorithm to complete its task grows linearly or proportionally with the size of the input.

Characteristics of O(n) complexity include:

  1. Linear Growth: As the input size (n) increases, the time or resources required by the algorithm also increases linearly. If you double the size of the input, the algorithm will roughly take twice as much time to complete.

  2. Constant Increment: For each additional element or data point in the input, the algorithm typically performs a constant amount of work. This constant work can include basic operations like additions, comparisons, or assignments.

  3. Straightforward Algorithms: Many common algorithms, such as simple iteration through an array or list, exhibit O(n) complexity. In these algorithms, every element in the input data is examined or processed exactly once.

  4. Scalability: Algorithms with O(n) complexity are generally considered efficient and scalable for moderate-sized datasets. They can handle larger inputs without a significant increase in execution time, making them suitable for many practical applications.

  5. Examples: Examples of algorithms with O(n) complexity include linear search, where you look for a specific element in an array by examining each element in sequence, and counting the number of elements in a list or array.

O(n^2) - Quadratic Time Complexity

O(n^2) is a notation used in computer science to describe the time complexity of an algorithm or the upper bound of the number of operations an algorithm performs in relation to the size of its input data. Specifically, O(n^2) indicates a quadratic time complexity, which means that as the input size (n) grows, the number of operations the algorithm performs increases quadratically, or as a square of the input size.

Characteristics of O(n^2) (Quadratic Time Complexity):

  1. Performance Scaling: As the input size (n) increases, the time taken by the algorithm grows significantly. For each additional element in the input, the number of operations increases by a factor of n^2.

  2. Nested Loops: Quadratic time complexity is often associated with nested loops, where one loop runs from 0 to n, and another nested loop also runs from 0 to n or some factor of n. This results in n * n iterations, leading to a quadratic relationship.

  3. Common Examples: Many sorting algorithms like the Bubble Sort and Selection Sort exhibit O(n^2) time complexity when implemented in their simplest forms. These algorithms involve comparing and swapping elements in nested loops.

  4. Inefficient for Large Inputs: Algorithms with O(n^2) complexity can become inefficient for large datasets. The time it takes to process data can quickly become impractical as the input size grows, making these algorithms less suitable for big data applications.

  5. Not Ideal for Optimization: Quadratic time complexity is generally considered less efficient than linear (O(n)), quasilinear (O(n log n)), or even polynomial time complexities (O(n^k)) for most practical applications. Therefore, it is often desirable to optimize algorithms to reduce their time complexity to improve performance.

  6. Examples: Calculating the pairwise combinations of elements in a list, checking for duplicates in a nested list, and certain types of matrix operations can result in algorithms with O(n^2) time complexity.

Best, Average and Worst Cases

Exploring the concept of best, average, and worst-case scenarios is essential in analyzing and understanding the behavior and performance of algorithms, particularly when using Big O Notation. These scenarios help us assess how an algorithm performs under different conditions and inputs. Let's delve into each scenario:

  1. Best-case Scenario:

    • Definition: The best-case scenario represents the most favorable conditions for an algorithm. It is the situation in which the algorithm performs the fewest number of operations or runs the fastest.
    • Characteristics: In the best-case scenario, the input data is specifically chosen or structured to minimize the workload on the algorithm. This often involves input data that is already sorted or in a format that requires minimal processing.
    • Notation: In Big O Notation, the best-case scenario is denoted as O(f(n)), where f(n) represents the lowest possible time complexity for a given input size n.
    • Example: For an efficient sorting algorithm like Merge Sort, the best-case scenario occurs when the input data is already sorted, requiring fewer comparisons and swaps.
  2. Average-case Scenario:

    • Definition: The average-case scenario represents the expected or typical performance of an algorithm when given random or real-world inputs. It provides a more realistic assessment of an algorithm's efficiency than the best or worst-case scenarios.
    • Characteristics: In this scenario, the algorithm is analyzed with inputs that represent the distribution of data it is likely to encounter during normal operation. This involves considering the average behavior over a range of possible inputs.
    • Notation: The average-case time complexity is denoted as O(g(n)), where g(n) represents the expected or average time complexity for a given input size n.
    • Example: For a quicksort algorithm, the average-case scenario assumes that the pivot selection strategy results in roughly equal-sized partitions, leading to an O(n log n) time complexity on average.
  3. Worst-case Scenario:

    • Definition: The worst-case scenario represents the most unfavorable conditions for an algorithm. It is the situation in which the algorithm performs the maximum number of operations or runs the slowest.
    • Characteristics: In the worst-case scenario, the input data is chosen or structured in a way that maximizes the algorithm's workload. This often involves input data that is sorted in reverse order or contains elements that require extensive processing.
    • Notation: The worst-case time complexity is denoted as O(h(n)), where h(n) represents the highest possible time complexity for a given input size n.
    • Example: In the worst-case scenario for many sorting algorithms, such as Bubble Sort, the input data is in reverse order, resulting in the maximum number of comparisons and swaps.

