Several years ago I blogged about using a checkbox-tree in Matlab. A few days ago there was a question on the Matlab Answers forum asking whether something similar can be done with Matlab listboxes, i.e. add checkboxes next to each list item. There are actually several alternatives for this and I thought this could be a good opportunity to discuss them:

MathWorks CheckBoxList

MathWorks CheckBoxList

The HTML image variant

The simplest alternative is to use small icon images checked and unchecked as part of the listbox item labels. As I explained last year, listboxes (like all other Matlab uicontrols that rely on underlying Java Swing components), support HTML and can be formatted using HTML images. For example:

Matlab listbox with HTML image icons

Matlab listbox with HTML image icons

In order to check/uncheck items in the listbox, we can trap the underlying Java component’s MouseClickedCallback using the findjobj utility:

% Assume checked.gif, unchecked.gif are 16x16 icons
prefix = ['<html><img src="file:///' strrep(path_of_icon_files),'\','/') '/unchecked.gif" height=16 width=16 />'];
sampleData = strcat(prefix, {'first', 'Second', 'Third', 'and last'});  % all items are unchecked at first
hListbox = uicontrol(...);
jScrollPane = findjobj(hListbox);
jListbox = handle(jScrollPane.getViewport.getView, 'CallbackProperties');
jListbox.MouseClickedCallback = {@mouseClickedFcn,hListbox};
function mouseClickedFcn(jListbox, jEventData, hListbox)
   % Get the clicked item and row index
   clickedX = jEventData.getX;
   clickedY = jEventData.getY;
   if clickedX > 15,  return;  end  % did not click a checkbox so bail out
   clickedRow = jListbox.locationToIndex(java.awt.Point(clickedX,clickedY)) + 1;  % Matlab row index = Java row index+1
   if clickedRow <= 0,  return;  end  % clicked not on an item - bail out
   strs = get(hListbox,'String');
   clickedItem = strs{clickedRow};
   % Switch the icon between checked.gif <=> unchecked.gif
   if strfind(clickedItem,'unchecked')
       strs{clickedRow} = strrep(clickedItem,'unchecked','checked');
       strs{clickedRow} = strrep(clickedItem,'checked','unchecked');
   set(hListbox,'String',strs);  % update the list item

Finally, when we process the selected list item(s), we can simply check whether they contain ‘unchecked.gif’ or ‘checked.gif’. Pretty straight-forward stuff.

MathWorks CheckBoxList

com.mathworks.mwswing.checkboxlist.CheckBoxList is a JList extension that displays a list of labels in a list with a checkbox next to each label. The labels’ checkboxes can be set, unset and queried using methods supplied by the CheckBoxList class or its com.mathworks.mwswing.checkboxlist.DefaultListCheckModel model:

% First create the data model
jList = java.util.ArrayList;  % any java.util.List will be ok
jList.add(3,'and last');
% Next prepare a CheckBoxList component within a scroll-pane
jCBList = com.mathworks.mwswing.checkboxlist.CheckBoxList(jList);
jScrollPane = com.mathworks.mwswing.MJScrollPane(jCBList);
% Now place this scroll-pane within a Matlab container (figure or panel)
[jhScroll,hContainer] = javacomponent(jScrollPane,[10,10,80,65],gcf);
% Update some items' state programmatically
jCBModel = jCBList.getCheckModel;
% Respond to checkbox update events
jhCBModel = handle(jCBModel, 'CallbackProperties');
set(jhCBModel, 'ValueChangedCallback', @myMatlabCallbackFcn);

This results in the following image:

MathWorks CheckBoxList

MathWorks CheckBoxList

We can query the various checked/unchecked states programmatically:

>> jCBList.getCheckedValues
ans =
[First, Third]
>> jCBList.getCheckedIndicies'
ans =
           0       2
>> jCBModel.isIndexChecked(0)
ans =
     1    % =true

JIDE’s CheckBoxList

There is also an unrelated JIDE equivalent: com.jidesoft.swing.CheckBoxList. Readers are referred to the JIDE documentation for additional details.

The basic idea is the same as with the MathWorks CheckBoxList: we create the data model, then create a CheckBoxList component within a JScrollPane and place this onscreen using the javacomponent function. We can then modify or query the data model programmatically, and set various callback functions to process user events.

% Prepare the data model as above
% Now display onscreen:
jCBList = com.jidesoft.swing.CheckBoxList(jList.toArray)
jScrollPane = com.mathworks.mwswing.MJScrollPane(jCBList);
[jhScroll,hContainer] = javacomponent(jScrollPane, [120,10,80,65], gcf);
% Do some programmatic updates:
jCBList.selectAll;  % reverse: jCBList.selectNone

The appearance is very similar to the MathWorks CheckBoxList, except that JIDE’s CheckBoxList has slightly less space between the list rows, and between the checkboxes and labels. The main difference between these components is not in their visual appearance but rather in their supported functionalities (internal methods) – some people might prefer the MathWorks component, others might like JIDE better. To see these functionalities, use my uiinspect and/or checkClass utilities.

