Make code work in Visual Studio

Visual Studio provides a powerful integrated set of project build and debugging tools. In this article, find out how Visual Studio can help you find problems in your code using build output, code analysis, debugging tools, and unit tests.

You've figured out the editor and created some code. Now, you want to make sure the code works properly. In Visual Studio, as with most IDEs, there are two phases to making code work: building the code to catch and resolve project and compiler errors, and running the code to find run-time and dynamic errors.

Build your code

There are two basic types of build configuration: Debug and Release. The Debug configuration produces a slower, larger executable that allows for a richer interactive run-time debugging experience. The Debug executable should never be shipped. The Release configuration builds a faster, optimized executable that's appropriate to ship (at least from the perspective of the compiler). The default build configuration is Debug.

The easiest way to build your project is to press F7, but you can also start the build by selecting Build > Build Solution from the main menu.

Visual Studio build project menu selection

You can observe the build process in the Output window at the bottom of the Visual Studio UI. Errors, warnings, and build operations are displayed here. If you have errors (or if you have warnings above a configured level), your build fails. You can click on the errors and warnings to go to the line where they occurred. Rebuild your project by either pressing F7 again (to recompile only the files with errors) or Ctrl+Alt+F7 (for a clean and complete rebuild).

There are two tabbed windows in the results window below the editor: the Output window, which contains the raw compiler output (including error messages); and the Error List window, which provides a sortable and filterable list of all errors and warnings.

When build succeeds, you see results like this in the Output window:

Visual Studio successful build output

Review the Error List

Unless you've made no modifications to code you've previously and successfully compiled, you probably have an error. If you're new to coding, you probably have lots of them. Errors are sometimes obvious, such as a simple syntax error or incorrect variable name, and sometimes they are difficult to understand, with only a cryptic code to guide you. For a cleaner view of the issues, navigate to the bottom of the build Output window, and click the Error List tab. This takes you to a more organized view of the errors and warnings for your project, and gives you some extra options as well.

Visual Studio Output and Error List

Click on the error line in the Error List window to jump to the line the error occurs in. (Or turn on line numbers by clicking in the Quick Launch bar in the upper-right, typing "line numbers" into it, and pressing Enter. This is the fastest way to get to the Options dialog where you can turn on line numbers. Learn to use the Quick Launch bar and save yourself many UI clicks!)

Visual Studio editor with line numbers

Visual Studio line numbers option

Press Ctrl+G to quickly jump to the line number where the error occurred.

The error is identified by a red "squiggle" underscore. Hover over it for additional details. Make the fix and it will go away, although you may introduce a new error with the correction. (This is called a "regression".)

Visual Studio error hover

Walk through the error list and address all the errors in your code.

Visual Studio Debug errors window

Review errors in detail

Many errors may make no sense to you, phrased as they are in the terms of the compiler. In those cases, you'll need additional information. From the Error List window, you can do an automatic Bing search for more information on the error or warning. Right-click on the corresponding entry line and select Show Error Help from the context menu, or click on the hyperlinked error code value in the Code column of the Error List.

Visual Studio error list Bing search

Depending on your settings, either your web browser displays the search results for the error code and text, or a tab opens inside Visual Studio and shows the results of the Bing search. The results are from many different sources on the Internet, and not all may be helpful.

Use code analysis

Code analyzers look for common code problems that can lead to run-time errors or problems in code management.

C# and Visual Basic code analysis

Visual Studio 2017 includes a built-in set of .NET Compiler Platform analyzers that examine C# and Visual Basic code as you type. You can install additional analyzers as a Visual Studio extension, or as a NuGet package. If rule violations are found, they are reported both in the code editor as a squiggly under the offending code, and in the Error List.

C++ code analysis

To analyze C++ code, run static code analysis. Get in the habit of running it once you've cleaned up the obvious errors that prevent a successful build, and take some time to address the warnings it may produce. You'll save yourself some headaches down the road, and you may learn a few code style techniques.

Press Alt+F11 (or select Analyze > Run Code Analysis on Solution from the top menu) to start static code analysis.

Visual Studio Code Analysis menu item

Any new or updated warnings appear in the Error List tab at the bottom of the IDE. Click on the warnings to jump to them in code.

Visual Studio Error List with Warnings

Use light bulbs to fix or refactor code

Quick Actions, available from the light bulb or screwdriver icon, let you refactor code inline. They are an easy way to fix common warnings quickly and effectively in C#, C++, and Visual Basic code. To access them, right-click on a warning squiggle and select Quick Actions and refactorings. Or, when your cursor is on the line with the colored squiggle, press Ctrl+. or select the light bulb or screwdriver icon in the margin. You'll see a list of possible fixes or refactorings you can apply to that line of code.

