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TextFileEncodingDetector project

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Modified on 2012-05-02 08:00 by TaoK Categorized as C#, dotNet 2
There's an awkward situation on Windows machines (and, I suspect, more generally) - text files, and text-based files like CSV files, etc, can be saved in any number of encodings: windows codepages, less-common encodings such as EBCDIC, and more modern encodings like UTF-8 and UTF-16.

The newer Unicode formats have a standard for "self-describing" the encoding, in the form of a Byte Order Mark, but this is often not present, and in fact actively discouraged by the unicode consortium, in the case of UTF-8.

For UTF-8 in particular, this poses a problem because UTF-8 encoding looks a whole lot like ASCII/ANSI/Windows-1252/Latin-1, a family of related encodings commonly used and confused on Windows systems and nowadays globally.

The "Correct" thing to do, when presented with a text file, is to:
  1. Check for a BOM, indicating a Unicode file of some specific type
  2. If not found, ask the user what encoding was used (preferably providing suggestions with a "most likely) order).

Or at least, this is the opinion of many developers, see this stack overflow question and the linked seminal rant by Joel Spolsky, The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!).

Now in the real world, most users don't know what encoding their files use, and on windows machines in western and particularly english-speaking countries, the number of options commonly encountered is quite limited:
  • Windows-1252 (a superset of Latin-1, which itself is a superset of US-ASCII)
  • UTF-8, with or without BOM
  • UTF-16, LE or BE, with or without BOM

Automatically determining which of these a text file uses is, 99% of the time, quite straightforward, but I couldn't find any libraries that do it - nothing in the .Net framework, no usable code snippets online (beyond trivial BOM detection), simply no easy way to do it.

So there it is. A simple class that automatically detects with of these encodings a file probably uses, for when your users don't have a clue. If they do get a choice, please please get them to use Unicode or UTF-8 with BOM! It makes things sooo much easier...

Now, some caveats:
  • If your application design permits it, it's still preferable to provide some sort of preview and selection dialog.
  • After writing this, I came across a library on codeproject that wraps MLang to do something very similar: Detect Encoding for In- and Outgoing Text. I haven't tested this, but it may be more appropriate in some situations (especially in multi-lingual environments).
  • Just today, I read about another project that does something that sounds very similar: UTF8Checker on codeplex. Again, I haven't tested this, although it sounds like a subset of what the class below does.

I may take the time to run some tests and turn this snippet into an actual library (assuming the MLang-based solution doesn't beat the pants off it) at some point.

Any feedback would be wonderful! (note: this is a Gist on GitHub, feel free to fork/edit/etc)

Please Note: A couple of additional considerations have come up recently:
  • Eric Popivker reported an exception under some circumstances, the fix should be checked in soon.
  • He also noted that MLang doesn't always detect Unicode encodings correctly, and that a hybrid approach worked best for him; first checking for unicode encodings with the code below, and then using unmanaged MLang (nicely wrapped in Carsten Zeumer's famous "EncodingTools.dll" project). This is done in his open-source find-and-replace tool, fnr.exe.
  • He's also noted that the code below (and MLang) doesn't do anything to avoid binary files, which you usually don't want to treat as text files (chances are that if you're trying to auto-detect the encoding, you're not planning to handle arbitrary binary content). He mentions a simple detection heuristic, looking for a sequence of 4 binary nulls in the raw bytestream, as a so-far-reliable way to separate binary files from text files.
  • I'm hoping / planning to wrap this hybrid-and-binary-detection approach into a small encoding-detection library at some point, but I have no timeline established (weeks/months/years).

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