For additional information on the MathWorks and JIDE components, and how to investigate and customize them, see Chapter 5 of my Matlab-Java programming book.

ActiveX and other alternatives

If you are running on Windows, you could use ActiveX controls that implement checkbox list functionality. One such control that is pretty standard is Microsoft’s MSComctlLib.ListViewCtrl.2. I showed an example of ListViewCtrl usage a few years ago, and readers are referred there for details. Here is the end result:

Sorted ListViewCtrl

Sorted ListViewCtrl

Granted, this is more of a table having a checkbox column than a listbox, but you can easily make the ListViewCtrl have only a single column.

In addition to this standard ListViewCtrl control, there are plenty of other third-party ActiveX or Java controls that can more-or-less easily be integrated in our Matlab GUI. The drawback of ActiveX is that it only works on a limited set of platforms, whereas the Java-based components (either MathWorks or JIDE) work on all Matlab installations.

Matlab uitable in disguise

As a variant of the idea of using a table with a checkbox first column, we could use Matlab’s builtin uitable function, as suggested by Sebastian below. Here is a simple code snippet illustrating this idea:

data = {true,'First'; false,'Second'; true,'Third'; false,'and last'};
hTable = uitable('Data',data,'RowName',[],'ColumnName',[],'BackgroundColor',[1,1,1],'Position',[10,10,100,70],'ColumnWidth',{20,60});

Matlab uitable with checkbox column

Matlab uitable with checkbox column

Anyway, let no one say ever again that Matlab GUI is boring. It is not. It is only limited by our imagination and our willingness to find and customize components that implement our requirements. There are plenty of alternatives out there, we just need to reach out and use them. If you can’t do it yourself, you could always use an external consultant like me to help you.

Categories: GUI, Java, Medium risk of breaking in future versions, UI controls, Undocumented feature

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17 Responses to CheckboxList

  1. Etienne says:

    In your Mathworks CheckBoxList example the ‘ValueChangedCallback’ listens for changes in the selected listbox items (e.g. first or third). Which callback would you use to listen for check/uncheck property changes? These selection are not registered with the ‘ValueChangedCallback’…

    • Yair Altman says:

      You need to set the ValueChangedCallback of the control’s data (check) model, not of the control:

      jhCBModel = handle(jCBList.getCheckModel, 'CallbackProperties');
      set(jhCBModel, 'ValueChangedCallback', @myMatlabCallbackFcn);

      It makes sense if you think about it: listbox values determine which items are selected; check-model values determine which items are checked. It’s not the same thing – listbox items can be checked/unchecked independently of whether or not they are selected.

  2. Pingback: Customizing listbox/combobox items | Undocumented Matlab

  3. sebastian says:


    Another possibility is to use an uitable, with its first column displaying the checkboxes (with logical column format) and the second column showing the non-editable list items.
    Switching off row and column headers, as well as row-striping this looks pretty much just like a list view.

    • Thanks for the comment Sebastian. It is a logical extension of the ActiveX idea, but you are of course correct that it should be made explicit, since using a uitable is a better solution (portability, performance, stability, maintainability) than the ActiveX control. I’ve updated the article with the uitable variant. Thanks again!

    • Sebastian says:

      Hi Yair,

      thanks for this. What if I want to add/remove/update the java list items after creating the object?


    • @Sebastian – I’m not sure to which of the Java objects you refer exactly. In any case you can use one of the built-in functions methods or methodsview, or my uiinspect or checkClass utilities, to see which methods (functions) are exposed (supported) by the Java objects. If you need specific examples search my blog or Matlab-Java book. If you need specific advise, you can contact me by email for a short consulting.

  4. Sebastian says:


    thanks for your reply. I’ve tried with your fanstastic uiinspect() function but I was not able to find anything interesting. What I mean is, imagine you have the following code:

    % First create the data model
    jList = java.util.ArrayList;  % any java.util.List will be ok
    jList.add(3,'and last');
    % Next prepare a CheckBoxList component within a scroll-pane
    jCBList = com.mathworks.mwswing.checkboxlist.CheckBoxList(jList);
    jScrollPane = com.mathworks.mwswing.MJScrollPane(jCBList);
    % Now place this scroll-pane within a Matlab container (figure or panel)
    [jhScroll,hContainer] = javacomponent(jScrollPane,[10,10,80,65],gcf);

    which is actually your example. Now imagine you need to add/remove/rename one of the checkboxlist items. I would imagine I should find a method which ‘updates’ the jCBList or something similar…obviously I don’t want to remove the jScrollPane and create a new one with a new jList.
    Does my question make any sense?



  5. Nadav says:

    Hi Yair,
    Can you please comment on whether or not the MathWorks CheckBoxList will compile into an executable?


  6. Loops says:

    Hello Yair

    Nice example!!