Visual Studio light bulb preview

Quick Actions can be used wherever code analyzers determine there's an opportunity to fix, refactor, or improve your code. Click on any line of code, right-click to open the context menu, and select Quick Actions and refactorings. If refactoring or improvement options are available, they are displayed. Otherwise, the message No quick actions available here displays in the lower-left corner of the IDE.

No quick actions available text

With experience, you can quickly use the arrow keys and Ctrl+. to check for easy refactoring opportunities and clean up your code!

Debug your running code

Now that you've successfully built your code and performed a little clean up, run it by pressing F5 or selecting Debug > Start Debugging. This starts your app in a debug environment so you can observe its behavior in detail. The Visual Studio IDE changes while your app is running: the Output window is replaced by two new ones (in the default window configuration), the Autos/Locals/Watch tabbed window and the Call Stack/Breakpoints/Exception Settings/Output tabbed window. These windows have multiple tabs that allow you to inspect and evaluate your app's variables, threads, call stacks, and various other behaviors as it runs.

Visual Studio Autos and Call Stack Windows

Stop your app by pressing Shift+F5 or by clicking the Stop button. Or, you can simply close the app's main window (or command-line dialog).

If your code ran perfectly and exactly as expected, congratulations! However, if it hung, or crashed, or gave you some strange results, you'll need to find the source of those problems and fix the bugs.

Set simple breakpoints

Breakpoints are the most basic and essential feature of reliable debugging. A breakpoint indicates where Visual Studio should suspend your running code so you can take a look at the values of variables, or the behavior of memory, or whether or not a branch of code is getting run. You don't need to rebuild a project after setting and removing breakpoints.

Set a breakpoint by clicking in the far margin of the line where you want the break to occur, or press F9 to set a breakpoint on the current line of code. When you run your code, it will pause (or break) before the instructions for this line of code are executed.

Visual Studio breakpoint

Common uses for breakpoints include:

  • To narrow down the source of a crash or hang, scatter breakpoints throughout and around the code of the method call you think is causing the failure. As you run code in the debugger, remove and then reset the breakpoints closer together until you find the offending line of code. See the next section to learn how to run code in the debugger.

  • When you introduce new code, set a breakpoint at the beginning of it, and run the code to make sure it is behaving as expected.

  • If you've implemented a complicated behavior, set breakpoints for the algorithmic code so you can inspect the values of the variables and data when the program breaks.

  • If you're writing C or C++ code, use breakpoints to stop the code so you can inspect address values (look for NULL) and reference counts when debugging for memory-related failures.

For more information about using breakpoints, read Using breakpoints.

Inspect your code at run-time

When your running code hits a breakpoint and pauses, the line of code marked in yellow (the current statement) has not executed yet. At this point, you may want to execute the current statement and then inspect the changed values. You can use several step commands to execute code in the debugger. If the marked code is a method call, you can step into it by pressing F11. You can also step over the line of code by pressing F10. For additional commands and details on how to step through code, read Navigate code with the debugger.

Visual Studio run-time value inspection

In the preceding illustration, you can advance the debugger one statement by pressing either F10 or F11 (since there is no method call here, both commands have the same result).

While the debugger is paused, you can inspect your variables and call stacks to determine what is going on. Are the values in the ranges you expect to see? Are calls being made in the right order?

Visual Studio run-time value inspection

Hover over a variable to see its current value and references. If you see a value you didn't expect, you probably have a bug in the preceding or calling code. For more in-depth debugging information, learn more about using the debugger.

Additionally, Visual Studio displays the Diagnostic Tools window, where you can observe your app's CPU and memory usage over time. Later in your app development, you can use these tools to look for unanticipated heavy CPU usage or memory allocation. Use it in conjunction with the Watch window and breakpoints to determine what's causing unexpected heavy usage or unreleased resources. For more information, see Profiling feature tour.

Run unit tests

Unit tests are your first line of defense against code bugs because, when done correctly, they test a single "unit" of code, typically a single function, and are easier to debug than your full program. Visual Studio installs the Microsoft unit testing frameworks for both managed and native code. Use a unit testing framework to create unit tests, run them, and report the results of these tests. Rerun unit tests when you make changes, to test that your code is still working correctly. With Visual Studio Enterprise edition, you can run tests automatically after every build.

To get started, read Generate unit tests for your code with IntelliTest.

To learn more about unit tests in Visual Studio and how they can help you create better quality code, read Unit test basics.

See also