Understanding these scenarios helps in making informed decisions about algorithm selection and design. While best-case scenarios can be useful for specific optimizations, it is often the average and worst-case scenarios that provide a more complete picture of an algorithm's behavior in practical applications. Big O Notation allows us to express these scenarios succinctly and compare different algorithms in terms of their efficiency across various input conditions.

Relation with Big O Notation

Here's how Big O Notation relates to each of these scenarios:

  1. Best-case Scenario:

    • In the context of Big O Notation, the best-case scenario represents the lower bound or the most optimistic estimation of an algorithm's performance for a given input.
    • Big O Notation is used to express the best-case time complexity by providing a notation (e.g., O(f(n))) that represents the minimum number of operations an algorithm will perform for a specific input size.
    • The best-case time complexity can be used to describe how efficiently an algorithm performs under ideal conditions, and it can serve as a lower limit for performance.
  2. Average-case Scenario:

    • In the average-case scenario, Big O Notation is used to express the expected or typical performance of an algorithm when given random or real-world inputs.
    • The notation (e.g., O(g(n))) used to describe average-case complexity represents the average number of operations an algorithm is expected to perform for a given input size.
    • Average-case analysis often involves probabilistic considerations and statistical techniques to estimate the expected behavior of an algorithm across a range of inputs.
  3. Worst-case Scenario:

    • The worst-case scenario, as related to Big O Notation, represents the upper bound or the most pessimistic estimation of an algorithm's performance for a given input.
    • Big O Notation is used to express the worst-case time complexity by providing a notation (e.g., O(h(n))) that represents the maximum number of operations an algorithm may perform for a specific input size.
    • The worst-case time complexity serves as an upper limit for performance and is crucial for ensuring that an algorithm doesn't perform poorly in critical situations.

Introduction to Space Complexity

Space complexity is a term used in computer science to describe the amount of memory or space that an algorithm's execution requires in relation to the size of its input data. It measures how the memory usage of an algorithm scales as the input size increases. Space complexity is essential for understanding and optimizing the memory requirements of algorithms, particularly when dealing with large datasets or resource-constrained environments.

Space complexity is typically expressed using Big O Notation, similar to time complexity, and it is denoted as O(f(n)), where f(n) represents the upper bound on the additional memory used by the algorithm as a function of the input size n.

There are several common scenarios for space complexity:

  1. Constant Space Complexity (O(1)):

    • Algorithms with constant space complexity use a fixed and limited amount of memory regardless of the input size. They do not allocate memory that scales with the size of the input.
    • Examples include simple mathematical operations and algorithms that maintain a fixed number of variables.
  2. Linear Space Complexity (O(n)):

    • Algorithms with linear space complexity use memory that scales linearly with the size of the input. In other words, for each additional element in the input, a fixed amount of additional memory is used.
    • Examples include algorithms that create arrays or data structures to store input elements.
  3. Logarithmic Space Complexity (O(log n)):

    • Algorithms with logarithmic space complexity use a memory footprint that grows logarithmically with the input size.
    • This is often seen in divide-and-conquer algorithms that partition the data and work on smaller subsets.
  4. Polynomial Space Complexity (O(n^k)):

    • Algorithms with polynomial space complexity use memory that scales as a polynomial function of the input size. The exponent k represents the degree of the polynomial.
    • Higher-degree polynomials, such as O(n^2) or O(n^3), indicate algorithms that consume increasingly more memory as the input size grows.
  5. Exponential Space Complexity (O(2^n)):

    • Algorithms with exponential space complexity use memory that grows exponentially with the input size.
    • This is often associated with recursive algorithms that create multiple branches of computation, each requiring additional memory.

Relation between Time and Space Complexity

Space complexity and time complexity are two fundamental aspects of algorithm analysis, and they are closely related in the context of algorithm performance and resource utilization. Here's how they relate to each other:

  1. Trade-offs:

    • Algorithms often exhibit a trade-off between time complexity and space complexity. In some cases, optimizing for time complexity may result in increased space usage, and vice versa.
    • For example, caching and storing intermediate results to speed up computations can reduce time complexity but increase space complexity. On the other hand, algorithms that minimize space usage may require more computational steps, leading to higher time complexity.
  2. Resource Constraints:

    • The choice between optimizing for time or space complexity depends on the specific requirements and constraints of a problem or computing environment.
    • In memory-constrained systems, minimizing space complexity may be a top priority, even if it means accepting a higher time complexity.
    • Conversely, in situations where execution time is critical, you might accept higher space complexity to achieve faster execution.
  3. Big O Notation:

