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How to Create Qt Plugins

A guide to creating plugins to extend Qt applications and functionality provided by Qt. Qt provides two APIs for creating plugins:

For example, if you want to write a custom QStyle subclass and have Qt applications load it dynamically, you would use the higher-level API.

Since the higher-level API is built on top of the lower-level API, some issues are common to both.

If you want to provide plugins for use with Qt Designer, see the QtDesigner module documentation.


The Higher-Level API: Writing Qt Extensions

Writing a plugin that extends Qt itself is achieved by subclassing the appropriate plugin base class, implementing a few functions, and adding a macro.

There are several plugin base classes. Derived plugins are stored by default in sub-directories of the standard plugin directory. Qt will not find plugins if they are not stored in the right directory.

Base Class
Directory Name
Key Case Sensitivity
QAccessibleBridgePlugin accessiblebridge Case Sensitive
QAccessiblePlugin accessible Case Sensitive
QDecorationPlugin decorations Case Insensitive
QFontEnginePlugin fontengines Case Insensitive
QIconEnginePlugin iconengines Case Insensitive
QImageIOPlugin imageformats Case Sensitive
QInputContextPlugin inputmethods Case Sensitive
QKbdDriverPlugin kbddrivers Case Insensitive
QMouseDriverPlugin mousedrivers Case Insensitive
QPictureFormatPlugin pictureformats Case Sensitive
QScreenDriverPlugin gfxdrivers Case Insensitive
QScriptExtensionPlugin script Case Sensitive
QSqlDriverPlugin sqldrivers Case Sensitive
QStylePlugin styles Case Insensitive
QTextCodecPlugin codecs Case Sensitive
But where is the plugins directory? When the application is run, Qt will first treat the application's executable directory as the pluginsbase. For example if the application is in C:\Program Files\MyApp and has a style plugin, Qt will look in C:\Program Files\MyApp\styles. (See
QCoreApplication::applicationDirPath() for how to find out where the application's executable is.) Qt will also look in the directory specified by QLibraryInfo::location(QLibraryInfo::PluginsPath), which typically is located in QTDIR/plugins (where QTDIR is the directory where Qt is installed). If you want Qt to look in additional places you can add as many paths as you need with calls to QCoreApplication::addLibraryPath(). And if you want to set your own path or paths you can use QCoreApplication::setLibraryPaths(). You can also use a qt.conf file to override the hard-coded paths that are compiled into the Qt library. For more information, see the Using qt.conf documentation. Yet another possibility is to set the QT_PLUGIN_PATH environment variable before running the application. If set, Qt will look for plugins in the paths (separated by the system path separator) specified in the variable.

Suppose that you have a new style class called MyStyle that you want to make available as a plugin. The required code is straightforward, here is the class definition (mystyleplugin.h):

class MyStylePlugin : public QStylePlugin
    QStringList keys() const;
    QStyle *create(const QString &key);
Ensure that the class implementation is located in a .cpp file (including the class definition):
#include "mystyleplugin.h"

QStringList MyStylePlugin::keys() const
    return QStringList() << "MyStyle";

QStyle *MyStylePlugin::create(const QString &key)
    if (key.toLower() == "mystyle")
        return new MyStyle;
    return 0;

Q_EXPORT_PLUGIN2(pnp_mystyleplugin, MyStylePlugin)
(Note that QStylePlugin is case insensitive, and the lower-case version of the key is used in our create() implementation; most other plugins are case sensitive.)

For database drivers, image formats, text codecs, and most other plugin types, no explicit object creation is required. Qt will find and create them as required. Styles are an exception, since you might want to set a style explicitly in code. To apply a style, use code like this:

Some plugin classes require additional functions to be implemented. See the class documentation for details of the virtual functions that must be reimplemented for each type of plugin.

Qt applications automatically know which plugins are available, because plugins are stored in the standard plugin subdirectories. Because of this applications don't require any code to find and load plugins, since Qt handles them automatically.

The default directory for plugins is QTDIR/plugins (where QTDIR is the directory where Qt is installed), with each type of plugin in a subdirectory for that type, e.g. styles. If you want your applications to use plugins and you don't want to use the standard plugins path, have your installation process determine the path you want to use for the plugins, and save the path, e.g. using QSettings, for the application to read when it runs. The application can then call QCoreApplication::addLibraryPath() with this path and your plugins will be available to the application. Note that the final part of the path (e.g., styles) cannot be changed.

