VS2012 Migration #3: autoexp and NoStepInto Replacements

In the past I blogged quite a few times about two immensely useful albeit mostly-unofficial debugger features: watch modification via autoexp.dat, and step-into modification via NoStepInto registry key. A long while ago I raised two suggestions at MS UserVoice, to invest in making these two semi-hacks into documented, supported features. The first suggestion got some traction, and is officially implemented in VS2012. The 2nd suggestion went mostly ignored – but nevertheless, there’s a new and better – though still undocumented – way to skip functions while stepping.

NatVis files

The Natvis (native-visualizers) file format is the shiny new replacement for autoexp.dat. It is well documented, and although still quite rough around the edges – bugs are accepted and treated, which means that for the first time it is actually supported. The new apparatus comes with several design advantages:

  1. It seems to be better isolated and not to crash the IDE so much,
  2. New visualizer debugging facilities are built in,
  3. Separate customized visualizers can be kept in separate files, allowing easier sharing (e.g., library writers can now share distribute .natvis files with their libraries).
  4. Natvis files can be placed at per-user locations.

It isn’t that much fun rehashing the syntax – being official and all – but I will include here a custom mfc-containers natvis, similar to the autoexp section I shared a while back

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<AutoVisualizer xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/vstudio/debugger/natvis/2010">
  <!--from afxwin.h -->
  <Type Name="CArray&lt;*,*&gt;">
    <AlternativeType Name="CObArray"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CByteArray"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CDWordArray"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CPtrArray"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CStringArray"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CWordArray"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CUIntArray"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CTypedPtrArray&lt;*,*&gt;"></AlternativeType>
    <DisplayString>{{size = {m_nSize}}}</DisplayString>
      <Item Name="[size]">m_nSize</Item>
      <Item Name="[capacity]">m_nMaxSize</Item>

  <Type Name="CList&lt;*,*&gt;">
    <AlternativeType Name="CObList"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CPtrList"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CStringList"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CTypedPtrList&lt;*,*&gt;"></AlternativeType>
    <DisplayString>{{Count = {m_nCount}}}</DisplayString>
      <Item Name="Count">m_nCount</Item>
  <Type Name="CMap&lt;*,*,*,*&gt;::CAssoc">
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapPtrToWord::CAssoc"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapPtrToPtr::CAssoc"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapStringToOb::CAssoc"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapStringToPtr::CAssoc"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapStringToString::CAssoc"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapWordToOb::CAssoc"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapWordToPtr::CAssoc"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CTypedPtrMap&lt;*,*,*&gt;::CAssoc"></AlternativeType>
    <DisplayString>{{key={key}, value={value}}}</DisplayString>

  <Type Name="CMap&lt;*,*,*,*&gt;">
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapPtrToWord"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapPtrToPtr"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapStringToOb"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapStringToPtr"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapStringToString"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapWordToOb"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapWordToPtr"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CTypedPtrMap&lt;*,*,*&gt;"></AlternativeType>
    <DisplayString Condition="(m_nHashTableSize &gt;= 0 &amp;&amp; m_nHashTableSize &lt;= 65535">{{size={m_nHashTableSize}}}</DisplayString>
      <Item Name="num bins">m_nHashTableSize</Item>

  <Type Name="CMap&lt;*,*,*,*&gt;">
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapPtrToWord"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapPtrToPtr"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapStringToOb"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapStringToPtr"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapStringToString"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapWordToOb"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CMapWordToPtr"></AlternativeType>
    <AlternativeType Name="CTypedPtrMap&lt;*,*,*&gt;"></AlternativeType>
    <DisplayString>{Hash table too large!}</DisplayString>

  <Type Name="ATL::CAtlMap&lt;*,*,*,*&gt;">
    <AlternativeType Name="ATL::CMapToInterface&lt;*,*,*&gt;"/>
    <AlternativeType Name="ATL::CMapToAutoPtr&lt;*,*,*&gt;"/>
    <DisplayString>{{Count = {m_nElements}}}</DisplayString>
      <Item Name="Count">m_nElements</Item>
  <Type Name="ATL::CAtlMap&lt;*,*,*,*&gt;::CNode">
    <DisplayString Condition="this==0">Empty bucket</DisplayString>
    <DisplayString Condition="this!=0">Hash table bucket</DisplayString>

Visualizing Map is a bit tricky, and I didn’t take the time yet to look deep into it – but the file is hopefully useful as it is. To use, just save the text as, say, MfcContainers.natvis, either under %VSINSTALLDIR%\Common7\Packages\Debugger\Visualizers (requires admin access), or under %USERPROFILE%\My Documents\Visual Studio 2012\Visualizers\ .

NatStepFilter Files

– are the new and improved substitute for the NoStepInto registry key. While there are some online hints and traces, the natstepfilter spec is yet to be introduced into MSDN – or even the VC++ team blog. For now you can watch the format specification, along with some good comments, at the %VSINSTALLDIR%\Xml\Schemas\natstepfilter.xsd near you, or even better – inspect a small sample at %VSINSTALLDIR%\Common7\Packages\Debugger\Visualizers\default.natstepfilter.

The default.natstepfilter is implemented by Stephen T. Lavavej, and is very far from complete – both because of regex limitations and because of decisions not to set non-overridable limitations on users:

“Adding something to the default natstepfilter is a very aggressive move, because I don’t believe there’s an easy way for users to undo it (hacking the file requires admin access), and it may be surprising when the debugger just decides to skip stuff.”

I can think of several ways for users to override .natstepfilter directives (never mind stepping-into via assembly, how about setting a plain breakpoint it the function you wish to step into?) – and so I don’t agree with that decision. Still I hope the default rules would improve alongside the documentation. We mostly avoid STL, so I had no need to customize .natstepfilter’s yet – I’ll be sure to share such customizations if I do go there.


Both improvements, natvis and natstepfilter files, do not work for debugging native/managed mixed code, which sadly renders them unusable for most of our code. While this behavior is documented – I would hardly say it is ‘by design’. It does seem to irritate many others, so there is hope – as Brad Sullivan writes that MS are-

“… working on making everything just work in a future release of Visual Studio.”

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3 Responses to VS2012 Migration #3: autoexp and NoStepInto Replacements

  1. Although I came to this post looking for autoexp.dat, I found your discussion of the NatStepFilter. I believe the better UI you want is included in Visual Assist:


    I work for the company that makes Visual Assist and the product isn’t free, but if you debug native C/C++, you do have a way to step directly into methods without stepping into the methods of argument lists.

    • Ofek Shilon says:

      @Jeff Straathof – thanks! I use VA extensively and have only love for the tool. You say that this debug-assistance feature is a wrapper around a custom natstepfilter file?

  2. No, Visual Assist isn’t providing a UI to a custom natstepfilter file. I think Visual Assist does you better: it provides a UI as you debug. If you step into a method you don’t want to step into again, just mark the method. You don’t need to edit the natstepfilter file.

    Visual Assist comes with built-in filters that step over common methods, e.g. the std string class.

    You need Visual Assist build 2042 or newer to get the VA Step Filter.


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