    • Both time complexity and space complexity are expressed using Big O Notation, which provides a standardized way to quantify and compare algorithm performance.
    • In Big O Notation, the time and space complexities are often analyzed separately, but they are interrelated. An algorithm may have different Big O expressions for time and space complexity.
  4. Algorithm Design:

    • Algorithm designers must consider the interplay between time and space complexity when making design decisions.
    • Design choices, such as data structures and algorithms, can significantly impact both time and space requirements. For example, using a more memory-efficient data structure may increase the time complexity of certain operations.
  5. Optimization Strategies:

    • Algorithm optimization often involves finding a balance between time and space complexity. This may entail trade-offs, such as precomputing results to save time or minimizing data duplication to save space.
    • Profiling and benchmarking can help determine the most suitable trade-offs based on the specific use case.
  6. Real-world Examples:

    • Consider sorting algorithms: Quick Sort has an average-case time complexity of O(n log n) but may have higher space complexity due to recursion, while Merge Sort also has O(n log n) time complexity but uses additional memory for merging.
    • In contrast, Insertion Sort may have lower space complexity but higher time complexity (O(n^2)) in some cases.


In conclusion, understanding algorithm complexity, both in terms of time complexity and space complexity, is fundamental to computer science and algorithm design. These complexities help us evaluate how algorithms perform and scale in various scenarios, making them invaluable tools in the field of computing. Here are the key takeaways from our discussions:

  1. Time Complexity:

    • Time complexity measures the amount of time an algorithm takes to execute in relation to the size of its input.
    • It is expressed using Big O Notation, providing an upper bound on the number of operations an algorithm performs.
    • Algorithms can have best-case, average-case, and worst-case time complexities, each revealing different performance scenarios.
  2. Space Complexity:

    • Space complexity measures the amount of memory an algorithm requires in relation to the size of its input.
    • It is also expressed using Big O Notation, denoting the upper bound on the additional memory used.
    • Space complexity plays a crucial role in optimizing memory usage, particularly in resource-constrained environments.
  3. Relationship Between Time and Space Complexity:

    • Algorithms often exhibit trade-offs between time and space complexity, requiring designers to find a balance based on specific constraints and requirements.
    • Optimization strategies may involve choosing data structures and algorithms that strike the right balance between these two aspects.
  4. Best, Average, and Worst-Case Scenarios:

    • Analyzing algorithms in these scenarios provides a comprehensive understanding of their behavior under different conditions.
    • Big O Notation helps express and compare these scenarios objectively, aiding in algorithm selection and design.
  5. Real-world Application:

    • The concepts of time and space complexity are essential in practical algorithm development, impacting the performance and resource efficiency of software applications.
    • Profiling and benchmarking are common techniques used to assess and optimize algorithm performance in real-world scenarios.

In computer science, the goal is often to find algorithms that strike the right balance between time and space complexity, delivering efficient and effective solutions for a wide range of problem sizes and computing environments. By mastering these concepts and their relationship, software engineers and developers can make informed decisions, design efficient algorithms, and address the challenges posed by both small-scale and large-scale computational problems.

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources where you can learn more about algorithm complexity, Big O Notation, and related topics:

Online Courses and Tutorials:

  1. Coursera Algorithms Specialization: A comprehensive series of courses offered by top universities, covering a wide range of algorithmic topics, including time and space complexity analysis.

  2. Khan Academy Algorithms Course: A beginner-friendly course on algorithms, including discussions on Big O Notation and complexity analysis.


  1. "Introduction to Algorithms" by Thomas H. Cormen, Charles E. Leiserson, Ronald L. Rivest, and Clifford Stein: A widely used textbook that covers algorithm design, analysis, and complexity theory.

  2. "Algorithms" by Robert Sedgewick and Kevin Wayne: This book offers a practical approach to understanding algorithms and includes discussions on algorithm analysis.

Websites and Online Resources:

  1. GeeksforGeeks: An extensive resource for computer science topics, including articles and tutorials on algorithms, data structures, and Big O Notation.

  2. Big O Cheat Sheet: A concise reference for common time and space complexities and their corresponding Big O Notation expressions.

Interactive Tools:

  1. Visualgo: An interactive platform that visually demonstrates algorithms and data structures, helping you understand their behavior.

  2. Big O Calculator: Online tools that allow you to calculate and compare the time complexities of different algorithms.

These resources should provide you with a solid foundation in algorithm analysis, complexity theory, and the practical application of these concepts. Whether you're a beginner or looking to deepen your understanding, these materials will be valuable in your journey to mastering algorithms and data structures.

Top comments (1)

volodyslav profile image

The best explanation I've ever read😁