    When I add the JScrollPane into a matlab panel, I want set its Units normalized and fill the matlab panel.
    But its Origin Position exceeds the matlab panel and doesn’t fit in the matlab panel precisely.
    How do I fix it?

    hf = figure;
    hpanel = uipanel('Parent', hf);
    [jhScroll, hContainer] = javacomponent(jScrollPane, [2 2 60 80], hpanel);
    set(hContainer, 'Units','normalized', 'Position', [0 0 1 1]);
    • @Loops – Your code seems to work well for me. I do not understand your problem, nor what you mean by “Origin Position”.

    • Loops says:
      hf = figure;
      hpanel = uipanel('Parent', hf);
      uicontrol('Parent', hpanel, 'Style', 'listbox','Units', 'normalized','Position',[0,0,1,1],'Background','white');

      Here is the result I builted.
      You could see there are “a little” differences between Java component and Matlab component.
      The red and green circle are what I mean the “Origin Position”.

    • Yair Altman says:

      @Loops – this is because of your uipanel (hpanel). Instead, place your javacomponent directly within the figure, rather than a uipanel:

      [jhScroll, hContainer] = javacomponent(jScrollPane, [2 2 60 80], hf);

      Alternatively, set your parent uipanel to have no border line:

      hpanel = uipanel('Parent', hf, 'BorderType', 'none');
  7. Xiangrui Li says:

    I was searching for checkbox list solution, and found this thread. Thanks Yair for providing different solutions! After playing with the options, here is my two cents.

    (1) The MathWorks CheckBoxList looks nice, but as already asked here, I did not find a solution to add/remove an item. So it is not ideal for my purpose.
    (2) I did not try ActiveX method, since I want a system independent solution.
    (3) The Matlab uitable method is very easy to use. I was trying to use it until I realize that there is no programmatic way to set the selected item. Another minor issue is that it seems there is no way to set alignment to left in case that the content exceeds the defined width.

    So I ended up the Matlab listbox method. I am sharing what I did with the listbox method, in case it is useful to others. It is almost the same as the the first method Yair described, but no java and image are used. Instead, I use two special characters for check and uncheck marks.

    feature('DefaultCharacterSet', 'UTF-8'); % needed for old matlab
    checked = 9746; % square with X inside
    unchecked = 9744; % empty square
    h = uicontrol('Style', 'list', 'Position', [10 10 100 80], 'Callback', @select_cb, ...
        'FontSize', 10, ... % affect the check mark coordinate detection
        'String', {[checked ' First'] [unchecked ' Second'] [checked ' Third'] [unchecked ' and last']});
    function select_cb(h, ~)
    i = get(h, 'Value');
    x = get(0, 'PointerLocation'); % figure CurrentPoint is not reliable
    pos = get(gcf, 'Position') + get(h, 'Position');
    x = x(1) - pos(1); % x coordinate of mouse click
    if x>2 && x<12 % related to FontSize, and maybe FontName
        str = get(h, 'String');
        if str{i}(1) ==  9746 % was checked
            str{i}(1) = 9744;
            fprintf('Item %g unchecked and selected.\n', i);
            str{i}(1) = 9746;
            fprintf('Item %g checked and selected.\n', i);
        set(h, 'String', str);
        fprintf('Item %g selected.\n', i);
  8. Xiangrui Li says:

    Following Yair’s nice information, I played with JIDE checkbox list, and figured out the way to add/remove checkbox list dynamically for my purpose. Compared to my previous post using two special characters as checked and unchecked boxes, JIDE CheckBoxList contains true checkbox, so there is no need to compute the list item by mouse click location, which depends on font size.

    Another feature which fits my need very well is that JIDE CheckBoxList can be ClickInCheckBoxOnly, which separates check event and selection event. This is different from mathworks CheckBoxList where mouse selection always does check/uncheck, but much like uitable, while uitable has no programmatic way to select an item.

    Here is some sample code:

    % set up model
    jCBList = com.jidesoft.swing.CheckBoxList;
    jCBList.setModel(javax.swing.DefaultListModel); % dynamic items
    % jCBList.ClickInCheckBoxOnly = true; % it's default
    jCBList.setSelectionMode(0); % I need single selection
    % Now display onscreen:
    jScrollPane = com.mathworks.mwswing.MJScrollPane(jCBList);
    javacomponent(jScrollPane, [10,40,80,80], gcf);
    % add some items and set check/selecttion
    jCBList.getModel.addElement('First'); % add item to end
    jCBList.getModel.addElement('Third'); % add item to end
    jCBList.getModel.insertElementAt('Second', 1); % insert item as 2nd item
    % jCBList.getModel.removeElementAt(1); % remove 2nd item
    jCBList.addCheckBoxListSelectedIndex(2); % check 3rd item
    jCBList.setSelectedIndex(1); % select 2nd item (highlight)
    % set up callback
    h = handle(jCBList, 'CallbackProperties');
    set(h, 'MouseClickedCallback', @mouseFcn);
    % callback
    function mouseFcn(h, ~)
       fprintf('Item %g selected\n', h.getSelectedIndex+1);
       fprintf('Item(s) ');
       fprintf('%g ', h.getCheckBoxListSelectedIndices+1);

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