The normal way to include a plugin with an application is either to compile it in with the application or to compile it into a dynamic library and use it like any other library.

If you want the plugin to be loadable then one approach is to create a subdirectory under the application and place the plugin in that directory. If you distribute any of the plugins that come with Qt (the ones located in the plugins directory), you must copy the sub-directory under plugins where the plugin is located to your applications root folder (i.e., do not include the plugins directory).

For more information about deployment, see the Deploying Qt Applications documentation.

The Style Plugin Example shows how to implement a plugin that extends the QStylePlugin base class.

The Lower-Level API: Extending Qt Applications

Not only Qt itself but also Qt application can be extended through plugins. This requires the application to detect and load plugins using QPluginLoader. In that context, plugins may provide arbitrary functionality and are not limited to database drivers, image formats, text codecs, styles, and the other types of plugin that extend Qt's functionality.

Making an application extensible through plugins involves the following steps:

  1. Define a set of interfaces (classes with only pure virtual functions) used to talk to the plugins.
  2. Use the Q_DECLARE_INTERFACE() macro to tell Qt's meta-object system about the interface.
  3. Use QPluginLoader in the application to load the plugins.
  4. Use qobject_cast() to test whether a plugin implements a given interface.
Writing a plugin involves these steps:
  1. Declare a plugin class that inherits from QObject and from the interfaces that the plugin wants to provide.
  2. Use the Q_INTERFACES() macro to tell Qt's meta-object system about the interfaces.
  3. Export the plugin using the Q_EXPORT_PLUGIN2() macro.
  4. Build the plugin using a suitable .pro file.
For example, here's the definition of an interface class:
class FilterInterface
    virtual ~FilterInterface() {}

    virtual QStringList filters() const = 0;
    virtual QImage filterImage(const QString &filter, const QImage &image,
                               QWidget *parent) = 0;
Here's the definition of a plugin class that implements that interface:
#include <QObject>
#include <QStringList>
#include <QImage>

#include <plugandpaint/interfaces.h>

class ExtraFiltersPlugin : public QObject, public FilterInterface

    QStringList filters() const;
    QImage filterImage(const QString &filter, const QImage &image,
                       QWidget *parent);
The Plug & Paint example documentation explains this process in detail. See also Creating Custom Widgets for Qt Designer for information about issues that are specific to Qt Designer. You can also take a look at the Echo Plugin Example is a more trivial example on how to implement a plugin that extends Qt applications. Please note that a QCoreApplication must have been initialized before plugins can be loaded.

Loading and Verifying Plugins Dynamically

When loading plugins, the Qt library does some sanity checking to determine whether or not the plugin can be loaded and used. This provides the ability to have multiple versions and configurations of the Qt library installed side by side.
When building plugins to extend an application, it is important to ensure that the plugin is configured in the same way as the application. This means that if the application was built in release mode, plugins should be built in release mode, too.

If you configure Qt to be built in both debug and release modes, but only build applications in release mode, you need to ensure that your plugins are also built in release mode. By default, if a debug build of Qt is available, plugins will only be built in debug mode. To force the plugins to be built in release mode, add the following line to the plugin's project file:

CONFIG += release
This will ensure that the plugin is compatible with the version of the library used in the application.

The Build Key

When loading plugins, Qt checks the build key of each plugin against its own configuration to ensure that only compatible plugins are loaded; any plugins that are configured differently are not loaded.

The build key contains the following information:

For debugging purposes, it is possible to override the run-time build key checks by configuring Qt with the QT_NO_PLUGIN_CHECK preprocessor macro defined.

Static Plugins

Plugins can be linked statically against your application. If you build the static version of Qt, this is the only option for including Qt's predefined plugins.

