How expensive is it to perform the dereference operation on a pointer?
I can imagine that the memory transfer is somehow proportional to the object size, but I want to know how expensive the dereference operation part is.
Dereferencing, when translated into machine code, can mean different things depending on what you do with the dereferenced object. Accessing a single member of a class through a pointer is typically cheap. For example if c is a pointer to an instance of
class C with an
int member n then something like this:
int n = c->n;
Might translate into one or two machine instructions and might load a register with a single memory access.
On the other hand this implies making a complete copy of the object pointed to by c:
C d = *c;
The cost of this will depend on the size of C, but note that it is the copy that is the major expense and the 'dereference' part is really just 'using' the pointer address in the copy instructions.
Note that accessing members of large objects typically requires pointer offset calculation and memory access whether or not the object is a local object or not. Typically only very small objects are optimized to live only in registers.
If you are concerned about the cost of pointers over references then don't be. The difference between these are a language semantics difference and by the time the machine code is generated pointer and reference access look exactly the same.