Why Should I Care?

When using weak references, you should be aware of the way the weak references are garbage-collected. Whenever GC discovers that an object is weakly reachable, that is, the last remaining reference to the object is a weak reference, it is put onto the corresponding ReferenceQueue, and becomes eligible for finalization. One may then poll this reference queue and perform the associated cleanup activities. A typical example for such cleanup would be the removal of the now missing key from the cache.

The trick here is that at this point you can still create new strong references to the object, so before it can be, at last, finalized and reclaimed, GC has to check again that it really is okay to do this. Thus, the weakly referenced objects are not reclaimed for an extra GC cycle.

Weak references are actually a lot more common than you might think. Many caching solutions build the implementations using weak referencing, so even if you are not directly creating any in your code, there is a strong chance your application is still using weakly referenced objects in large quantities.

When using soft references, you should bear in mind that soft references are collected much less eagerly than the weak ones. The exact point at which it happens is not specified and depends on the implementation of the JVM. Typically the collection of soft references happens only as a last ditch effort before running out of memory. What it implies is that you might find yourself in situations where you face either more frequent or longer full GC pauses than expected, since there are more objects resting in the old generation.

When using phantom references, you have to literally do manual memory management in regards of flagging such references eligible for garbage collection. It is dangerous, as a superficial glance at the javadoc may lead one to believe they are the completely safe to use:

In order to ensure that a reclaimable object remains so, the referent of a phantom reference may not be retrieved: The get method of a phantom reference always returns null.

Surprisingly, many developers skip the very next paragraph in the same javadoc (emphasis added):

Unlike soft and weak references, phantom references are not automatically cleared by the garbage collector as they are enqueued. An object that is reachable via phantom references will remain so until all such references are cleared or themselves become unreachable.

That is right, we have to manually clear() up phantom references or risk facing a situation where the JVM starts dying with an OutOfMemoryError. The reason why the Phantom references are there in the first place is that this is the only way to find out when an object has actually become unreachable via the usual means. Unlike with soft or weak references, you cannot resurrect a phantom-reachable object.