When compiled as a static library, Qt provides the following static plugins:

Plugin name
qtaccessiblecompatwidgets Accessibility Accessibility for Qt 3 support widgets
qtaccessiblewidgets Accessibility Accessibility for Qt widgets
qdecorationdefault Decorations (Qt Extended) Default style
qdecorationwindows Decorations (Qt Extended) Windows style
qgif Image formats GIF
qjpeg Image formats JPEG
qmng Image formats MNG
qico Image formats ICO
qsvg Image formats SVG
qtiff Image formats TIFF
qimsw_multi Input methods (Qt Extended) Input Method Switcher
qwstslibmousehandler Mouse drivers (Qt Extended) tslib mouse
qgfxtransformed Graphic drivers (Qt Extended) Transformed screen
qgfxvnc Graphic drivers (Qt Extended) VNC
qscreenvfb Graphic drivers (Qt Extended) Virtual frame buffer
qsqldb2 SQL driver IBM DB2
qsqlibase SQL driver Borland InterBase
qsqlite SQL driver SQLite version 3
qsqlite2 SQL driver SQLite version 2
qsqlmysql SQL driver MySQL
qsqloci SQL driver Oracle (OCI)
qsqlodbc SQL driver Open Database Connectivity (ODBC)
qsqlpsql SQL driver PostgreSQL
qsqltds SQL driver Sybase Adaptive Server (TDS)
qcncodecs Text codecs Simplified Chinese (People's Republic of China)
qjpcodecs Text codecs Japanese
qkrcodecs Text codecs Korean
qtwcodecs Text codecs Traditional Chinese (Taiwan)
To link statically against those plugins, you need to use the Q_IMPORT_PLUGIN() macro in your application and you need to add the required plugins to your build using QTPLUGIN. For example, in your main.cpp:
#include <QApplication>
#include <QtPlugin>


int main(int argc, char *argv[])
    QApplication app(argc, argv);
    return app.exec();
In the .pro file for your application, you need the following entry:
QTPLUGIN     += qjpeg \
                qgif \
It is also possible to create your own static plugins, by following these steps:
  1. Add CONFIG += static to your plugin's .pro file.
  2. Use the Q_IMPORT_PLUGIN() macro in your application.
  3. Link your application with your plugin library using LIBS in the .pro file.
See the
Plug & Paint example and the associated Basic Tools plugin for details on how to do this.

Note: If you are not using qmake to build your application you need to make sure that the QT_STATICPLUGIN preprocessor macro is defined.

The Plugin Cache

In order to speed up loading and validation of plugins, some of the information that is collected when plugins are loaded is cached through QSettings. This includes information about whether or not a plugin was successfully loaded, so that subsequent load operations don't try to load an invalid plugin. However, if the "last modified" timestamp of a plugin has changed, the plugin's cache entry is invalidated and the plugin is reloaded regardless of the values in the cache entry, and the cache entry itself is updated with the new result.

This also means that the timestamp must be updated each time the plugin or any dependent resources (such as a shared library) is updated, since the dependent resources might influence the result of loading a plugin.

Sometimes, when developing plugins, it is necessary to remove entries from the plugin cache. Since Qt uses QSettings to manage the plugin cache, the locations of plugins are platform-dependent; see the QSettings documentation for more information about each platform.

For example, on Windows the entries are stored in the registry, and the paths for each plugin will typically begin with either of these two strings:

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Trolltech\OrganizationDefaults\Qt Plugin Cache 4.2.debug
HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Trolltech\OrganizationDefaults\Qt Plugin Cache 4.2.false

Debugging Plugins

There are a number of issues that may prevent correctly-written plugins from working with the applications that are designed to use them. Many of these are related to differences in the way that plugins and applications have been built, often arising from separate build systems and processes.

The following table contains descriptions of the common causes of problems developers experience when creating plugins:

Plugins sliently fail to load even when opened directly by the application. Qt Designer shows the plugin libraries in its Help|About Plugins dialog, but no plugins are listed under each of them. The application and its plugins are built in different modes. Either share the same build information or build the plugins in both debug and release modes by appending the debug_and_release to the CONFIG variable in each of their project files.
A valid plugin that replaces an invalid (or broken) plugin fails to load. The entry for the plugin in the plugin cache indicates that the original plugin could not be loaded, causing Qt to ignore the replacement. Either ensure that the plugin's timestamp is updated, or delete the entry in the plugin cache.
You can also use the QT_DEBUG_PLUGINS environment variable to obtain diagnostic information from Qt about each plugin it tries to load. Set this variable to a non-zero value in the environment from which your application is launched.

See also:
QPluginLoader, QLibrary, and Plug & Paint Example.

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